It took the United States four years to get out of Vietnam. Whether the nation likes it or not — and the Phoenix does not — it will probably take America at least that long to exit Iraq.
After two days of General David Petraeus’s sorry congressional testimony, it is painfully clear that President Bush plans to keep US troops engaged for the remaining 15 months of his term. Bush’s policy: it’s a problem for the next guy or gal. With the leading Republican presidential candidates all committed to staying the president’s disastrous course, and most Democratic contenders holding that it will take more or less 18 months to decamp, it is depressingly realistic to set 2011 as the earliest possible end date of the Iraqi debacle.
Then again, at the moment, even the idea of an end date for this war is a relative concept. It’s likely that troops will be stationed in the northern third of Iraq, a quasi-independent state controlled by the Kurds, long after we leave Iraq itself. In addition, a substantial force will probably be maintained offshore or in Kuwait. Bush’s “mission accomplished” is to be followed by a seemingly endless Iraq-and-broader-regional engagement of some sort. And his announcement that 30,000 troops will come home next summer is window dressing, meaningless in the big picture — though good news for the men and women involved.
Indicative of the Bush Administration’s cynical manipulation of the nation’s all-volunteer military is its treatment of military leaders. It punished generals who failed to conform to White House thinking. It duped its own secretary of state — retired General Colin Powell, a former Joint Chiefs chairman — into falsely claiming before the United Nations that the late Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. And in the months before this week’s unconvincing Washington testimony, it sought to establish General Petraeus as the final arbiter of the success or failure of the troop “surge” that was to stabilize the Iraq chaos.
But whatever limited political success Petraeus achieved on Monday before members of the House of Representatives was pathetically compromised on Tuesday when he was unable — or unwilling — to reassure retiring Republican senator John Warner, of Virginia, that the nation was safer because of our presence in Iraq. “Sir,” Petraeus had responded, “I don’t know, actually.”
People have long internalized the fact that Bush lied to get us into Iraq. But when the general choked on his answer, the futility of approximately 3700 uniformed deaths and the incalculable number of those who have been wounded and permanently maimed became sickeningly clear. And those statistics do not account for the anarchy and civil war that claimed at least 1773 Iraqi civilian lives in August, between 1753 and 1760 in July, and 1227 in June. There’s no way of telling how many total have died; the US, for their part, stopped collecting such numbers in 2005.
The Petraeus testimony was designed to solidify a sufficient sliver of shrinking congressional support to buy the administration more time — though for what is unclear. The only potential boon to emerge from Petraeus’s testimony is that it might provoke others to set a fixed timetable for withdrawal.