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    Middle East
     Apr 8, 2008
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The general and the trap
By Ira Chernus

It was supposed to be a "cakewalk". General David Petraeus would come to the US Congress on Tuesday, armed with his favorite charts showing that the "surge" had dramatically reduced violence in Iraq. He would earn universal acclaim for his plan to "pause" troop reductions from July until after the presidential election in November - the same plan that Republican John McCain counts on to help him win that election.

When it comes to Iraq, though, the George W Bush administration's cakewalks never seem to turn out as planned. The renewed violence of these past weeks in Iraq, and the prospect of more to come, gives war critics ample ammunition for a counterattack. The Democrats, including Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, may find it irresistible to assault the


general, and the president, with every argument they can muster in the hearings this week. However, a recent report suggests they may resist that impulse and treat the impact of the "surge" as an irrelevant issue.

Let's hope that report is right, because a debate focused on military success or failure is a trap, with Petraeus' testimony as the bait. After all, no debate in Congress will really be about the level of violence in Iraq. "Has the surge worked?" is just a symbolic way of asking: "Would you rather believe that America is a winner or a loser?" And in any battle over patriotic symbolism, the Republicans always seem to have the bigger guns.

So the Democrats would be smart to refuse the bait and insist that this is not an old-fashioned World War II-style conflict, where force can produce a clearcut winner. Then they could refocus the debate on two crucial truths: we have no right to be in Iraq; the sooner we get out, the sooner we can begin to heal the terrible damage the war has done to us here at home.

Decoding the battle over Iraq
It should have been obvious all along that the Republicans do not mean it literally when they claim that reducing violence in Iraq is their highest priority. It's not likely that too many of them care a whole lot about the killing and maiming of Iraqis. So when they speak so urgently about lower levels of violence, it's a coded way of saying something else; in fact, a lot of things.

For starters, "reduced violence" is a way to conjure up an image of American "success" in a war in which no real success (forget about "victory") is possible. The level of violence is the only concrete yardstick the administration has come up with to gauge the success of the "surge" - no small matter when a successful surge has become the prime symbol of achievement for US troops and so for the president's (and John McCain's) war policies. Because the Bush administration still hopes to sell its failing war to the public by turning it into a gripping story of winners and losers, "violence" has been its currency, its coin of the realm.

Since that story took hold, supporters of Bush's Iraq policy have insisted that violence there really has been subsiding, hence that his "surge" strategy has worked. When Democrats and other war critics rejected that claim, they sparked a battle over who has the right, and the proper criteria, to evaluate the surge and its post-surge effects. So violence-lowering success in Iraq also became a symbolic measure of the president's political success here at home.

In fact, the home front is key - as it has been for years. Bush came into office as the hero of the right, not because he had sworn to defeat terrorism (that didn't start until September 11, 2001), but because he had sworn to defeat 1960s-style liberalism and "secular humanism". For conservatives the war in Iraq, the "war on terrorism", and the political and cultural wars at home have all been symbols of the same long-term struggle against trends they see undermining the fabric of American society.

By choosing McCain to lead their troops in presidential battle, Republicans have voted with their feet. In effect, they have decided to make all their cherished battles hinge on the battle over Iraq policy and the "surge".

When McCain talks about Iraq, his words always point up the symbolic nature of the battle there. He offers no reasonable idea of who we are fighting or why. In fact, on the occasions when he brings the matter up, he seems remarkably confused about the actual cast of characters in that country. As a result, he can offer no sensible outline of what "victory" in Iraq might mean.

Since McCain's talk about the war is really a code, it makes perfect sense to feature that Bush-era bogeyman, al-Qaeda, as our main enemy in Iraq. Al-Qaeda, after all, is "the terrorists" and we are always fighting "the terrorists". It makes no less sense, in his symbolic universe, to insist that al-Qaeda terrorists are being trained in Iran, a country whose leadership is deeply hostile to that organization. All enemies are interchangeable, because all are merely symbols of a vaguely defined sense of uncontrolled evil, which is said to threaten America's security and moral virtue at home and abroad.

Bush was supposed to defeat that evil. He has obviously failed. Now, conservatives pin their hopes on a new champion whose mantra is: "no surrender".

American 'stability'
In addition to "reduced violence", the "surge" and "no surrender", the Republicans wield another symbol of America as a righteous winner: the goal of achieving "stability" in Iraq. It may be the most seductive image of all, because it exerts a strong appeal across the political spectrum.

Five years ago, when American forces quickly dismantled Iraqi society, liberal as well as conservative pundits announced that it was up to our forces to restore "stability" - as if the Iraqis themselves had wrought the chaos from which we were to rescue them. Though the American military did most of the destabilizing in Iraq, this historical fact was set aside in favor of the hoary myth that America is invariably a force for good, uniquely dedicated and qualified to bring order out of chaos around the world.

War - righteous, courageous and ultimately victorious - has always been a central theme in the American myth of stability. Pollsters still take that myth for granted, and reinforce it, when they ask pointed questions like: "How would you say things are going for the US in its efforts to bring stability and order to Iraq?" or "Should the US maintain its current troop level in Iraq to help secure peace and stability, or reduce its number of troops?"

Vietnam dealt this mythology a near-fatal blow. Nearly four decades later, at a time when conservatives, moderates, and even many liberals worry about all sorts of forces that seem to threaten the nation's cohesion and moral fiber, reviving a cherished national 

Continued 1 2 

Presidential paths diverge over terror focus (Apr 5, '08)

Muqtada out of step in Shi'ite dance (Apr 5, '08)

1. Iran torpedoes US plans for Iraqi oil

2. Another bar of golden idiots

3. Renewed urgency to rein in North Korea

4. Muqtada out of step in Shi'ite dance

5. The East, no the West,
is (in the) red

6. A conspiracy against gold

7. India lays out a red carpet for Myanmar

8. Pyongyang shoots itself in the foot

9. The day the US declared war on Iran

10. BOOK REVIEW: A neo-con in the works

(Apr 4-6, 2008)


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