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If Dems Talk About 'Winning' in Iraq, Everybody Loses

The Petraeus hearings trapped Democrats into talking about whether the 'surge' is working, not that the U.S. has no right to be there.
 
 
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It was supposed to be a "cakewalk." Gen. Petraeus would come to Congress, armed with his favorite charts showing that the "surge" had dramatically reduced violence in Iraq. He would earn universal acclaim for his plan to "pause" troop reductions from July until after the election -- the same plan that John McCain counts on to help him win the election.

When it comes to Iraq, though, the Bush administration's cakewalks never seem to turn out as planned. The renewed violence of these last weeks, and the prospect of more to come, gave war critics ample ammunition for a powerful counterattack. Congressional Democrats did a fine job of pinning the general under their verbal fire, trapping him in his own rosy but increasingly unbelievable promises of "progress."

Yet who was the trapper, and who really got trapped? The political fallout from events like this week's Petraus-Crocker hearings can be a long time coming. It's far too soon to draw any conclusion.

Though Petraeus appeared to be trapped, the debate about military success or failure in Iraq, which the Dems engaged in with such relish, also caught them in a trap, with the general's testimony as the bait. Because the debate is not literally about the level of violence in Iraq. "Has the 'surge' worked?" is really a symbolic way of asking: "Would you rather believe that America is a winner or a loser?" And in any battle over patriotic symbolism, the Republicans always seem to have the bigger guns.

So the Democrats would have been smarter to refuse the bait, to insist that this is not an old-fashioned World War II-style conflict, where force can produce a clear-cut winner. There's still time to make that strategic switch. Then they could refocus the debate on the crucial truths: We have no right to be in Iraq. The sooner we get out, the sooner we can begin to heal the terrible damage the war has done to us here at home.

It should have been obvious all along that the Republicans do not mean it literally when they say reducing violence in Iraq is their highest priority. It's not likely that too many of them care a whole lot about the killing and maiming of Iraqis. So when they speak so urgently about lower levels of violence, it's a coded way of saying something else; in fact, a lot of things.

For starters, "reduced violence" is a way to conjure up an image of American "success" in a war in which no real success (forget about "victory") is possible. The level of violence is the only concrete yardstick the administration has to gauge the success of the "surge"-- no small matter when a successful "surge" has become the prime symbol of achievement for U.S. troops and thus for the president's (and McCain's) war policies. The Bush administration, of course, still hopes to sell its failing war to the public by turning it into a gripping story of winners and losers. "Violence" has been its currency, the coin of the realm.

Since that story took hold, supporters of the Bush policy have insisted that violence in Iraq really has been subsiding, thus the president's "surge" strategy has worked. When Democrats and other war critics rejected that claim (no matter how convincing their arguments), they sparked a battle over who has the right, and the proper criteria, to evaluate the "surge." So violence-lowering success in Iraq also became a symbolic measure of Bush's political success here at home.

In fact the home front is the key, as it has been for years. Bush came into office as the hero of the right, not because he had sworn to defeat terrorism (that didn't start until 9/11), but because he had sworn to defeat 1960s-style liberalism and "secular humanism." For conservatives the war in Iraq, the war on terrorism and the political wars at home have all been symbols of the same struggle against trends they see undermining the fabric of American society.

By choosing John McCain to lead their troops in presidential battle, Republicans have voted with their feet. In effect, they have decided to make all their cherished battles hinge on the battle over Iraq policy and the "surge."

When McCain talks about Iraq, his words always point up the symbolic nature of the battle there. He offers no reasonable idea of who we are fighting or why. In fact, on the occasions when he brings the matter up, he seems remarkably confused on the cast of characters. As a result, he can offer no sensible outline of what "victory" in Iraq might mean.

Since McCain's talk about the war is really a code, it makes perfect sense to feature that Bush-era bogeyman, al-Qaeda, as our main enemy in Iraq. Al-Qaeda, after all, is "the terrorists," and we are always fighting "the terrorists." It makes no less sense in his symbolic universe to insist that al-Qaeda terrorists are being trained in Iran, a country whose leadership is deeply hostile to the organization. All enemies are interchangeable because all are merely symbols of a vaguely defined sense of uncontrolled evil, which is said to threaten America's moral virtue at home and abroad. George W. Bush was supposed to defeat that evil. He has obviously failed. Now, conservatives pin their hopes on a new champion whose mantra is "No Surrender."

Stability as a symbol

In addition to "reduced violence," the "surge" and "no surrender," the Republicans wield another symbol of America as a righteous winner: achieving "stability" in Iraq. It's the most seductive image of all, because it exerts a strong appeal the political spectrum.

Five years ago, when American forces quickly dismantled Iraqi society, liberal as well as conservative pundits announced that it was up to our forces to restore "stability" -- as if the Iraqis themselves had wrought the chaos. Though American armies did most of the destabilizing in Iraq, this historical fact was set aside in favor of the hoary myth that white America is always a force for good, uniquely dedicated and qualified to bring order out of chaos around the world.

War -- righteous, courageous, and ultimately victorious -- has always been a central theme in the American myth of stability. Pollsters still take that myth for granted, and reinforce it, when they ask Americans questions like: How would you say things are going for the U.S. in its efforts to bring stability and order to Iraq? and Should the U.S. maintain its current troop level in Iraq to help secure peace and stability, or reduce its number of troops?

