Wealthy Frenchman

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Supporting Our Troops Over a Cliff


THE sunlight was brilliant in New York City on Memorial Day weekend, and the sailors deposited in town by Fleet Week looked brilliant in it. Nothing, including the atrocities of Abu Ghraib and Haditha, has shaken American affection for the troops. Nothing should. These men and women go to war so we can party on. Since 9/11, our government has asked no sacrifice of civilians other than longer waits at airline security. We've even been rewarded with a prize that past generations would have found as jaw-dropping as space travel: a wartime dividend in the form of tax cuts.

"It shocked me that the country was not mobilized for war," said Maj. Gen. John Batiste, who retired after his stint as a commander in Iraq and became an outspoken critic of Donald Rumsfeld. He told The Wall Street Journal that "it was almost surreal" that the only time some Americans "think about the war is when they decide what color magnet ribbon to put on the back of their car."

Should we feel guilty? Yes. The sunshine of last weekend, splendid as it was for a cookout, could not eradicate the dark reality that we keep sending our troops into a quagmire. At Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day, the president read a poignant letter that First Lt. Mark Dooley, killed by a bomb last September in Ramadi, wrote to his parents. What Mr. Bush did not say was that now, nine months later, insurgents rule Ramadi. As he spoke at Arlington on Monday, the Pentagon was preparing to announce that 1,500 emergency reinforcements were being sent from Kuwait to Anbar province, home to Ramadi, Haditha and Falluja, to try to stanch the bleeding.

There is more than a little something wrong with this picture. The president reiterated his Plan for Victory in Iraq as recently as his appearance with Tony Blair on May 25: "As the Iraqis stand up, we'll stand down." He said then that the Iraqis were "taking more of the fight" and "more territory" and "more missions." The State Department concurred: Iraqi security forces are participating in "more than 80 percent of operations."

So let's do the math. According to our own government, more Iraqis are standing up — some 263,000 at latest count. But we are not standing down. We are, instead, sending in more American troops. Where have we seen this shell game before?

There was another plan for victory, too, you may recall. On the third anniversary of the invasion, in March, the president celebrated the new strategy of "clear, hold and build" by citing the example of Tal Afar, "today a free city that gives reason for hope for a free Iraq." Last month 17 people were killed by a suicide bomber in an outdoor market there. The Tal Afar mayor has told The Los Angeles Times it will be at least three years before Iraqi security forces can secure his city of 150,000 without American help. To clear, hold and build in, say, Baghdad, with its population of six million, we'd have to throw in countless more troops still.

"When you open up the strategy for victory, there's nothing inside," Representative John Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat and Marine veteran, argued in a speech last month. What the White House has always had instead of a strategy for victory is a strategy for public relations. That, too, fell under siege over Memorial Day weekend.

Call the P.R. strategy "attack, clear and hold": the administration attacks the credibility of reporters covering the war and tries to clear troubling Iraq images from American TV screens so that popular support might hold until a miracle happens on the ground. This plan first surfaced when the insurgency exploded in spring 2004: Ted Koppel was pilloried by White House surrogates for reading the names of the fallen on "Nightline" and Paul Wolfowitz told Congress that "a lot of the press are afraid to travel very much, so they sit in Baghdad and they publish rumors."

Upon being told that 34 journalists had been killed in the war up to that point, Mr. Wolfowitz apologized, but the strategy was never rescinded. Mr. Bush routinely chastises the press for reporting on bombings rather than "success" stories like Tal Afar. His new top domestic policy adviser, Karl Zinsmeister, has called American war correspondents "whiny and appallingly soft," and he declared last June that "our struggle in Iraq as warfare" was over except for "periodic flare-ups in isolated corners." That's the news the administration wants: the insurgency is always in its last throes. We'd realize that this prognosis was "basically accurate," Dick Cheney has explained, if only the non-Fox press didn't concentrate on car bombs in Baghdad.

Now more than 70 journalists have died in Iraq, more than in any modern war, including two members of a CBS News crew killed in the bombing that injured the correspondent Kimberly Dozier. This tragedy also took place on Memorial Day, which Ms. Dozier was honoring by trying to do one of those Iraq "good news" stories that the administration faults the press for ignoring: the story of an American soldier who, despite having been injured, was "fighting on in memory of those who have fallen," as she had e-mailed colleagues. Once that good-news story died in the bombing, so, one imagines, did the administration strategy of pinning the bad news in Iraq on the reporters who risk their lives to hang in there. Or so, in the name of simple decency, we might hope.

Those reporters, at least, have the right to leave. Not so the troops. General Batiste's observation about the "almost surreal" disconnect between the home front and the war is damningly true, even in Washington. As the violence in both Iraq and Afghanistan spiraled before and after Memorial Day, Congress kept its eye on its own ball. In a bipartisan display of honor among thieves, Democrats and Republicans banded together to decry the F.B.I. for searching the office of a Democratic congressman, William Jefferson, who had been accused of hiding $90,000 in questionable cash in his freezer. Even more ludicrously, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales — a man who damaged our troops incalculably by countenancing an official policy of torture — finally threatened to resign on principle. The principle he was standing up for, however, was not the Geneva Conventions but the F.B.I.'s right to raid Mr. Jefferson's office.

Contrast these clowns with J. W. Fulbright, a senator who convened hearings to challenge presidents from both parties during Vietnam, changing the nation's course. The current Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, has proudly put on this month's legislative agenda constitutional amendments to stop same-sex marriage and flag burning. "Right now people in this country are saying it's O.K. to desecrate that flag and to burn it," he said on Fox News last Sunday, though it's not clear exactly who these traitors are. A Nexis search turns up only one semi-recent American flag-burning incident — by a drunk and apparently apolitical teenager in Mr. Frist's home state, Tennessee, in 2005.

The marriage-amendment campaign will be kicked off tomorrow with a Rose Garden benediction by the president. Though the amendment has no chance of passing, Mr. Bush apparently still thinks, as he did in 2004, that gay-baiting remains just the diversion to distract from a war gone south.

So much for the troops. For all the politicians' talk about honoring those who serve, Washington's record is derelict: chronic shortages in body and Humvee armor; a back-door draft forcing troops with expired contracts into repeated deployments; inadequate postwar health care and veterans' benefits. And that's just the short list. Now a war without end is running off the rails and putting an undermanned army in still greater jeopardy. "Today, the Americans are just one more militia lost in the anarchy," Nir Rosen, who has covered Iraq since the invasion, wrote in The Washington Post last weekend.

We can't pretend we don't know this is happening. It's happening in broad daylight. We know that "as the Iraqis stand up, we'll stand down" is fiction, not reality. We know from the Pentagon's own report to Congress last week that attacks on Americans and Iraqis alike are at their highest since American commanders started keeping count in 2004. We know that even as coalition partners like Italy and South Korea bail out, we are planning an indefinite stay of undefined parameters: the 104-acre embassy complex rising in the Green Zone is the largest in the world, and the Decider himself has said that it's up to "future presidents and future governments of Iraq" to decide our exit strategy.

Actually, the current government of Iraq already is. On Thursday the latest American-backed Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, whom Mr. Bush is "proud to call" his "ally and friend," invited open warfare on American forces by accusing them of conducting Haditha-like killing sprees against civilians as a "regular" phenomenon. If this is the ally and friend we are fighting for, a country that truly supports the troops has no choice but to start bringing them home.


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