Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Further In You Go, the Bigger It Gets

In an essay in the most recent New York Review of Books, Thomas Powers predicts that even if the next President is either Obama or Clinton -- both of whom have promised withdrawal -- the 44th President will not withdraw from Iraq:
Getting out of Iraq will require just as much resolution as it took to get in—and the same kind of resolution: a willingness to ignore the consequences.... Getting out means admitting defeat. Is it possible that the new president will have that kind of resolution? I think not; to my ear Clinton and Obama don't sound drained of hope or bright ideas, determined to cut losses and end the agony. Why should they? They're coming in fresh from the sidelines. Getting out, giving up, admitting defeat are not what we expect from the psychology of newly elected presidents who have just overcome all odds and battled through to personal victory. They've managed the impossible once; why not again? Planning for withdrawals might begin on Day One, but the plans will be hostage to events. At first, perhaps, all runs smoothly. Then things begin to happen. The situation on the first day has altered by the tenth. Some faction of Iraqis joins or drops out of the fight. A troublesome law is passed, or left standing. A helicopter goes down with casualties in two digits. The Green Zone is hit by a new wave of rockets or mortars from Sadr City in Baghdad. The US Army protests that the rockets or mortars were provided by Iran. The new president warns Iran to stay out of the fight. The government in Tehran dismisses the warning. This is already a long-established pattern. Why should we expect it to change? So it goes. At an unmarked moment somewhere between the third and the sixth month a sea change occurs: Bush's war becomes the new president's war, and getting out means failure, means defeat, means rising opposition at home, means no second term. It's not hard to see where this is going.
It's not a new point, nor even one that he makes unusually well*; but it's a point that requires repetition, over and over, with the force of a mantra, until we decide to make it not true.

Because there is one sentence -- one crucial, malevolent sentence -- in what Powers wrote that is not true, or rather is only true if we decide to let it be true: "Getting out means admitting defeat." That, Noble Reader, is what we call a Republican Frame. We were not defeated, because our goals were some combination of imaginary (rid Saddam of WMD), impossible (see a Democracy self-organize!) and evil (invade to control another people's territory and oil). "Defeat" is not a relevant category in any of the three cases.

But it will be if we decide it is. If we say withdrawal is defeat, we never leave. If we say that withdrawal is correcting a mistake or righting a wrong (in whatever proportion), then it isn't.

But we need to say that; and we need to say it now, not later.

The key point here is that if Obama and Clinton don't begin -- from the beginning, indeed from before the beginning, from more or less right now -- by saying they'll withdraw, then the will be tempted by the hubris of power and the momentum of success to try to do something to lead us towards an impossible, imaginary, immoral Victory.

But if they see withdrawal as their mandate -- if the giddiness of electoral victory means a determination to get out as soon as is practically possible -- then it won't be defeat. And they won't be tempted.

The longer they let it go on, the more it will become their war, not Bush's war, and thus the harder it will be to end. If they begin to end it -- as rapidly as possible -- on January 20, then it was Bush's mistake: they just cleaned up. But if they continue to long then, as Powers warns, it will be their war. And it will be harder and harder.

So will they? Will they run on really getting out, and then follow through on what they run on?

So far the indications are far from optimistic.

After all, the Democrats ran on -- and won on -- ending the war in 2006; and for a year and a half have given us nothing but snivelling, pusillanimous excuses for their utter failure to do a single thing towards that end.

And both Clinton and Obama have left themselves a disturbing about of wiggle room about "managing" defeat, about training troops and troops to guard our "embassy". I'm slightly more optimistic about Obama, since he'd advised by those liberals who say from the get-go that the war was a bad idea, rather than those who supported it, who think that ""cred" on national security is composed of being hawkish even when that means being wrong" (quite frankly, any pundit who would support such a notion at this late date should find another line of work). But I'm still not optimistic, because the pull of the American militarist establishment -- the "reasonable" liberals, the media, those who think that more force is always the solution to any problem -- will push him, hard, and he may well give in. He's running on unity, which can lead to an abandonment of sincerely-held principles.**

There must be no wiggle room, not wedge for the militaristic establishment to push for any notion of "Victory": the Democratic candidate must campaign upon a full and unconditional withdrawal if they're to get out at all. And they need to say this now, to campaign on it, to win on it. Then they can leave without it being defeat: indeed, leaving will be the victory -- over Bush's combination of stupidity, immorality and detachment from reality that led us into this misbegotten war in the first place.

The Iraq war has destroyed Bush's presidency, and all but destroyed Clinton's candidacy. If Obama wins, he can end it; or he can keep going and let it destroy him too.

I hope he chooses wisely -- not for his sake, but for Iraq's, and for ours.

* The same, admittedly, might be said of this blog post: others have said it before, and better. (I don't have a link handy, but Matt Yglesias comes to mind as one proponent of this point.) But, again, it bears repeating -- because the counter-weight to this idea is so strong that the odds are, so far, against its being recognized and acted on.

** This, I think, is what Krugman ultimately dislikes about Obama, What he doesn't see is that a possible weakening of principles is far better than a tenacity in immorality and error, which is what Clinton gives us.

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