Friday, April 11, 2008

Requiem For An Idea

I listened the other day to a couple hours of the testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee of General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker.

Here are a couple politicians (and I think anyone who makes it as far up in the Army as General Petraeus has is self-evidently a political animal) sitting in front of another bunch of politicians, everybody with their own agenda which may or may not involve a simple exchange of information. Republicans on the Committee inevitably begin their allotted time with an expression of thanks for these gentlemen's service and for the sacrifices of our Armed Services, and, depending on their degree of fanaticism, perhaps with a sermon about the merits of the mission itself. Democrats also often begin with an expression of thanks for the visitors' service and hard work, but then would come an expression of frustration, the dish-breaking of the impotent. In some cases, the politicians' speeches took up their entire allotment of time.

I think the whole nation must listen to this coverage with their fists clenched. And I think this is because discussions about whether the situation is becoming better or how soon we'll be able to bring the troops home don't really get at any core issue. The elephant in the room is the fact of the invasion of Iraq itself. We're five years and a minimum projection of three trillion dollars and nobody knows how many thousands of lives down this road and most of us are scratching our heads at this point wondering how we got into such a shitty quagmire. Every administration statement about the situation is like the doctor who has intentionally given a fatal disease to his patient talking about how great she looks in her evening gown and walker.

We're at risk in this election cycle, I think, of falling for a kind of political reverse-image version of exactly the lowest-common-denominator pandering that put W in office. Both times. Eight years ago he just baldly promised to lower everyone's taxes--a sure-fire cynical vote-grabbing tactic which calculatedly misstated his real plan--and then in 2004 he simply repeated over and over again "You are not safe." Nothing captures the television-watching mind like simple statements of black and white. But the situation in Iraq simply cannot be understood, much less fixed, in simple terms, and I fear we're wanting to flock to whomever makes the best one-line statement.

I suspect our progress in the war and the troop levels there are probably largely beyond any incoming president's sphere of influence. This much is certain: someone who is merely a candidate at present will gain a quite different picture of the conflict when they take office. For now, these things are simply what they are, and it seems a pandering to (very justifiable) voter outrage to say "I'm going to fix a situation that everybody hates." I just don't quite believe that easy option is really on the table.

But that's precisely what makes this all so maddening and tragic. A really small group of people have put our entire country on a disastrous no-exit track quite without any real discussion or any meaningful approval. And there has been no accounting for this catastrophe, or even an admission of the fact. These guys' terms of office are about to expire, after which they'll sail off into the sunset without facing any fire for the incalculable damage they've done. And they'll sail off having seriously altered the offices which they held in trust for us, and we're not even close to reclaiming those offices. The ramifications of all this extend out decades or longer.

There were plenty of people at the time of the invasion that predicted much of this outcome, and I think any approval for the invasion would have dried up quickly and completely if we had stared our present situation in the face.

The issue before us is not how soon the troops get to come home, but rather addressing how we got here and atoning for--and correcting--the original sin.


Jeffy said...

I think you hit the nail on the head with the comment that this situation is one that can not be understood, or fixed, in simple terms.

This is the case with most of the issues we face (now as in the past) yet people seem to insist on simple explanations and simple solutions. We as a people have lost our ability to focus on an issue and do the work and make the sacrifices necessary to deal with most issues. If a problem can't be explained in a sound bite people aren't going to pay it any attention, and if a solution looks difficult or will take a long time or require significant effort or expense it will be unpopular.

I see this as a problem in the political area too, but for different reasons. The conservative folks tend to see things as black-and-white, with clear ramifications and straightforward solutions, which can be quite popular. The liberals seem to be more willing to see the complexity in the situation, but still driven by the public to find simple solutions.

Because the quick and simple solutions are so easily popular we run into them all over the place:

Iraq appears to be a political problem - invade!

We have lots of illegal aliens working in the US - throw them out and put up a wall behind them!

Oil is in short supply - turn food into fuel!

Everywhere you look it seems that we are in a race to the bottom, and it isn't at all clear where it will end.

At some point it seems we are going to need a real leader - someone who can stand up and say that these problems are not easily solved, and be willing to forge solutions that may not be popular, but that will be effective. In the end we usually do know what the right course is, we just prefer to hear the easy version, even if it is incorrect.

Anonymous said...

Keep in mind that it really doesn't matter what Gen. Petraeus says because he works for the President, who is commander in chief. If a democrat had been president, Petraeus would be telling us about how quickly he would be winding things down and handing things back over to the Iraqis. He is every bit a political animal.

Of course, Mr. "Hundred Years" McCain is hell-bent on being able to continue Bush's tragic mistake of starting a war with Iraq in the first place with, well, another hundred years of occupation.

Try calculating THAT cost to our nation.

-A. Random

wunelle said...


It just drives me crazy that even guys like McCain--who is friendlier to W's war than the Dems, anyway--is acting like "This is the situation, and we're going to have to accept it!"

But fuck that. It didn't JUST HAPPEN. It was MADE to happen, and the outcome is one that educated people could foresee in the broad strokes. I just don't understand how our system lets us self-destruct on the egocentric whims of an uneducated little cabal.

World opinion of us is perhaps irretrievably tarnished, and our economy is in really dire straits. I'll say it again: there need to be hearings and accountability. These guys need to justify their actions or answer to US (not the other way around).

Impeachment seems a bare minimum.