President Bush is, quite reasonably, appealing to history to salvage his legacy since his prospects don’t look good in the short term. Despite current efforts to put the best possible face on conditions in Iraq, the news continues to be bad.
For example, last week, one day’s news reported the assassinations of two Iraqi governors, as well as the admission by U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker that southern Iraq was plagued by “a lot of violence.” In northern Iraq, a truck bomber killed 45 people, and others died elsewhere.
The day also brought the news that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was playing the democracy card, rejecting criticism from the Bush administration that his government isn’t making sufficient progress on bridging the divisions between Sunnis and Shias — or between Shias and Shias, for that matter. His government also was reluctant to divide up the oil. Al-Maliki, just back from three days in Syria, said, “No one has the right to place timetables on the Iraq government. It was elected by its people.” A “gotcha” moment.
Finally, the day brought news of 14 American troops getting killed in a helicopter crash, bringing the total of American dead to 3,721. Another soldier was killed elsewhere. At least 15 families will get bad news.
So it wasn’t a good day in Iraq. But, all in all, it was a typical day, nothing particularly unusual.
Crocker insists that all of these problems are “fixable,” and undoubtedly the report that he and Army Gen. David Petraeus will deliver to Congress in a couple of weeks will be optimistic in the attempt to reinforce our resolve to face the difficulties of the so-called way forward.
But the word “failure” is probably too weak to describe accurately our situation in Iraq. After all, it’s possible to fail in the pursuit of a good cause, as well as succeed in a bad one. Iraq was a bad one from the beginning. Nevertheless, for a long time Bush insisted on “staying the course.” With Petraeus and the surge, we changed course. But I suspect that the only way out of Iraq is to admit we were wrong and reverse course.
This wouldn’t be easy; we’re not used to admitting we were wrong. But I predict a calming effect on the situation. To a large extent, the motivations, desires and needs that govern relations between human beings are the same as those that govern relations between nations. And nothing defuses antagonism like an admission of error on the part of the dominant party.
“Hearts and Minds,” the Oscar-winning 1974 documentary about Vietnam, depicts a woman-on-the-street who asks this question about that quagmire: Why can’t we just admit that we were wrong? That’s what we expect grownups to do when they make mistakes.
But how do we admit we were wrong? One way would be for the electorate to speak clearly with their ballots. They did so in November 2006, but, unfortunately, the election has had no impact on the course of the war so far.
Another way would be to impeach Bush. At other times, in other places, leaders who made major blunders — whether it was their fault or not — were expected to resign or commit suicide. In this case, neither is likely. And in practical terms, impeachment is unlikely, as well. Between the rigid party loyalists and the congressmen who are waiting longingly for the balance of Bush’s term to expire, the votes are not available.
But in theory, impeachment is an attractive idea, not as a punishment for Bush, but as a way of saying that, knowing what we know now, we would never have gone into Iraq, which is a proposition that even thoughtful pro-war citizens should accept. It would be a way of taking this war away from our leaders who have mishandled it so badly.
Soon, the American death toll in Iraq will reach 4,000. And before we know it, we’ll be at 5,000, wondering how we let all those brave soldiers slip away.
(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail jcrisp(at)delmar.edu.)