Friday, August 24, 2007

Who the Iraq War Is Really For

Brian Baird, a Democratic congressman from Vancouver, Washington, has become a fervent war supporter after one visit to Iraq -- even though he voted against the war in 2002, and has opposed it since then. Here is part of an op-ed he wrote for the Seattle Times on his change of heart:

The invasion of Iraq may be one of the worst foreign-policy mistakes in the history of our nation. As tragic and costly as that mistake has been, a precipitous or premature withdrawal of our forces now has the potential to turn the initial errors into an even greater problem just as success looks possible.

As a Democrat who voted against the war from the outset and who has been frankly critical of the administration and the post-invasion strategy, I am convinced by the evidence that the situation has at long last begun to change substantially for the better. I believe Iraq could have a positive future. Our diplomatic and military leaders in Iraq, their current strategy, and most importantly, our troops and the Iraqi people themselves, deserve our continued support and more time to succeed.

I understand the desire of many of our citizens and my colleagues in Congress to bring the troops home as soon as possible. The costs have been horrific for our soldiers, their families, the Iraqi people and the economy. If we keep our troops on the ground we will lose more lives, continue to spend billions each week, and, given the history and complex interests of the region, there is no certainty that our efforts will succeed in the long run. We must be absolutely honest about these costs and risks and I am both profoundly saddened and angry that we are where we are.

Knowing all this, how can someone who opposed the war now call for continuing the new directions that have been taken in Iraq? The answer is that the people, strategies and facts on the ground have changed for the better and those changes justify changing our position on what should be done.

To understand the magnitude of the challenge and why it is taking time for things to improve, consider what happened as the result of the invasion and post-invasion decisions. Tens of thousands of Iraqi lives have been lost and hundreds of thousands have fled the country. We dismantled the civil government, police, armed forces and the nation's infrastructure. We closed critical industries and businesses, putting as many as a half million people, including those who best knew how to run the infrastructure and factories, out of work and filled with resentment. We left arms caches unguarded and the borders open to infiltration. We allowed schools, hospitals and public buildings to be looted and created conditions that fanned sectarian conflicts.

It is just not realistic to expect Iraq or any other nation to be able to rebuild its government, infrastructure, security forces and economy in just four years. Despite the enormous challenges, the fact is, the situation on the ground in Iraq is improving in multiple and important ways.

Regardless of one's politics or position on the invasion, this must be recognized and welcomed as good news.

Our soldiers are reclaiming ground and capturing or killing high-priority targets on a daily basis. Sheiks and tribal groups are uniting to fight against the extremists and have virtually eliminated al-Qaida from certain areas. The Iraqi military and police are making progress in their training, taking more responsibility for bringing the fight to the insurgents and realizing important victories. Businesses and factories that were once closed are being reopened and people are working again. The infrastructure is gradually being repaired and markets are returning to life.

I am always suspicious about people who change their thinking this suddenly and radically on an issue as polarizing as the Iraq war. How deeply felt could Baird's opposition to the war be if it could turn on a dime after just two days in Iraq?
Baird led a trip to Iraq and the Middle East from Aug. 5 to 14. Accompanying him were Republican Reps. Christopher Shays of Connecticut and Ralph Hall of Texas.

They visited Egypt, Jordan, Israel and the West Bank. They spent two days and one night in Iraq, where they met with military and diplomatic officials and talked to American soldiers.

Baird visited Baghdad, the large U.S. military-controlled military base at Taji 20 miles to the north, and Yusufiyah in the notorious Triangle of Death southwest of the capital, where he walked through a public market. He said he could feel a change since his May visit.

"In areas where previously patrols were going out every night and being hit with IEDs (improvised explosive devices), all of those measures are better," Baird said. "Local Iraqis are standing up against the extremists on all sides. They are turning in the insurgents. They are fed up with al-Qaida."

In Al Anbar province, Baird said, sheiks are turning against al-Qaida militants who have been decapitating members of their tribes and leaving their bodies in the desert. Iraq's tribal leaders are respected and still wield some power, especially in Sunni-controlled areas.

Baird said his discussions with military leaders and troops persuaded him that the deployment of U.S. troops in Baghdad neighborhoods as part of the Bush administration's troop surge has begun to produce results.

