There is a certain irony in the fact that George Santayana’s famous maxim, though much talked about, rarely appears in its original form:
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
A similar destiny seems to have befallen the so-called “Petraeus Report,” or is it the Bush Report? Watching the press and politicians frantically spin, reverse course, and engage in impressive feats of revisionism when the subject is raised, amused observers cannot help but wonder what fate awaits those who dismember history?
Little about the Petraeus Report has escaped controversy. Even the name is being spun by Democrats who won’t call the good General a liar (that task is reserved for MoveOn.org and its wholly-owned subsidiaries) but say they can’t possibly trust a report “pass[ed] through the White House spin machine, where facts are often ignored or twisted, and intelligence is cherry-picked.” It matters little that Petraeus claims to have written his own testimony, free of White House interference. Though they question neither his integrity nor his honor, Congressional Democrats simply cannot trust him! No insult is intended.
Not to be outdone, the press show an equal flair for the melodramatic. CBS’s Bob Schieffer may yet walk away with this year’s Academy Award for Best Display of Unintended Irony by a Veteran News Correspondent. In a riveting performance he explores the fascinating connection between professional journalism and rabbit trails; his masterwerk marred only by the intrusive thought that his passion for uncovering the truth somehow blinded him to Congressional legislation requiring that the President (not Petraeus) write and deliver the September 15th report.
WALTZING THROUGH HISTORY
Santayana would be the first to remind us that moving forward without a thorough understanding of history is risky business. For those who left their scorecards at home, the fun and games began long before General Betray Us (as the “Support the Troops by Slandering their Leaders” set affectionately call him) and his new strategy were unanimously approved by the Senate and the race to micromanage his campaign and announce its impending failure began. Shortly after the November election, the new Majority Party held out the ritual olive branch:
The Iraq Study Group has done a tremendous and historic service to the American people and to the troops serving in harm’s way in Iraq. Their report underscores the message the American people sent one month ago: there must be change in Iraq, and there is no time to lose…Like the Iraq Study Group, I urge the President to change course. He will find Congress ready and willing to work with him. The Senate will do its part next year and conduct strong oversight to ensure the President carries out an effective change in policy.
– Senator Harry Reid
For years Democrats had lodged recurring complaints against the Bush administration but with Reid’s promise of bipartisan cooperation, change was finally in the air. Now if the White House could only be induced to follow through. And so the dance began:
Congress wanted Donald Rumsfeld replaced. And so in January, the President replaced him.
They demanded a change in course and a new strategy. The President swept away the top military leadership, replacing General Abizaid with Admiral Fallon at CENTCOM, General Casey with David Petraeus at MNF-Iraq, and General Pace at the Joint Chiefs with Admiral Mullen. He proposed a Surge of troops to implement the counterinsurgency strategy written by Generals Petraeus and Mattis. To na√Øve observers, fresh leadership, a different military strategy and more boots on the ground bore all the sinister markings of a change in course. Fortunately, the new Majority Party was not deceived by such cynical and calculated attempts at appeasement.
Top Democrats demanded consideration of the Iraq Study Group recommendations. In April, ISG co-chair James Baker III described the administration’s new plan:
“… supports much of the approach called for by the Iraq Study Group. He has since said that he is moving to embrace our recommendations.”
They complained the Pentagon wouldn’t “listen to the Generals”, so they trotted out their own Generals, who recommended “more time and more boots on the ground”. The President’s Surge plan put more boots on the ground and asked for more time…. but suddenly, the Democrats’ pet generals disappeared. They were no longer useful, you see. Congress showed its good faith by attempting to cut the funding for the extra troops they had demanded earlier. They sought the imposition of arbitrary time limits which removed discretion from commanders in the field, and forced troop withdrawals even if we were making progress. Apparently the virtues of listening to Generals were highly overrated.
They said the Iraqis needed to step up to the plate.
In Anbar, a province declared “irretrievably lost” one year ago, the Sunni sheiks came over to our side against al Qaeda. But even that wasn’t good enough to satisfy Chuck Schumer, who once again led the Democratic stampede to cast everything we do as a miserable failure.
