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Six years after Sept. 11, 2001, a convenient moment for stock-taking, are we at war or are we not at war — and if so with whom or with what?
Americans are killed at an average of 80 a month in Iraq. More come home forever damaged in body or spirit. But for most of us, daily life goes merrily on.
Iraqis are displaced by the millions and killed at a rate of 2,000 a month (down, it’s said, from 4,000 a few months ago). It’s not clear whether that’s progress or just because of the growing number of neighborhoods that have been ethnically cleansed.
There is no draft. Taxes are cut for the wealthy and the rich get richer. Our ports remain porous; the administration bows to industry in its feeble enforcement of security at chemical plants, oil refineries and cargo shipments on airlines.
This week’s congressional debate again demonstrates how the ultimate measure of the folly and hubris of the invasion of Iraq is the difficulty of extricating ourselves from it. Almost everyone wants to get out, but few responsible people know how and fewer still want to be responsible for whatever follows.
Despite the White House spin, Iraq never had any connection with the Sept. 11 attacks. Saddam Hussein didn’t launch the terrorists. There were no WMDs, no yellow cake from Niger. The media were suckered, as they’re being suckered again. Now, as the president says, Iraq is the central front in the war on terror. But we created that front.
For America it’s a costly and crippling diversion. As Congress parses the various reports on “progress” in Iraq, the president prepares to ask for yet another $200 billion for the war. That’s equal to nearly half of what America spends on schools or enough to provide basic health care for every uninsured American.
A conspiracy theorist might even think that it’s all a trick to head off more generous social spending at home — plotted either by conservatives in Washington or jihadists abroad. As the president says, the uninsured kids can always go to the hospital emergency rooms.
Even so, the war was fought on the cheap, with inadequate armor, underfunded, understaffed hospitals for the wounded and increasing demands on an ever more depleted military.
What our Iraq distraction has accomplished is to provide the Chinese, the Russians, the Iranians and the Saudis with room to expand their own powers and influence around the globe — in Africa, in the Middle East, in Latin America.
Afghanistan, now increasingly controlled by our former enemies, and Osama bin Laden, whom Bush was once going to get “dead or alive,” are nearly forgotten except when one of bin Laden’s tapes reminds us of his existence.
And, of course, we generously support our enemies. While the feds furiously pursue little medical marijuana dispensaries at home, the Taliban and Afghani warlords are growing record opium crops for heroin processing and shipment to America and Europe.
Our failure to reduce our insatiable thirst for imported oil keeps Middle East despots in business, buys weapons for terrorists — those not stolen from (or sold by) our supposed allies or out the back door by contractors — and finances the madrassas that teach hatred of the West.
It’s all familiar, from “Mission Accomplished” to the ever shrinking scope and shifting strategies of the mission: spreading democracy in the region, writing a new constitution, creating an effective national government in Baghdad, arranging compromises among Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, securing neighborhoods.
Our Constitution has taken a beating in warrantless wiretapping and other snoopery; in the extra-constitutional detention of alleged combatants; in the expansion of executive branch powers and the intimidation of Congress; in control and manipulation of information; and in the use of law enforcement for political ends. It would take a great deal more than one column to list the specifics.
You can’t entirely blame the Democrats for their timidity in not forcing the issue. Many of them voted for this war that is not a war without any historic precedent. There is no defined enemy — certainly none with whom we could make peace — nor is there any defined objective. Iraq after withdrawal, whenever it comes, may be more violent than it is now.
The “war on terror,” even after Iraq, may be a war without end. Because our military is depleted — another instance of collateral damage in Iraq — the Pentagon, no matter what Congress does, will have to reduce military forces in Iraq in the coming year: The surge has its own limits.
The most appealing alternative now would be courageous leadership that partitions Iraq, declares terrorism a criminal matter, re-engages the world as we haven’t for most of this decade and seeks to regain some of the influence and power that our economy, our former military strength and our historic institutions entitle us to. This is a dangerous world, but our confrontation with it in the past six years is no model for the future.
(Peter Schrag can be reached at pschrag(at)sacbee.com.)