Thursday, August 18, 2005

Moral Authority and Who Pays the Price for Iraq

William Douglas and Richard Chin, staff writers for Knight-Ridder, apparently think that Iraq's constitution is important mainly as a chip in a Bush administration poker game in which GWB staked his domestic political standing on Iraqis agreeing to a draft constitution by the now-missed deadline of August 15.

No one has more at stake than President Bush as Iraq tries to draft a constitution.

He has called the writing of the document a milestone in Iraq's drive toward self-reliance, a steppingstone for establishing an Arab democracy in the Middle East and the legal keystone to the stable government that's necessary before U.S. troops can come home.

"As Iraqis stand up, we will stand down," Bush said last week after meeting with his defense and foreign policy teams at his Texas ranch.

The Iraqi government's failure to meet the Aug. 15 deadline for a draft constitution underscores Bush's political risk. If Iraq's Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds can overcome their most important differences and hammer out a meaningful constitution by Monday - the latest deadline they set - that could help stem the steady decline in U.S. public support for Bush's Iraq policy and buy the administration more time to train Iraqi forces and help ensure the nation's future stability.

But if the Iraqis can't agree on the fundamental questions of how they'll govern themselves, Bush's historic gamble in Iraq could be lost, and with it his popularity today and his standing in history tomorrow, according to Middle East and domestic political analysts.

Weldon Berger at Betty the Crow begs to differ:

... [M]illions of Iraqis have more at stake than president Bush, and so do millions of Americans. So do millions of Iranians, Turks and Kurds.

The real challenge is imagining anyone who has less at stake.

No matter what happens with the Iraqi constitution, Bush will still have his job and his “Codependent No More” philosophy, both of which insulate him from the real-world consequences of anything other than a tumble from his mountain bike.

Memeorandum links to a Washington Post column written by the New Republic's Peter Beinart, in which Beinart echoes this theme of a president who plays God with the lives of others while carefully shielding himself from the consequences.

...[I]f Sheehan's vigil says something important about Iraq, it also says something important about President Bush. Sheehan, after all, has only one demand: She wants to confront the president face to face. The demand is so provocative because one of George W. Bush's defining qualities is his aversion to exactly this sort of challenge. Former administration officials portray a president carefully shielded from unpleasant or dissonant information. According to former Environmental Protection Agency administrator Christine Todd Whitman, "There is a palace guard, and they want to run interference for him." Former Treasury secretary Paul O'Neill described Bush as "caught in an echo chamber of his own making, cut off from everyone other than a circle around him that's tiny and getting smaller and in concert on everything."

And while this cocoon may be partly the work of zealous aides, there's reason to believe it is exactly what Bush wants. In 2004 the president told a Washington Times reporter that he doesn't watch news on TV or even read the newspaper except to scan the front page. "I like to have a clear outlook," he explained. "It can be a frustrating experience to pay attention to somebody's false opinion or somebody's characterization, which simply isn't true."

Bush clearly dislikes being challenged by reporters. In his first term, he held fewer individual news conferences than any president in almost a century. And he dislikes being challenged by his political competitors -- as the country learned during last year's first presidential debate, when Bush repeatedly scowled during John Kerry's answers. In fact, Bush aides were so scrupulous in shielding him from criticism during the campaign that they routinely expelled people wearing Kerry paraphernalia from ostensibly public rallies.

On Iraq, officials bearing bad news have been similarly expelled. When Gen. Eric Shinseki suggested the occupation might require several hundred thousand troops, the Pentagon hastily announced his replacement, rendering him a lame duck. National Economic Council director Lawrence Lindsey lost his job soon after telling the Wall Street Journal that the war could cost up to $200 billion. Had the Bush administration heeded these warnings -- rather than punishing the people delivering them -- America would be far better off today.

When Cindy Sheehan first met with Bush, and tried to discuss her slain son, she encountered this self-protective filter firsthand. "He didn't want to hear anything about Casey," she told CNN. "He wouldn't even call him 'him' or 'he.' He called him 'your loved one.' Every time we tried to talk about Casey and how much we missed him, he would change the subject."

Politically, Sheehan wants another meeting because she wants Bush to bring the troops home. (A request he is right to refuse, since it would be a disaster for national security and a betrayal of our responsibility to Iraq.) But emotionally, she is seeking something more primal: to rattle him. She wants to shake the president's famed self-assurance, a self-assurance that comes from rarely having to confront the consequences of his actions.

