Between Iraq and a Hard Place
Copyright © 2007 by Stephen W. Potts. All rights reserved.
What we call the cradle of Western civilization — from Mesopotamia to Israel to Greece — gave us the basis of our agriculture, our alphabet, our religion, and our political system. It also passed along the story form we know as tragedy — from the Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh through the biblical stories of Samson and David to the tales of Achilles, Hercules, and Oedipus. In all of these a man with a special relationship with the divine overreaches, having stumbled into the belief that his own power or virtue signifies that he himself can do no wrong.
Ideally, in the climactic moment the protagonist experiences what Aristotle, the first theoretician of tragedy, called anagnoresis, the realization of his own fallibility: Gilgamesh ends up confronting the fact of his mortality, Samson and David their sins, Achilles and Hercules the truth that they are not invincible. King Oedipus, who has rashly sworn a vow to destroy the evil-doer who has brought a curse upon his kingdom, learns that he himself is that evil-doer.
We commonly misuse “tragedy” today to mean any event, real or fictional, with an unhappy ending: the recent mine disaster in Utah, for example, was a “tragedy” simply because people died. But literary and mythic tragedy is more nuanced, as authors from Shakespeare to Theodore Dreiser knew.
In genuine tragedy, the protagonist brings the foul fate upon himself and often, in the process, his entire people. Add to that the element of self-righteousness that leads one into error and the inevitability of a disastrous conclusion once the initial choice is made, and the sole possibility of moral recovery is that moment of anagnoresis.
Which brings us back, following the ancient cycles, to Mesopotamia, today’s Iraq.
It is the beginning of September in the Year of our Age 2007, the seventh year of the reign of George the W. (for “Worst”) and the fifth year of his War. It is the long-awaited month when the White House, through General Petraeus — a name that could have come out of Greek tragedy — delivered to Congress and the American public an assessment of the situation in Iraq after months of “the surge” of American troop strength. Prior to his appearance onstage, reports from intelligence and the Government Accounting Office were leaked by operatives anticipating the usual reality filters at the White House — and the news was at best mixed.
The claim is made that Iraqi civilian deaths are down, especially in the Sunni regions of the country like Anbar province; there and elsewhere Sunni insurgents have apparently turned against Al-Qaeda and accepted American offers of weapons. On the other hand, some point out that casualties always go down in the blistering Iraqi summers, and that Iraq’s population is smaller than it used to be, and that many of the weapons acquired by the Sunnis have disappeared from American sight, no doubt to re-emerge where we least expect or desire them.
It has also emerged that our government no longer counts certain kinds of Iraqi casualties, such as Shiite on Shiite violence. Anyway, who can believe anything coming out of this administration? If they ever knew how to tell the truth, they have forgotten how. But even were we to concede that a sufficient number of American troops could improve security for the average Iraqi, the argument over how long we can keep them there at current levels is rapidly becoming moot. We are simply running out of troops. And we don’t have enough money and weapons to buy off every provincial population as we have the Anbar Sunnis.
The GAO reports that the Iraqi government has failed to meet or only partially met a fraction of the eighteen benchmarks set by the U. S. Congress and agreed to by the Bush administration as justification for the surge. Leading Democrats like Senator Carl Levin have suggested we replace Iraqi leader Nuri al-Maliki. It is beside the point that Congress cannot meet its own benchmarks — say, to agree on our course in Iraq or on immigration — or that no one in the American government should be deciding who runs an allegedly sovereign nation. But the question is moot: per their standard operating procedure, the gang at the White House is going to reneg on the agreement anyway.
If we take at face value the assertion from the Worst himself, as recorded in Robert Draper’s brand new book on this presidency, Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush, Bush’s strategy is to tell us anything but keep troop levels as high as possible in Iraq until fall 2008, in the expectation that any president who succeeds him, Republican or Democrat, will then be neck-deep in quicksand and forced to stay.
