Blood on Our Hands

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By: Greg Mitchell

By now, the routine is not just appalling, but disgraceful. Some halfway positive event occurs in Iraq, the president urges patience while declaring strong progress, and editorial writers and pundits — from respected columnists such as Thomas Friedman to blowhard TV bobbleheads like Chris Matthews — suggest that surely things will turn around in the war in another six months.

Of course, this is exactly what they said six months ago, and six months before that, and six months before that.

It happened again in June, after the execution of al-Zarqawi and the forming of a new and possibly more stable government in Baghdad. This led to one of those periodic official promises of U.S. troop reductions within, you guessed it, another six months — vows which gained headlines and favorable notices, and then were quietly retracted a few days later, as usual.

Several leading commentators cried that President Bush had gotten his “swagger” back — as if this was a good thing.

And where are we now? Let’s turn the microphone over to the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay M. Khalilzad, who told the BBC on Tuesday that killing Zarqawi had not made Iraq safer. “In terms of the level of violence, it has not had any impact at this point,” Khalilzad said. “As you know, the level of violence is still quite high.”

That’s the understatement of the month.

On top of that, every week brings grim news of a new alleged U.S. atrocity — further inflaming the situation and guaranteeing that many more Americans will be killed in reprisals. How big a problem is this? The New York Times marvels today that Iraqis don’t seem all that enraged by the latest rape/massacre, which has resulted in charges brought against five U.S. troops. Because they think Americans are getting a bad rap? Hardly: “More than three years into the war, many Iraqis say they are are no longer surprised by abuses on the part of American troops.”

One more thing remains stupefying and typical: the refusal of newspaper editorial pages to protest above a whisper or support any kind of plan for withdrawal (slow, speedy or in-between). When the history of this war is written, this editorial lethargy will receive just as much condemnation as the faulty reporting on WMD before the war, I believe.

In case you are just back from a long weekend without your laptop: The central morgue in Baghdad said Tuesday that it had received 1,595 bodies last month, 16% more than in May and nearly double the total of the same period last year. The New York Times reports Wednesday that Baghdad “has slowly descended into a low-grade civil war in some neighborhoods, with Sunni and Shiite militias carrying out systematic sectarian killings that clear whole city blocks.” Even upper-class areas are now getting hit.

On Tuesday, gunmen dressed in army and police uniforms seized a top government minister and 19 of his bodyguards in Talbiya, in northern Baghdad. The Times added: “After Mr. Zarqawi was killed on June 7 in an American airstrike, a security plan was put into effect, with thousands of troops operating new checkpoints throughout the city, but it has had little effect….

“The morgue stank of bodies. Visitors burned paper and wood in the parking lot to mask the smell. The reception area was full with 40 Iraqis, mostly women, standing and sitting on the ground, waiting to look at bodies and photographs of bodies.”

So how did President Bush respond to all this on July 4? By posing with fighting men, enjoying the rockets’ red glare, and promising not to pull out of Iraq. But as Leonard Cohen once observed: “A scheme is not vision.”

Noting the death of Zarqawi, Bush said, “This moment, when the terrorists are suffering from the weight of successive blows, is not the time to call retreat. We will stay. We will fight. And we will prevail.” But who, one must ask, is “suffering from the weight of successive blows”?

Newspaper reporters in Iraq have provided honest, probing and tough-minded coverage of the occupation, despite the danger and others restrictions that hinder their work. But editorial writers and pundits back home have displayed only a fraction of the reporters’ courage. Instead they offer feeble faith in staying the course. When the Democrats finally forced the first real debate on withdrawal in Congress last month, few newspapers bothered to comment editorially — one way or the other. In a few months we will have been in Iraq as long as we were in World War II.

To quote Leonard Cohen again: “Why don’t you come on back to the war?/It’s just beginning.”

One deluded president plus an army of paralyzed editorialists = many more years of a war that is one big atrocity.


***

UPDATE:

Jim Godbold, associate editor of the The Register-Guard in Eugene, Ore., writes:

“I wholeheartedly agree with your column in today’s E&P online. Thanks for taking such a clear and unequivocal stand. I am astounded that the nation’s leading editorial boards and columnists (with the notable and inspiring exception of Bob Herbert) continue to find ways to rationalize an open-ended commitment in Iraq.

“I realize I don’t represent a major daily, but I do write editorials
for the second-largest daily in Oregon. Our editorial board opposed the
Iraq invasion from the get-go and we do not miss many opportunities to remind our readers that we must spare no effort to extricate ourselves from — to steal a beautiful phrase from Herbert — ‘the flaming quicksand of an unwinnable war.’

“Just to let you know there are medium-sized mainstream dailies out
there in the hinterlands trying to influence public opinion to end this
nightmare mistake. Thanks again for using your soapbox to speak to the profession about the most important topic in the nation today.”

Godbold attached four editorials from the paper in the past two weeks. Today’s editorial closes: “Even the generals admit a military victory in the shooting war is unlikely, and the battle for hearts and minds may already be hopelessly lost. The need to end this disastrous war and bring American troops home grows more urgent by the day.”

***

We’ve also been alerted to a June 23 editorial in the large circulation The Record of Bergen County, N.J. It called Sen. John Kerry’s proposal for setting a July 2007 deadline for U.S. withdrawal as the most sensible:

“As Mr. Kerry said, Iraqis have responded well to other deadlines the United States has set for elections and the writing of their constitution.
It’s clear once again that despite the recent milestones that President Bush points to – formation of the Iraqi government completed, the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi – the situation is scarcely improving, the violence is escalating, and American troops continue to die…. setting a deadline a year away is not cutting and running….But lawmakers in both parties seem more concerned about their own political futures than honestly and objectively debating U.S. policy in Iraq.”

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