December 11, 2006
The Time Is Now
By BOB HERBERT
On Wednesday, as if the release of the Iraq Study Group report needed some form of dramatic punctuation, 11 more American G.I.’s were killed in this misbegotten war that just about everyone, except perhaps the president, now sees as a complete and utter debacle.
Senator Gordon Smith, a Republican from Oregon who supported the war, delivered an emotional speech on the Senate floor Thursday evening in which he said:
“I, for one, am at the end of my rope when it comes to supporting a policy that has our soldiers patrolling the same streets in the same way, being blown up by the same bombs day after day. That is absurd. It may even be criminal. I cannot support that anymore.”
If the U.S. is ultimately going to retreat in Iraq, he said, “I would rather do it sooner than later. I am looking for answers, but the current course is unacceptable to this senator.”
The primary value of the Baker-Hamilton report is that it embodies, in clear and explicit language, the consensus that has emerged in the U.S. about the current state of the war. It’s not so much a blueprint for action as a recognition of reality.
“The level of violence is high and growing,” the report says. “There is great suffering, and the daily lives of many Iraqis show little or no improvement. Pessimism is pervasive.”
With the situation in Iraq deteriorating, and support for the war in the U.S. having all but collapsed, the only real question on the table is how long the U.S. is going to drag out its inevitable pullout of combat forces. And the inevitable moral question that is inextricably linked to that slowly evolving set of circumstances is how to justify the lives that will be lost between now and the final day of our departure.
There is something agonizingly tragic about soldiers dying in a war that has already been lost.
The scale of the debacle is breathtaking. According to the study group: “In some parts of Iraq — notably in Baghdad — sectarian cleansing is taking place. The United Nations estimates that 1.6 million are displaced within Iraq, and up to 1.8 million Iraqis have fled the country.”
Americans, including the members of the study group, continue to insist that the key to an American withdrawal over the next couple of years is the improvement of Iraqi security forces to the point where they can successfully step into the breach. That is a complete fantasy, as a reading of the study group’s own assessment of the Iraqi forces will attest.
The study group found that, among other things, the Iraqi Army units “lack leadership ... lack equipment ... lack personnel ... [and] lack logistics and support.”
“Soldiers are given leave liberally and face no penalties for absence without leave,” the report said. “Unit readiness rates are low, often at 50 percent or less.”
The report went on: “They lack the ability to sustain their operations, the capability to transport supplies and troops, and the capacity to provide their own indirect fire support, close-air support, technical intelligence and medical evacuation.”
Other than that, they’re fine.
So what’s next? The Bush administration has lost all of its credibility on the war. What is needed now are leaders with the courage to insist, perhaps at the risk of their reputations and careers, that it is wrong to continue sending fresh bodies after those already lost, to continue asking young, healthy American troops to head into the combat zone, perhaps for their third or fourth tour, to fight in a war the public no longer supports.
In a foreword to “The Best and the Brightest,” David Halberstam’s chronicle of the Vietnam fiasco, Senator John McCain wrote:
“It was a shameful thing to ask men to suffer and die, to persevere through god-awful afflictions and heartache, to endure the dehumanizing experiences that are unavoidable in combat, for a cause that the country wouldn’t support over time and that our leaders so wrongly believed could be achieved at a smaller cost than our enemy was prepared to make us pay.
“No other national endeavor requires as much unshakable resolve as war. If the nation and the government lack that resolve, it is criminal to expect men in the field to carry it alone.”
The United States lacks that resolve when it comes to Iraq. It is time to pull the troops out of harm’s way.