Meanwhile, American casualties continue to mount, and we could be looking at 4000 dead by the end of the year — not to mention the tens of thousands disabled by missing limbs or psychological problems. Needless to say, the antiwar Left, including a significant portion of the Democratic base, wants an immediate withdrawal of all American forces.
More broadly, the public that supported the war by a hefty 80% or more in spring 2003 has now turned against it by 70%, with 54% now insisting we should never have invaded Baghdad in the first place. Criticism has even been voiced by crusty conservatives, like Hoover Institution fellow Timothy Garton Ash. “Maybe there is a silver lining hidden somewhere in this cloud,” he writes in the July 19 Los Angeles Times. “But as far as the human eye can see, the likely consequences of Iraq range from the bad to the catastrophic.” And he concludes, “I cannot recall a more comprehensive and avoidable man-made disaster.”
Alongside this bit of anagnoresis, Ash manages to put his finger on the really tragic dimension of the war when he observes that even getting out produces catastrophic results: “The most probable consequence of rapid U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in its present condition is a further bloodbath, with even larger refugee flows and the effective dismemberment of the country.”
To sum up the debate: if our troops remain in Iraq, Iraqis and Americans will continue to die. If we admit defeat and slink away, Iraqis will continue to die. So which is the more moral position? Unfortunately, neither.
Inherent in the nature of tragedy is that once the chief and his flock have committed to a course of action, it’s too late. The time for moral choice came back at the beginning of the war, and the majority of Americans decided to follow the leader.
True — thousands in this country protested the war at its onset, joining millions overseas. But having done so, and having thus earned the right to speak what Gore Vidal called the four sweetest words in the language — “I told you so” — still does not absolve one from what follows. Cassandra foretold the tragic end of Troy and no one listened, but she was still a victim of the rape and slaughter that followed. Could anyone Left feel morally smug if Iraq devolved into a big Darfur or a perpetual Bosnia?
Alas, as Americans we are all stuck with the collective cost of the actions performed in our name, and we are all chained to the consequences in the conquered country. We broke it, and now we all have to pay for it.
The Bush League guaranteed this result for us not just by leaping into war, but by doing so with no serious thought to contingencies or the aftermath. Every citizen who agonizes over our Iraqi misadventure should read Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s tome of this year: Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone. See the blunders pile one upon the other as Jerry Bre should read Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s tome of this year: Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone. See the blunders pile one upon the other as Jerry Bremer and the Keystone Coalition Provisional Authority finish the job of our Blitzkrieg, and bulldoze Iraqi society back to the Stone Age, making it a blank sandbox upon which our rightwing idiocracy could piss their wacky version of the perfect state. See know-nothings get preferred for crucial posts over seasoned foreign policy professionals simply on the presumption that they shared the myopic vision of the neo-conquistadors. Now Bremer and the White House are trading jabs over who approved the dismantling of the Iraqi army and its security apparatus, thus causing the bloody chaos that followed, but they shared nothing but cozy consensus back in 2003. Read the book and weep.
There are voices from the middle of the pundit mainstream suggesting alternatives to digging in for a forever war, as Bush and his followers apparently want, or simply running away from the mess we made and letting the bodies fall where they may. Writing for the August New York Review of Books, Peter Galbraith suggests a pullback to the borders of Kurdistan, the one part of Iraq that has most earned the right not to be part of Iraq. The argument for keeping American troops there, in far fewer numbers, would be to protect a free and presently peaceful people — the Kurds — who risk being overrun by the Turks, the Iraqi Arabs, or the Iranians — none of whom want an independent Kurdistan.
Considering that the U.S. gave Saddam Hussein the chemical weapons he used on the Kurds, we probably owe them. Arguing that we “need an Iraq policy with sufficient nuance to protect American interests,” Galbraith also concludes, “Unfortunately, we probably won’t get it.”
Most likely not. This is, after all, a tragedy.