Apr 14, 2008

March 31, 2008: Three Stooges in Baghdad, Tragical History Tour, The Limits of Power

“War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography”
--Ambrose Bierce

This week saw John McCain, with Senators Joe Lieberman (I-Conn) and Lindsay Graham (R-South Carolina) in tow, in downtown Baghdad proclaiming the recent military ‘surge’ in Iraq a success. It is true that violence has subsided in the nation’s capitol but violence has erupted “in other parts of the country, including Diyala Province and Mosul, al-Qaeda’s last urban stronghold”. In a March 15 report for the Associated Press, Ryan Lenz quoted the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq saying that “the government of Iraq continued to face enormous challenges in its efforts to bring sectarian violence and other criminal activity under control against a backdrop of political instability” (1). The report further cautioned “against hasty conclusions because ‘the extent to which the decrease in violence was sustainable remained unclear’”. (1)
According to Lenz, “Violence in the capital has fallen considerably thanks to a maze of walls and barriers that divide Shiite from Sunni neighborhoods” as well as the cease fire agreement reached with al-Sadr’s Mahdi army, and the emergence of so-called “Awakening Councils”, “groups composed of former Sunni Tribes who have accepted U.S. funding to switch allegiances and fight al-Qaeda. It is a tenuous peace at best, whose initial goal was to gain some time and clear some space for the emerging government of Iraq to work out its political future. By all accounts progress on political reconciliation has been tortuous and results meager. In the meantime the presence of 20,000 additional U.S. troops in and around the capitol has had a measure of success in lowering the level of violence.

So in an impromptu rendition of what would be a splendid Three Stooges skit, the three Senators toured Baghdad and pronounced our military campaign a success. The Iraqis celebrated their arrival by shelling the green zone and as the Stooges were leaving the Maliki government launched an all-out assault on al-Sadr’s forces in Basra touching off a series of bloody skirmishes. In due course the central government was forced to retreat saying that they are giving the militiamen time to “repent and surrender”. Undeterred the good Marshall of Tombstone continued his ‘tragical history tour’ by leading the press around by the nose revisiting the highlights of his military career.

The tragedy that is the McCain candidacy is that John is both the son and the grand-son of U.S. Navy admirals. John’s military career never quite reached those lofty heights. He is, therefore, compensating for it—albeit at a late date—by striving to outdo his ancestor’s achievement by becoming commander-in-chief. Not, it seems, your run-of-the-mill commander-in-chief, but a war president. It is for this reason that he has so readily subscribed to the folly and the tragedy that is the mess the neo-cons have created in the Middle East. As John takes us on this Magical Military Tour and speaks of wars won and wars yet to be won let us not forget that America lost the only war in which he fought. Perhaps that is the score that needs to be settled. Perhaps the ultimate historical tragedy is that those who have died and those who are about to die in this modern ‘hundred years war’ are simply the latest casualties of Vietnam.

“War is diplomacy by other means”
--Carl Von Clausewitz

Von Clauswitz understood the complex interrelation between war and politics. War is a consequence of political conflict, and an end to war can only be reached by some kind of political settlement. The ends of war cannot be achieved by military means alone. Even unconditional surrender requires the tacit acceptance of the population so as to prevent an insurrection. The Allies in Europe came to term with the old Nazi regime, prosecuting a relative handful, and employing the rest to keep order. Likewise in Japan where MacArthur kept the Emperor and much of the old regime in order to maintain continuity and stability.

Forty years ago tonight, President Lyndon Johnson spoke those memorable words “accordingly I shall not seek, nor will I accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.” This bombshell, so unexpected, came after a short discussion about the stalemate in Vietnam and about the need to negotiate a peace. Saying that the demands of peace meant that negotiations could not become part of a partisan political campaign, Johnson told the nation that he would step down. Here the President came face-to-face with the limits of power. American military might, as awesome as it was, could not impose a political settlement in Indochina. No matter how long the war would drag on, some kind of political accommodation would have to take place. So on that fateful night the President announced the end of the quest to impose a political solution by military force and told the nation that we would sit down at the table with Ho Chi Minh. John McCain never forgave Lyndon Johnson. But Johnson by degrees came to understand, as our future president will also have to come to understand, that for peace to return to this troubled region negotiations will have to take place with our adversaries. Without negotiations there will be no peace. How long it will take the good Marshall to learn the limits of power remains in the telling. In any case it will be a hell of an expensive geography lesson.



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