Vietnam dealt this mythology a near-fatal blow. At a time when conservatives, moderates and even many liberals worry about all sorts of forces that seem to threaten the nation's cohesion and moral fiber, reviving a cherished national myth holds broad appeal across the political spectrum. Millions debate the question of military success, because they want to know whether they should, or can, still believe that America is the champion of order and stability in a dangerously unstable world. Asking "Did the 'surge' work?" is a symbolic way of asking not only "Can America be a winner?" but "Can the stories of the America we once knew and loved still work?"

When the charismatic general, known to colleagues as "King David" Petraeus, came before the cameras with his charts and statistics to "prove" that violence levels are lower, and thus the "surge" has worked, he dangled the sweet smell of success before Congress. Whenever the pundits and the public get a whiff of such bait, it's not just conservatives who are sorely tempted to swallow it, regardless of what they know is happening in Iraq. Regardless of how flimsy Petraeus' evidence of "progress toward stability" was, simply by offering it he triggered a whole web of myth and symbolism that automatically (though largely unconsciously) kicked in, weaving its spell.

As Democrats and war critics stay on the counterattack, they will keep that mythic drama on center stage in the theater of political battle. No matter how logically persuasive their arguments may be, they will ensnare themselves in the general's -- and so the president's -- trap, because they will make America and its cherished myths look like losers. And that may very well end up making the Democrats losers.

Just check the latest polls on the presidential race. McCain is basing his campaign on unstinting support for Bush's war and economic policies, both of which are resounding failures, especially among moderate and independent voters. Yet he is running roughly even with both Clinton and Obama, and some polls even show him ahead.

How could this be? The polls show that most voters do indeed oppose the war and think that the decision to invade Iraq was a mistake. Yet they also reveal that more Americans trust McCain than either Clinton or Obama to make the right choices on Iraq (and on national security in general). McCain scores particularly well on this issues among independents.

As the media have touted "reduced violence" in Iraq, the level of support for McCain's "no surrender" policy has risen steadily. McCain's campaign survives, and thrives, only by its mastery of a language of American identity centered on the myth and symbolism of war. Any debate about military success in Iraq keeps his strong suit in the spotlight.

Escaping the trap

Yes, the Democrats might win by making military success or failure in Iraq the central issue if Iraqi violence continues to rise. But the violence would have to go on rising until Election Day. That's a big gamble. It depends on factors beyond their control, and it threatens to leave them trapped in a narrow corner.

Of course Petraeus has trapped himself in a corner too -- and Bush and McCain are there with them. They, too, must wait for events largely beyond their control to unfold, helplessly bobbing like corks on the tides of Iraqi violence.

The Democrats can turn Gen. Entrap-Us into Gen. Entrapped by refusing to treat the issue of military success or failure as the central question of the moment. The competing sides in Iraq have always been ill-defined and constantly shifting. Once the Sunni insurgency started there in 2003, no one has ever been able to say what an American victory might really mean. It's no small truth that "success" in an Iraq where even Gen. Petraeus can't imagine "victory" would prove as damaging as any failure.

Wise Dems would heed the words of media critic Norman Solomon: "Arguments over whether U.S. forces can prevail in Iraq bypass a truth that no amount of media spin can change: The U.S. war effort in Iraq has always been illegitimate and fundamentally wrong." The longer we stay, the longer we perpetuate the wrongs we have done, regardless of whether we achieve military success by anyone's measure.

We are uninvited intruders in Iraq. We invaded the country on false pretenses. It's long past time for us to admit that truth and leave. The longer we stay in Iraq, the longer we tell the world that invasion and occupation are OK with us. And that much longer do we leave America's moral reputation around the world in tatters. When our troops leave, we will set a good example for countries that have occupied, or might be tempted to occupy, other lands. And we can begin to heal from our moral bankruptcy -- not to mention our financial bankruptcy.

If Democrats take that approach they will shift the terms of the debate. Then they can speak truths about the war that the American people are prepared to understand. They can pose hard questions -- and not questions of military strategy -- that the administration simply cannot answer. That would push war supporters deeper into their own trap: the irrelevance of their quest for military success.

But neither Democratic candidate for president is likely to take such an approach. They both argue that the United States should remove some substantial number of troops from Iraq (though not all) and cut back military expenditures in Iraq, so that we can spend more and fight more on other fronts. Their arguments are all about the most "effective" ways to protect what are always termed "American interests" around the world. Some dare call it empire, though in any presidential campaign that word is politely avoided.

Criticism of the U.S. military is politely avoided, too. The candidates compete with each other to see who can offer the most fulsome praise of "our troops," while heaping all the blame on the feeble Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

As long as the Democrats are committed to sustaining the neoliberal imperial project, they have to try as hard as the Republicans to revive the myth of American troops as a force for global stability. The bipartisan guardians of empire need that myth to mask the bottom line of their economic and political motives. It's the only way they can keep the public paying the exorbitant bills.

The Democrats have already demonstrated that they value a myth of American stability above winning the presidency. That was in Florida in the weeks following Election Day 2000. In the months preceding Election Day 2008, they may very well make the same choice once again.

Which would be tragic. With the polls showing that many Americans may vote for the war as symbol while opposing it in reality, this year's election offers a rare opportunity to confront the difference between symbol and reality, to insist that war should be seen not through the lens of myth and symbol, but as the brutal, self-defeating reality it is.

Ira Chernus is professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Monsters To Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin .

 
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