"Because of the additional troops, our forces have been able to take it to the insurgents," he said. "They have been able to put units out into the field proactively. The more you bring someone in, the more you get contacts to bring the next person in. When you find the bomb factories, you save a lot of lives."

The Iraqi army is becoming more effective too, Baird said. "That's the view of our own forces."

What's wrong with this picture? How can anyone claim to have learned anything real about conditions in Iraq for Iraqis after spending days -- not weeks or months -- in the country, and being escorted by the U.S. military from the U.S. created-and-run Green Zone to U.S. military bases where they are told by U.S. military officers and U.S. military troops what's going on in Iraq?

Jonathan Finer, who spent close to a year in Baghdad covering the war for the WaPo, is tired of politicians thinking they are experts on Iraq after what are, he writes, "largely ceremonial visits."

In my post, "Being a War Supporter Means Never Having To See the Misery," I wrote about right-wing pundits who claim the surge has "improved security for the Iraqi people" while making sure they are never anywhere near any place where they could actually check out that cheery certainty. That's what angers me most about these war cheerleaders. They frame U.S. policy in terms of making Iraqis' lives better, safer, more secure; and they pontificate endlessly about all the "evidence" they see that this is happening -- but that evidence is always filtered through Bush administration officials, or the Pentagon, or the U.S. military. And that is a deliberate choice. Because the truth is, nobody who praises and supports this war as being good for the Iraqi people really wants to find out if that is actually true. And as Exhibit A for this assertion, I refer you to this post by elrod at The Moderate Voice [bolds are mine]:
The surge of US forces in Iraq since February has led to an increase in internally displaced Iraqis across the country, according to two humanitarian groups.
Statistics collected by one of the two humanitarian groups, the Iraqi Red Crescent Organization, indicate that the total number of internally displaced Iraqis has more than doubled, to 1.1 million from 499,000, since the buildup started in February.

Those figures are broadly consistent with data compiled independently by an office in the United Nations that specializes in tracking wide-scale dislocations. That office, the International Organization for Migration, found that in recent months the rate of displacement in Baghdad, where the buildup is focused, had increased by as much as a factor of 20, although part of that rise could have stemmed from improved monitoring of displaced Iraqis by the government in Baghdad, the capital.

I have to admit that I find the argument from pro-surge supporters that the security situation has improved for Iraqi civilians to be completely dubious. Sure, there are some neighborhoods that have seen progress, but there are others like Dora that seem to have disintegrated again. This has happened with every operation in the war up to now; some areas benefit and others suffer as the warring parties find new turf. If anything is leading to civilian peace, ironically, it might be that there are no minority targets left in neighborhoods and towns across Iraq.
So what’s the upshot of all this? If we are going to make a realistic evaluation of the surge - even beyond the political futility in Maliki’s government - then we need to be skeptical of Administration claims that security has improved. If anything, the Yazidi catastrophe confirms that while mass casualty events may have dropped a bit in Baghdad itself, they are still common events elsewhere in the country. The bomb-makers aren’t going out of business in Iraq. And these internal displacement numbers show the security situation continuing to deteriorate as neighborhoods previously spared by the sectarian civil war now witness daily clashes and threats of expulsion.

If there has been any success at all with the surge, it’s been the rise of anti-AQI Sunnis, especially in Anbar but also in some portions of Baghdad and Diyala. This is a real accomplishment, regardless of the fact that it was driven by Sunnis themselves before the surge even began. Petraeus was smart enough to recognize a promising development in the Anbar Salvation Council and exploit it. The marginalization of AQI helps reduce the propaganda power of Iraq to jihadists overseas; AQI is more likely to recruit from the outside and trumpet its accomplishments elsewhere than run-of-the-mill nationalists.

But that’s the bulk of the surge’s achievement. Let’s not fool ourselves with talk about significant improvements in security for Iraqi civilians. The surge has had some positive results, but not many. And when you add the political developments, Iraq looks no closer to a peaceful resolution now than in February. Iraqi Sunnis and Shi’ites are in no mood to coexist peacefully, and are continuing to arm themselves (often with US aid) for the next phase of the civil war. That should be the final determinant on whether we should continue with this course.

The surge is driven entirely by George W. Bush's domestic political needs, as he perceives them. It has nothing to do with improving security for Iraqis.

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