D√âJ√Ä VU ALL OVER AGAIN
The lesson of history could hardly have been clearer. In December, the Senate Majority leader had called upon the White House to meet Congress halfway. The President did far more than that; he met them most of the way. Now it was time for the Democrats to reciprocate. But suddenly, collective amnesia set in as those who unanimously confirmed Petraeus sought first to discredit, and then hamstring the strategy briefed in January. Before the full complement of Surge troops could arrive in Baghdad, Harry Reid had unilaterally and pre-emptively pronounced the war lost and the Surge a failure.
As the fateful September 15th deadline neared, attacks of mass amnesia unseen since the onset of the war mysteriously returned, followed swiftly by cries of deception:
“I think there is a disconnect between the depth of the threat that Saddam Hussein presents to the world and what we are at the moment talking about doing. …he is really a war criminal who is already at war with the civilized world-then we have to be prepared to go the full distance , which is to do everything possible to disrupt his regime and to encourage the forces of democracy.”
Kerry also voices his support for sending ground troops to Iraq because a mere bombing attack would not end the threat. “I am way ahead of the commander in chief, and I’m probably way ahead of my colleagues and certainly of much of the country,” Kerry declares. … “If we don’t face this today, we will face it at some point down the road.”
The symptoms of pre-traumatic stress disorder were ominous, but unmistakable. Petraeus himself did not lack integrity, but surely it was obvious he could not be trusted to deliver unbiased testimony! Why? Because the White House was writing the September 15th report! Of course technically Congress had passed a law dictating that very arrangement. But though no one wanted to call the General a liar, this “Petraeus Report” business was like the dog that did not bark in the night! Not since the Kerry Doctrine had a statement of such translucent opacity pierced the impenetrable fog of war:
In laying out the Kerry Doctrine – that in voting on a use-of-force resolution that is not a use-of-force resolution, the opposite of the correct answer is also the correct answer – Kerry was venturing off into the realm of Post-Cartesian Multivariate Co-Directionality that would mark so many of his major foreign policy statements.
”Again and again and again in the debate, it was made clear that the vote of the U.S. Senate and the House on the authorization of immediate use of force on Jan. 12 was not a vote as to whether or not force should be used.”
Swiftly grasping the Zen-like symmetry of “The Thing Which Is Not What It Is” the media pressed the attack, reminding readers how the “logic of the Surge”, specifically included in the Iraq Study Group recommendations, had “escaped many”. Moreover this illogical plan, recklessly launched without the prior approval of France and Germany, had set off a minor war with Admiral Fallon, who wanted deployment-weary troops brought home immediately so they could be redeployed to “confront other potential threats in the region”. In this highly nuanced argument the fine Italian hand of the Junior Senator from Massachusetts could once again be glimpsed. What better anodyne for a ground war America could no longer afford than to plead the danger of yet another ground war America could not afford? More linear minds might wonder what, short of an existential threat to our national security, would move Congress to send a “broken” Army and overstressed, trigger happy Marines back to war so quickly after having escaped a hopeless quagmire? Or why the still unbroken Navy or Air Force could not be used? And surely, were ground troops urgently required elsewhere in the region before our withdrawal from Iraq, national self-interest would excuse their (swifter and cheaper) forward redeployment?
No doubt the “Armageddon”-like “schism” between Petraeus and Fallon drove what happened next. Perhaps sensing the impending threat of quicksand metaphors, the wily General sought to trick the unwary by offering illusory troop withdrawals that – make no mistake about it – would leave America right where she started. It was almost as though Iraq had become a quagmire of sorts. Thankfully, recently acquired conventional wisdom on the danger of reasoning by historical analogy prevented a humiliating comparison to Vietnam. Say what you will about George Santayana – the man knew his stuff.
