Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Cheney's False Choices

David Corn writes The Loyal Opposition twice a month for Corn is also the Washington editor of The Nation and is the author of The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). Read his blog at

When Vice President Dick Cheney spoke on Monday at the American Enterprise Institute—the conservative think tank that has provided the intellectual ammo for George W. Bush's war in Iraq—he signaled that the Bush campaign (that is, the White House) was retreating from its personal and mean-spirited attacks on Rep. John Murtha, the hawkish Democrat who days earlier had called for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. Let's have a real policy debate, Cheney said. After all, he explained:

...energetic debate on issues facing our country is more than just a sign of a healthy political system—it's also something I enjoy. It's one of the reasons I've stayed in this business. And I believe the feeling is probably the same for most of us in public life.

The previous day, Bush, too, throttled back on the rhetoric. In China, he told the traveling White House press corps that the Iraq debate: a worthy debate, and I'm going to repeat something I've said before. People should feel comfortable about expressing their opinions about Iraq. I heard somebody say, well, maybe so-and-so is not patriotic because they disagree with my position. I totally reject that thought. This is not an issue of who's patriot and who's not patriotic. It's an issue of an honest, open debate about the way forward in Iraq.

Then why can't Bush and Cheney engage in this debate honestly? I'm not referring to their continuing attacks on critics who have argued that the Bush administration deliberately misled the nation into war by hyping the intelligence on WMDs in Iraq and pushing Saddam Hussein's purported connection to Al Qaeda. Bush and Cheney keep insisting that this sort of criticism is out of bounds—in Cheney's words, "dishonest and reprehensible"—without bothering to answer the well-founded charges. It's not surprising that they would fiercely attack such damaging criticism (which happens to reflect public opinion) with hot-blooded rhetoric not facts-based explanations. (I took apart Bush's assertion that his foes are rewriting history and provided details  here.) But they also seek to rig the debate over policy.

Bush and Cheney continue to assert that the war in Iraq is about stopping "terrorists"—particularly Abu Musab Al Zarqawi and his Al Qaeda in Iraq—from taking over the nation and turning it into a base camp from which it can mount 9/11-like strikes against the United States. (Recent reports have suggested that Zarqawi might have been killed in a raid in Mosul, but U.S. officials said this was unlikely.) On Sunday, Bush proclaimed:

That's the goal of the enemy. They want to break our will in Iraq, so that we leave and they can turn Iraq into what Afghanistan was under the Taliban, a safe haven for terror, a place where they can plot and plan attacks against America and freedom-loving countries around the world.

At AEI, Cheney declared:

Their goal in that region is to gain control of the country, so they have a base from which to launch attacks and to wage war against governments that do not meet their demands. For a time, the terrorists had such a base in Afghanistan, under the backward and violent rule of the Taliban….Those who advocate a sudden withdrawal from Iraq should answer a few simple questions: Would the United States and other free nations be better off, or worse off, with Zarqawi, bin Laden, and Zawahiri in control of Iraq? Would we be safer, or less safe, with Iraq ruled by men intent on the destruction of our country?

But are Zarqawi, bin Laden and their comrades even close to ruling in Iraq? Is that what the war is about? (Put aside the undeniable premise that an Iraq controlled by Al Qaeda was not even a mathematical possibility before Bush invaded the country.) Bush and Cheney continue to conflate the Zarqawi band with the Sunni-based insurgency of ex-Baathists and others. Zarqawi is a dangerous and evil fellow, real trouble. But an Iraq governed by Zarqawi and bin Laden does not seem a realistic prospect. Middle East expert Juan Cole recently reported that "Bayan Jabr Sulagh, the Minister of the Interior, put the number of foreign fighters in Iraq at only 900." That's not much. Is it Bush's position that the United States needs to station 150,000 troops in Iraq—and sacrifice thousands of American lives—to deal with a force that size?

In public, Bush and Cheney ignore the fact that Iraq is a cauldron, with a volatile mix of Kurds, Shiites, Kurds, Turkemans and outsiders. As awful as Zarqawi is, he and his murderous band are just one set of players in this mess—and perhaps not the dominant ones. How likely is it that they can win control of Iraq from the Shiites and—don't forget—their militias or the Kurds, who have militias of their own? (And other nations in the region—Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel among them—would be rather upset to see Iraq in Al Qaeda's hands and would be highly motivated to block such an unlikely development.) Bush and Cheney toss about the Afghanistan example. But Iraq is not Afghanistan, and the ruling Shiites are not the Taliban. Zarqawi's foreign fighters, Cole maintains, "are mainly cannon fodder. When the volunteers come in, the local ex-Baathist guerrilla leadership gives them a car bomb to drive. It isn't as if the car bombs are being imported from Jordan."

Increasingly, it appears that the United States is in the middle of a civil war in Iraq, a conflict that was foreseen by sharp-eyed Middle East observers prior to the invasion. Look at the recent torture scandal in Iraq. About 170 malnourished detainees were found in an Interior Ministry bunker, many showing signs of torture. This was not Zarqawi's doing. It was one of the many signs of spreading sectarian strife—a problem that U.S. troops may not be able to solve. (One prominent American conservative war supporter quipped to me, "This is a positive development. See, Iraqis, not Americans, are doing the torture now.") On Tuesday, representatives of various factions in Iraq did sign a statement promoting political reconciliation, but this document, while condemning terrorism, recognized resistance as the legitimate right of a people under occupation. As could be expected, the signers immediately debated whether the Iraqi insurgency was legitimate, with some Iraqi leaders arguing that it was. (Meanwhile, Iraqi president Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, invited Iraqi rebels to open talks with his government, but Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Al Jaafari, a Shiite, said 'not so fast'.)

Bush and Cheney are attempting characterize the debate over Iraq as one centered on a false choice: Turn the country over to Zarqawi—if he remains alive—or fight to keep Iraq from becoming the United States of Al Qaeda. If only it were that simple. Take away the stop-Zarqawi-from-taking-over-Iraq rhetoric from Bush and Cheney, and what are they left with? Remaining in Iraq for years to promote democracy there and within the region? It's a noble-sounding cause, but one that becomes more difficult in an environment of intensifying sectarian tension. (Security in Baghdad's Green Zone these days, American reporters say, is worse than it was a year ago or two years ago.) Is it worth sending Americans to their death to protect and assist a government that is allied with Iran, that supports measures that undermine women's rights, that has been accused of corruption, that includes torturers? This is a far more difficult question to answer than the following: Should we stay the course so Al Qaeda doesn't turn Iraq into one giant staging platform for assaults upon the United States? It's no wonder, then, that Bush and Cheney want to make Iraq about Zarqawi.

Jack Murtha has taken a hard look at the dilemma at hand. He has concluded the potential benefits of further U.S. military intervention in Iraq do not justify the costs (American lives, hundreds of billions of dollars and stretching thin his much-loved U.S. military). Right or wrong, Murtha is not making stuff up. The same cannot be said for the folks running the war.



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