Political Football

Imagine Iraq as a football game. It’s late in the fourth quarter. Coach George W. Bush is looking at a grim situation on the field. He has just told quarterback Don Rumsfeld to hit the showers, and now he is sending in the new boy, Bob Gates. Several other team members have been sidelined. The clock is ticking. The current strategy doesn’t seem to be working, but Coach Bush is reluctant to try something new.

But wait! A group of influential football experts has been huddling over by the despondent cheerleaders. These experts have drafted a new strategy. With much fanfare, they send it over to the coach. He reads it. And announces that’s it no good. The experts have sent him a recipe for failure. Sure, the score is bad. The other team, though disorganized, seems about to seize the day. No matter: Coach Bush believes that he can rally the boys to win, even at this late hour.

Iraq is far more complicated than a football game, and it’s absurd to look at the war in such a “win or lose” way. But President Bush, in his first comments on the Iraq Study Group report last week, did just that by talking principally of “failing” or “prevailing.” He is in the prevail camp; the naysayers are in the fail camp.

What does “prevail” mean in the Bush lexicon? To establish democracy in Iraq. But the Iraq Study Group emphasizes regional stability, not democracy. As a result, the country’s head coach doesn’t want to change game plans, admit defeat, pull back. The recommendations of the bipartisan advisers are, according to the Bush team, “impractical.” The far Right has practically condemned the group as traitors (or, as the New York Post dubbed them, “surrender monkeys”). So, forget about withdrawal within 15 months. Forget about direct talks with Syria and Iran. Forget about dealing squarely with the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Before becoming the governor of Texas, Bush’s major claim to fame was his ownership of a sports team. Perhaps this experience imprinted on him the “us versus them” and “win or lose” dichotomies of thinking. While the realists of the Iraq Study Group consider the Middle East balance of power and the peace movement focuses on the human tragedies of the war, the Bush administration has somehow conflated the conflict in Iraq with Knute Rockne: All American, that old Ronald Reagan film about the Notre Dame coach who “wins one for the Gipper.” In the world of sports, winning is everything.

No Radical Departure

And who exactly are these “surrender monkeys”? The Iraq Study Group (ISG) is by no means a coven of radicals. There’s Edwin Meese of Iran-Contra fame. Former secretary of defense and current Hoover Institution fellow William Perry recommended a preemptive strike against North Korea this last summer. Lawrence Eagleburger, a director of Halliburton, served as Bush Sr.’s secretary of state during the first Gulf War and showed little regard for atrocities committed in Serbia in the early 1990s. It is a testament to how far the Bush team has pushed the foreign policy agenda rightward that the five Democrats and five Republicans in the ISG have become the voices of moderation.

Make no mistake: the ISG is not proposing any substantial change in U.S. policy. The report, write FPIF contributor Phyllis Bennis and FPIF policy outreach director Erik Leaver, “is not aimed at ending that U.S. presence. It is very clear that the Baker-Hamilton team does not propose a diminishing of U.S. efforts to control Iraq; the focus is very much on supporting (and keeping in power) the current U.S.-backed government and its army, despite the fact that neither institution reflects much of the national consciousness and accountability, let alone legitimacy, that the report claims to want.”

And yet, even though the Iraq Study Group is no bunch of radicals and their suggestions are no major departure in U.S. strategic thinking, the president is reluctant to take their advice. This could be a result of stubbornness. More charitably, it could be “conviction” or “resolve.”

FPIF columnist Conn Hallinan sees a much darker reason for the U.S. president’s refusal to change. Bush’s tragic flaw, he argues, is a form of madness, the same madness that drove U.S. policy in Vietnam. When faced with significant resistance, Washington’s approach in both cases was to call for more force: more bombing, more troops, more “pacification.”

This particular form of madness thrives in the dark. The concentration of power in the executive branch over the last six years has been unprecedented, and it has directed more and more of U.S. foreign policy to be conducted in secret. The administration has even developed its own constitutional interpretation—the “sole organ” doctrine—that justifies expanded warmaking powers and eavesdropping authority.

“Supremacy facilitates secrecy, and secrecy facilitates supremacy,” writes FPIF contributor Robert Pallitto in Secrecy and Foreign Policy. “Nonetheless, there are strong reasons not to acquiesce. The practice of constitutional interpretation supports neither the ‘sole organ’ doctrine nor the vast presidential secrecy practiced by the Bush administration. They both threaten the balance of powers when they are employed.”

For a personal story of the consequences of this abuse of power, read FPIF contributor John Cavanagh’s op-ed in the Christian Science Monitor on the case of Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen detained by U.S. officials and sent to Syria to be tortured—all on the basis of misleading and error-filled evidence.

Iran and Lebanon

U.S. attempts to establish—or impose—democracy in Iraq has been just one of the multiple failures Washington has encountered in the Middle East. For instance, the situation in Lebanon, FPIF’s Middle East editor Stephen Zunes reports, is deteriorating. Despite its rhetoric of democracy promotion, the United States supported Israel in this summer’s war in Lebanon and has offered comparatively little in post-conflict reconstruction aid, neither of which has done much to strengthen democracy there.

As for Iran, Conn Hallinan argues in a second piece this week, the United States remains poised to attack. “The political decision to take on Iran depends on a number of factors,” he writes. “Washington continues to focus on extracting U.S. troops from Iraq. And a resolution of the Iraq debacle requires some regional approach that includes dealing with the Israel-Palestine conflict. The Dems, in other words, have a choice. They can get sucked into the war that the administration wants with Iran. Or they can put forward a bold alternative that can not only prepare for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq but restabilize the Middle East as well.” Hallinan is not sanguine about which way the Dems will go.

More FPIF Features

In a new contribution to the Youth and Activism department, FPIF contributors Roxanne Lawson and Tim Newman describe the broad-based, transnational campaign to stop the Firestone rubber company from using child labor, despoiling the environment, and failing to provide adequate safety for workers in its rubber-tapping and processing facilities in Liberia.

From Sri Lanka, FPIF contributor Fred Abrahams sends us a postcard that depicts a mother holding the photo of her son. With a renewal of armed conflict in that country, the problem of child soldiers has returned, but this time the government is complicit in the abductions.

In Haiti and four other impoverished Latin American countries, the Inter-American Development Bank is considering a reduction of the countries’ mountainous debt. But as FPIF contributors Debayani Kar and Tom Ricker report, the Bank may be backtracking from its promise of full debt cancellation.

And finally, Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet died on Sunday. Although Pinochet managed to escape both the courtroom and the prison cell, as FPIF contributor Sarah Anderson writes in TomPaine.com, “the lessons of the three decades of struggle to hold him accountable will inspire human rights advocates around the world for many years to come.”