Another politician -- think Bill Clinton or John McCain -- probably would have met with Sheehan long ago. After all, her request isn't that hard to grant. But for this president, it clearly is. ...

Another op-ed linked from Memorandum -- by Ronald Griffin, also a parent whose son died in Iraq -- is not as sympathetic to Sheehan. Griffin disputes Sheehan's "moral authority" to speak for families of fallen soldiers: for one reason, because the viewpoints of military families are so diverse. This is a good point, but Griffin then goes on to make the familiar claims that most Americans who have lost loved ones in Iraq still support the war; that the men and women fighting in Iraq, Casey Sheehan included, were and are volunteers and thus chose to be there, and that honoring them mandates support for the war.

By all accounts Spc. Casey Sheehan, Mrs. Sheehan's son, was a soldier by choice and by the strength of his character. I did not have the honor of knowing him, but I have read that he attended community college for three years and then chose to join the Army. In August 2003, five months into Operation Iraqi Freedom and after three years of service, Casey Sheehan re-enlisted in the Army with the full knowledge there was a war going on, and with the high probability he would be assigned to a combat area. Mrs. Sheehan frequently speaks of her son in religious terms, even saying that she thought that some day Casey would be a priest. Like so many of the individuals who have given their lives in service to our country, Casey was a very special young man. How do you decry that which someone has chosen to do with his life? How does a mother dishonor the sacrifice of her own son?

Mrs. Sheehan has become the poster child for all the negativity surrounding the war in Iraq. In a way it heartens me to have all this attention paid to her, because that means others in her position now have the chance to be heard. Give equal time to other loved ones of fallen heroes. Feel the intensity of their love, their pride and the sorrow.

To many loved ones, there are few if any "what ifs." They, like their fallen heroes before them, live in the world as it is and not what it was or could have been. Think of the sacrifices that have brought us to this day. We as a country made a collective decision. We must now live up to our decision and not deviate until the mission is complete.

Thirty-five years ago, a president faced a similar dilemma in Vietnam. He gave in and we got "peace with honor." To this day, I am still searching for that honor. Today, those who defend our freedom every day do so as volunteers with a clear and certain purpose. Today, they have in their commander in chief someone who will not allow us to sink into self-pity. I will not allow him to. The amazing part about talking to the people left behind is that I did not want them to stop. After speaking to so many I have come away with the certainty of their conviction that in a large measure it's because of the deeds and sacrifices of their fallen heroes that this is a better and safer world we now live in.

It is this notion -- that America decided to go to war as a nation, that we all made the attendant collective sacrifices, and that as volunteers the soldiers require our special support -- that Peter Beinart disputes. Beinart was also a cheerleader for the war from before it started, but now, in his Post column, he argues that, unlike the Vietnam war (and, he might just as accurately have added, the Korean War and both world wars), the war in Iraq was not undertaken with the clear support of most Americans; that Americans as a nation have not been asked to sacrifice anything; and that precisely because the war against Iraq is being fought by an all-volunteer military, only a relatively small percentage of Americans who have loved ones in Iraq are directly affected by the war.

Why has Cindy Sheehan -- the bereaved mother camped outside President Bush's Crawford ranch -- transfixed the nation?

Partly because she captures something profound about the war in Iraq. Vietnam was a mass-participation war: Nearly 3 million Americans fought; more than 58,000 died. And it provoked a mass antiwar movement: Year after year in the late 1960s, hundreds of thousands of Americans traveled to Washington to protest. The assumption was that everyone would serve. It was that assumption, and the fear it created, that drew so many demonstrators into the streets. And it was the betrayal of that assumption -- as children of the elite evaded service -- that ripped America apart.

In Iraq, by contrast, the government never assumed mass participation. In this era of the professional military, the war has affected many fewer people. And it is exposing cultural fissures not because Americans were asked to serve and refused, but because this time few Americans were even asked.

So a surrogate war has produced a surrogate antiwar movement. This time, mass protests would only cloud the issue. As the parent of a dead soldier, Sheehan has so much moral authority precisely because so few Americans (including so few of us who supported the war) risk sharing her plight.

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