Staying the Course

By Becky O'Malley
Friday June 20, 2014 - 10:33:00 AM

The only thing more boring than having someone say “I told you so” is wanting to say it yourself. The recent news from Iraq is excruciatingly predictable. I’d wager that there are not ten readers of today’s Berkeley Daily Planet who could not have predicted, before the first American soldier ever went into Iraq, that intervention would never work. Eleven years ago this spring I marched down Market Street in San Francisco with ten members of my extended family and about a hundred thousand other Northern Californians to tell the people in charge that they were making a big mistake—but did anyone listen? 

Even worse, it’s been 50 years—a half-century—since some of us in Ann Arbor started warning Americans that getting further involved in Vietnam was going to end badly. But did anyone listen? 

This week’s New York Times is full of the big machers like Nicholas Kristof (Harvard, Rhodes Scholar ….) falling all over themselves warning the U.S. not to get involved again. But where were they in the first place? Kristof, for one, backed the invasion, as did most of the Very Important People who had access to big media, and as their predecessors had backed U.S. involvement in Vietnam in the 1960s. 

When will they ever learn? Pete Seeger had it all figured out way back when, didn’t he? He told them and he told them, even turned it into a song, but they didn’t listen to him either. 

Another way of framing the question might be to ask how people with such lousy judgment continue to ascend to positions of power and influence in the United States. President Obama at the moment appears to have more sense than previous presidents, but he’s under a huge amount of pressure from the likes of Dianne Feinstein. However, he’s now announced that he’s sending in 300 “advisers”, an unfortunate choice of labels for those of us who remember the first advances into the Big Muddy which Vietnam turned out to be . The first Americans there were called advisers too. 

Yes, now we—whoever “we” are—can all be sure that Iraq is going to go to hell in a handbasket. There is no good alternative to recommend this time, is there? The current conflict is even more untenable than the previous ones. 

In Vietnam, the dispute was at least political, between two opposing groups with ideological rationales and Cold War allies to back up their positions. When the U.S. entered Iraq in 2003, the excuse then was that Saddam Hussein was a dictator, and the stated purpose of invading was to free the poor citizens from his undemocratic rule—dictatorship vs. democracy, an easy brand to sell. Oh sure, there was also the War on Terrorism, wasn’t there, never mind that the terrorists in question had nothing to do with Iraq. 

This time, however, it’s really an incomprehensible mixed bag. Much of the conflict in the Moslem world seems to be based in religion, and not just dogma, which would be bad enough, but different takes on historic events which happened hundreds of years in the past. 

(For a quick summary of the problem, click on Why Sunnis and Shiites are fighting, explained in two minutes

As I write this, I can’t stop compulsively checking my online news sources, trying to figure out if there’s any good way to support what appears to be the President’s intelligent impulse to steer clear of the internecine battles in the Middle East. Perusing the pundits, I’m forced to conclude that the remedy for the situation, if there is one, is for the regime of Nouri al-Maliki to extend an olive branch to the more reasonable Sunnis in Iraq, as well as to the ethnically different Kurds. But no one seems to think that’s likely to happen. 

And in the United States we have our own unreasonable or even irrational politicians, specifically members of Congress, primarily but not exclusively Republicans. Comfortably situated in Washington as they are, they cry out for military action, feeling no need to understand the facts on the ground in Iraq. 

My colleagues on this site, both regular columnists and Public Comment contributors, all seem to be as concerned as I am about the choices which face the administration in this crisis. The consensus seems to be that public support for President Obama’s apparent inclination to stay out of Iraq is needed, so I guess that’s what we’ll have to try to do.