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Tuesday, 28 November 2006 02:56

Michael Winship: Throwing Iraq into Reverse

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by Michael Winship

You probably know that joke about the only way for a country music song to have a happy ending.

Play it backwards. You're let out of prison, your wife returns, the dog comes back to life and your pickup gets fixed.

I've been feeling that way the last few months working on a documentary about Iraq. We have hours of home video shot by a Baghdad cab driver who worked as a translator for a western news crew. The tapes start just a couple of days before the war began and continue over months and months of the American occupation.

I can easily conjure up what sounds like a happy ending. All I have to do is back up to a tape dated, say, May 28, 2003 -- four weeks after President Bush's "Mission Accomplished" speech -- and there's our taxi driver saying, "I think the future of Iraq will be very good... If disagreements and divisions will not occur and factions unite to form a free democratic country, all good will come."

Of course, soon the situation went straight to hell. The driver's seven-year-old daughter just missed becoming the victim of a suicide bomber. There's little power or water. His cab, and therefore, his livelihood, has been destroyed, collateral damage from a terrorist attack. These days, he's afraid to go out with his digital minicam for fear of being thought a spy or tool of the coalition and marked for assassination. In fact, he barely leaves his house at all anymore.

While we enjoyed Thanksgiving and its attendant turkey and pumpkin pie, last Thursday saw the bombing deaths of more than 200 in Baghdad's Sadr City, the worst attack on Iraqis since the invasion began. The week was the bloodiest of the Iraq war. And the length of our presence there surpassed the duration of our involvement in World War II.

(Dick Cheney to George Stephanopoulos Sunday on ABC, "Well, George, I think the analogy to World War II is just not a valid analogy. It's just a totally different set of circumstances." Stephen Colbert skewered this Monday night on his show with a montage of administration and GOP officials making that very comparison.)

The White House remains in denial when it comes to comparing the current nightmare to other conflicts. They won't even admit that Iraq's in a state of civil war. Heck, now even NBC News is using the phrase, but apparently the Bush administration is waiting until the Sunnis and Shiites set siege to Gettysburg or torch Atlanta.

In a Sunday New York Times analysis Edward Wong wrote, "In the United States, the debate over the term rages because many politicians, especially those who support the war, believe there would be domestic political implications to declaring it a civil war. They fear that an acknowledgment by the White House and its allies would be seen as an admission of a failure of President Bush's Iraq policy.

"They also worry that the American people might not see a role for American troops in an Iraqi civil war and would more loudly demand a withdrawal."

Comparisons to Vietnam also are considered odious and yet, according to Friday's Los Angeles Times, "New tactics favored by US commanders in Iraq borrow heavily" from that war.

"The tactics -- an influx of military advisors and a speeded-up handover to indigenous forces followed by a gradual US withdrawal -- resemble those in place as the US effort in Vietnam reached its end."

But as a Vietnam veteran, Nebraska Republican Senator Chuck Hegel, wrote Sunday in a Washington Post op-ed, "The time for more US troops in Iraq has passed. We do not have more troops to send and, even if we did, they would not bring a resolution to Iraq. Militaries are built to fight and win wars, not bind together failing nations. We are once again learning a very hard lesson in foreign affairs: America cannot impose a democracy on any nation -- regardless of our noble purpose."

In just a few days, we'll have the preliminary report of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, headed by James Baker and Lee Hamilton. But whether the president will pay it heed remains in doubt. He also has asked for reports from the joint chiefs and the National Security Council, and, as Monday's Times reported. "Mr. Bush spent 90 minutes with commission members in a closed session at the White House two weeks ago 'essentially arguing why we should embrace what amounts to a "stay the course" strategy,' said one commission official who was present."

Dan Froomkin, author of the Washington Post's essential White House Briefing blog, quotes journalist Mark Danner in the current issue of the New York Review of Books. Of the Iraq quagmire, Danner writes that, "Faced with such complexity, and determined to have their war and their democratic revolution, the President and his counselors looked away. Confronted with great difficulties, their answer was to blind themselves to them and put their faith in ideology and hope -- in the dream of a welcoming landscape, magically transformed."

Sheer fantasy. Perhaps the president is searching for a country music solution. Run it in reverse and it all comes out just fine.


Copyright 2006 Messenger Post Newspapers

Michael Winship, Writers Guild of America Award winner and former writer with Bill Moyers, writes a weekly column for the Messenger Post Newspapers in upstate New York.