THE WAY FORWARD
All humor aside, once all the hand waving and histrionics have run their course, what will The Petraeus Report really change? The answer may be suggested by another old truism which, like so many of John Kerry’s majestical pronouncements, sounds far better in the original French: Plus ca change, plus la meme chose. History does indeed suggest it will change little, but a few guiding principles may be derived from past experience to guide our way forward:
1. The facts will always be less important than the spin. That is to say, despite deeply existential displays of angst over whether the American people will get to hear General Petraeus’ untrustworthy yet unvarnished testimony, his words will penetrate the consciousness of few of the general public. Instead, ‘the truth’ about his testimony will be written by whichever party
tirelessly repeats their talking points earliest and with the greatest frequency.
2. The American people will produce predictably oxymoronic answers to vague polling questions with comforting regularity, thus allowing pundits on both sides of the political aisle to crow, “We told you so!” in roughly even numbers.
3. Congressional Democrats still will not have enough votes to override a Presidential veto, which should ensure this nation never suffers from a crippling shortage of nonbinding resolutions.
4. Congressional Republicans will never learn to work as a team, a fact responsible for the omnipresence of the word “Hope” in the sloganeering of Democratic presidential candidates.
5. The troops will continue to perform their jobs with skill and dedication. Their demonstrated ability to ignore the bloviation of their elected leaders may be the best evidence yet that our armed forces are smarter and better educated than their counterparts in the civilian populace.
6. Despite all the talk of withdrawal, no one – not the Iraq Study Group, terrorism experts, the United Nations, or politicians on either side of the aisle, really believes we can afford to leave Iraq any time soon. That is one Moose in the room that isn’t going away.
7. Though we are undeniably a nation at war, most of America will continue to spend their days at the Mall. And that is our own fault.
Of all the arguments hurled at the administration, the notion that support for this war should be contingent on being asked to sacrifice should offend us all. That it does not speaks volumes about an entitlement culture grown used to immediate gratification and nearly effortless affluence. No impediment to the free flow of information blinds us to either the stakes or the cost of this war. The facts surround us; on our television sets, in our newspapers, on the Internet. What, then, prevents the freest citizens of the freest nation on earth from choosing to sacrifice? Why do we childishly require to be asked, before we step forward to share the burden?
The truth is most of us are well content to allow the military to bear the brunt of this war. But it does not have to be that way.
While many jobs require specialized military skill sets, other tasks performed by our armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan are non-military in nature. Civil affairs, policing, and reconstruction projects are all jobs which could be competently carried out by civilians. Instead of calling for a draft that does not solve the problems it claims to redress, why not engage in a little out of the box thinking? Why not challenge Congress to work with the White House to face both our future force structure requirements and the challenges of securing Iraq’s future honestly, rather than calling for boots they are unwilling to fund or approving Generals and changes in course only to begin sabotaging them before the ink is dry on their confirmation documents?
Santayana’s famous maxim is repeated so often because it is true: those who fail to learn from the past are doomed to repeat their mistakes. In this case, the consequences of those mistakes are both heartbreaking and inexcusable. Iraq is not Vietnam, but history speaks clearly of what happens when we abandon our allies to ruthless murderers. There is no question that al Qaeda are ruthless murderers. Neither is there any legitimate question about their intentions for Iraq: they have openly announced their plans to establish an Islamic caliphate with Taliban-style rule. History, too, speaks clearly about what it is like to live under such a regime. There is no real debate about whether it would be in our interest to see such a fate befall Iraq.
The only question then becomes, where do we go from here? Can the world’s mightiest superpower, which has chided a fledgling democracy to put aside sectarian hatreds nurtured for centuries, put aside their petty grievances long enough to forge a way forward that would avoid genocidal slaughter and a victory for al Qaeda?
What a fitting tribute that would be, on this dreary September morning, to the memory of those 3000 souls who perished six years ago, and to all those who have fought and died since then. What an unforgettable monument to democracy and the indomitable spirits of our forefathers.
The world is watching. And it is now not just the Iraqi Congress, but our own government – a government of the people, by the people, and for the people – that must not fail this vital test.
Let us show them how it is done.
Cassandra blogs at Villainous Company. She describes herself as a “dyspeptic Marine wife/tech wench who attempts to enlighten the great unwashed of the blogosphere while dodging snarky commentary from the local knavery.”