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EDITORIAL, National Catholic Reporter, March 17, 2006

Bring the troops home

Iraq is spiraling downward toward total disaster.

As Jeff Severn Guntzel’s report in this week’s issue demonstrates, some of Iraq’s most valuable human assets -- its intellectuals and middle-class professionals, as well as large numbers of the poorer and less educated -- have left, perhaps for good, fleeing a deteriorating civil society and persistent, unpredictable violence.

Iraq was to be Exhibit A in the neoconservative scheme for projecting American power into the rest of the world at the start of the 21st century, the first stop on the way toward asserting U.S. authority and a new order in the Middle East. As if the Middle East had not had enough tampering by the West in the last century.

Save for an initial invasion against a military force that was obviously uninspired, ill-equipped and disorganized, little has gone well. That is not surprising. The military mission in Iraq has been hard to define, based from the outset on manipulated intelligence and false claims as well as the absurd belief that a force trained to destroy could also build a civil society.

Once it was clear no weapons of mass destruction existed, the reason for the invasion moved quickly among the stacked up justifications. We were removing a dictator, protecting oil fields, spreading democracy, fighting terrorists connected to 9/11 (a tough sell, persistent as Vice President Cheney was, since Iraq really had nothing to do with 9/11) and later just fighting terrorists (who have, since the war has gone badly, found Iraq to be a land of great opportunity).

All the differences notwithstanding, Iraq in many ways has become the Vietnam of the new century: An enemy difficult to find or to describe, a land difficult to bring under control, a cause difficult to articulate, a war that really can’t be won in any conventional sense.

The exodus from Vietnam occurred mostly by boat, with the middle class often held up for every cent by government extortionists before being allowed to escape.

In Iraq, the exodus is to nearby countries, where a semblance of security might be found, often after shadowy kidnappers have extorted what wealth might still exist.

This page has opposed the war all along, arguing that the country was already under severe stress from the initial invasion and more than 10 ensuing years of bombing and severe sanctions; that as bloody as Saddam was, he was not singular, or particularly dangerous to the outside, as dictators go; that the world had agreed to sanctions and to maintaining pressure on the regime; that the inspectors had found no weapons of mass destruction; that the country’s military and infrastructure had been virtually destroyed by our previous and ongoing military operations; and that undesirable as Saddam was, Iraq in many ways represented the most progressive and least religiously extreme Arab country in the Middle East.

Even so, we were willing to consider the arguments of those who said that any quick retreat prior to establishing some semblance of reliable security would simply set up the conditions for civil war and utter anarchy. That rationale, however, becomes less convincing by the week.

The increase in sectarian violence, the apparent ease with which assassins operate and with which arms and personnel flow into and around the country and the growing pressure from inside the United States and among its few allies to bring home the troops all make it unlikely that the struggle in Iraq will come to a clean conclusion any time soon.

With public confidence steadily declining in the administration’s approach both to Iraq and the wider, ill-defined war on terror, it also is unlikely that U.S. citizenry will support the drain in lives and treasury required to maintain any substantial presence in Iraq.

The invasion of Iraq, hindsight clearly shows, was ill-conceived, based on false premises and lacking consideration of deep cultural forces that are not easily assuaged by the Bush vision of democracy. What began more than a decade and a half ago as a clear campaign to protect access to oil resources in the region has drifted from purpose to violent purpose over the years.

Iraq is in tatters, and the United States doesn’t have the money or troops necessary to lock down or secure an entire country for the foreseeable future. It is time to articulate a clear path of disengagement. It is time to bring our kids home, to stop throwing more of them at a desperate fight for unclear purposes.

National Catholic Reporter, March 17, 2006

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