August 02, 2007

The Iraq War as a Spectator Sport

A couple of Brookings Institution think tankers, Michael O'Hanlon and Ken Pollack, recently op-ed'ed a piece in the New York Times in which they cautiously described signs of progress in Iraq. This created quite a stir throughout the punditocracy. I have trouble, I confess, keeping the various think tanks straight, vis-a-vis their political leanings. I think the Heritage and Brookings outfits are on the conservative, neo-con side of things, whereas the Cato Institute is famous for simply being weird. Whatever, the two analysts were trashed by anti-war opinion-makers for daring to suggest anything could be going right, and the Right wing sound machine had a field day chortling about the vindication of the Decider's steadfast adherence to The Course.

O'Hanlon and Pollack pointed out, among their admittedly "anecdotal evidence and impressions," that the U.S. military sustained only 73 combat deaths during July, 2007. Naturally, thinkers from other tanks with a deeper grasp of statistics uncharitably pointed out that confining a data point to any 31-day period might produce an anomaly unrelated to general overall trends. For example, as if to mock the Heritage Twins, yesterday 6 GI's were boxed up and flown to Dover Air Force Base for their nocturnal appointment with oblivion. I can extrapolate from this that 31x6=186 GI's will die in Iraq during August, and my "analysis" is only slightly more flawed than these two important thinkers from the D.C. tank. Still, it's possible that things are quieter in some parts of Baghdad and Western Iraq, where such carnage and mayhem have prevailed before. I don't know, I doubt that these two war tourists really know, I doubt that anyone really has a composite picture of the situation in Iraq because it's simply too dangerous to try to compose one.

Yesterday the main Sunni bloc left al-Maliki's Iraq cabinet. Since the whole government is on vacation anyway, the effects of this defection probably won't be felt for a while. Anecdotal reports from Baghdad indicate that the citizenry can rely now upon about one hour of electricity a day. Given the mid-summer temperatures of 130 degrees, I imagine this is hellish. I once was in 116 degree heat in Phoenix, and it felt like living on a planet too close to the sun. Yet we had access to air conditioned theatres and malls which were chilled to Arctic conditions. I can't imagine what it's like to live in an inferno 14 degrees hotter without any relief possible. The women and children sleep outside at night, but the men must "sleep" inside, drenched in their own sweat, because of the fear of sectarian violence. The killing, the explosions, the torture, the mayhem, the fear all go on, maybe a little bit less some days, but always just around the corner.

So it seems a little hardhearted to begrudge the Iraqis some progress just because so many of us want Bush to be wrong about this as he has been wrong just about everything else. So we can win and he can lose. Although, in truth, how would he define a win at this point? We will spend, according to the Congressional Budget Office, at least $1 trillion because of this war. It seems probable that 5,000 GI's will be killed before we withdraw, and the number of wounded, many seriously, is obscured by the Bush Administration but is probably 5 times the number of killed. We don't know how many Iraqis have died, but no one has rigorously refuted the Johns Hopkins Lancet study which suggested, by extrapolation to the present, that probably 800,000 Iraqis have died as a direct consequence of the war. At least 10% of its former population of 25 million have been forced into exile in Syria, Jordan and other Arab states, or to other parts of Iraq.

So Iraq is a kind of game at this point. It's a spectator sport. Even if we've wrecked the country, shattered all hope of its eventual cohesion, killed or displaced millions of its people, what the liberals are worried about is that Iraq will calm down. And Bush is pouring in more troops and $250,000 every minute of every day in an effort to get Iraq to do just that. That's all that's left in America's monochromatic take on this nightmare. Will Iraq calm down? Not will it coalesce into a Jeffersonian democracy, not will it become a bulwark against Islamic extremism, not will it become a reliable oil partner for America -- those things have gone by the boards. They were FUBAR'ed years ago. Will Iraq calm down enough for America to declare victory, and for Bush to trumpet that his persistence paid off? I think that's where we are. That's how nuts it has all become.

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