Tell Me How This Ends

Greg Mitchell of Editor & Publisher recalls a time when General David Petraeus was still capable of honesty. Referring to a New York Times Op-Ed by Boston University professor of history and international relations Andrew J. Bacevich, Mitchell writes:

What will end up being the most famous quote of the Iraq war? Remember, President Bush did not actually say “Mission Accomplished.” Perhaps Vice President Cheney’s “final throes” will take the prize. But increasingly, as the significance of Gen. David Petraeus grows (seemingly by the minute), it seems possible that it might up being his once-obscure 2003 remark to a well-known newspaper reporter: “Tell me how this ends.”

The quote was cited by Bacevich, who wrote:

The United States today finds itself with too much war for too few warriors. With the “surge” now giving way to a “pause,” the Iraq war has become an open-ended enterprise. American combat operations in Iraq could easily drag on for 10 more years, and a large-scale military presence might be required for decades, which may well break the Army while bankrupting the country. The pretense that there is a near-term solution to Iraq has become a pretext for ignoring the long-term disparity between military commitments and military capacity.

Bacevich wants an answer to Petraeus’s question. And no one else seems to be even asking it. Bacevich would also like Petraeus to explain approximately when the war ends, and how long our exhausted troops can continue to meet the demands being made of them, and how their strain will be alleviated.

But back to that old Petraeus quote, Mitchell writes:

Petraeus said that line when he was a Major General directing the 101st Airborne during the U.S. invasion but, for some, his testimony today before Congress suggested that he still did not have an answer to it.

Who did he say the five words to? The lucky recipient was Rick Atkinson, the Pulitzer Prize- winning reporter for The Washington Post and military historian. It shows up in in Atkinson’s book about the attack on Iraq, “In the Company of Soldiers.” which featured Maj. Gen. Petraeus as a key character.

In 2004, Atkinson praised the military performance of Petraeus and the troops, but believed they were better than the cause they served. As Atkinson explained:

“They took down a country the size of California in three weeks,” he pointed out, “but there was not much thought devoted to the question of what happens next. It’s astonishing how little thought was given.”

Of course, there’s still too little thought being given to what comes next. That’s the point.

McClatchy reports that even as Petraeus was asking for more time to destroy Iraq, the violence in Baghdad is again on the verge of erupting. Which is no surprise. So, tell me how this ends. Bush is trying to make it impossible for his successor to end the war. John McCain has no intention of ending the war, doesn’t think we need to end the war, belittles the idea of ending the war as irresponsible, and seems to have no problem with the idea of continuing to occupy Iraq forever. As previously noted, the army is worried about the rising stress of soldiers sent on return tours, but the corporate media would rather pretend the war doesn’t exist, and are working hard to ignore it.

Senate Democrats seem frustrated that there’s no sign of an end to the war, but Congress has done little to nothing to expedite one. And even Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton offer only partial plans, while the much-touted Democratic Responsible Plan to End the War in Iraq (pdf) retains the boondoggle (pdf) of an embassy, despite Bush’s now blocking inquiries into its staggering cost overruns, and specifically mentions retaining enough troops to protect it. John Edwards estimated that would require a brigade of some 3500 to 5000 personnel. I’ve seen no estimates that it would require less. And I’ve yet to hear a rationale from anyone as to why our Iraq embassy need be, as the previously linked articles show it will be, the largest in the world, at a currently estimated cost of over $1,200,000,000 per year. It seems to me that an honest withdrawal would mean leaving only a typical embassy with a typical embassy staff and a typical contingent of embassy guards. If maintaining an embassy in Iraq necessitates anything more, then we and Iraq are not ready for us to maintain an embassy there. To pretend otherwise is nothing less than to rationalize a continuation of the occupation.

So, tell me how this ends. As Gerard Baker of the conservative Times of London explains:

Republicans seem to suggest that the war is going so well that the US should simply stay indefinitely. But senior strategists close to Mr McCain acknowledge what many in the Pentagon are saying with increasing alarm – that the strains the war is placing on US military capabilities are so great that some significant reduction in the American role is essential some time soon.

At the same time, Democratic foreign policy advisers also admit that the chances that their candidate will be able to meet campaign promises and pull US forces out quickly next year – whatever the situation on the ground in Iraq – is equally absurd.

The reality is that, once the posturing is done and the election is over, whoever wins is going to have to sit down with General Petraeus or his successor – without the television cameras – and figure out a pragmatic resolution to this messy and prolonged American engagement.

And as I’ve previously written, even if that winner is the netroots favorite, the netroots are going to have to provide unrelenting pressure to push that winner to get honest and serious about doing what really needs be done. Because no one is yet being honest and serious. No one is really explaining how we really get out of Iraq.

Mitchell closes by asking this of Atkinson:

But what about the argument that leaving Iraq now would dishonor the soldiers who have died so far? “It’s not George Bush’s military,” he replied, “but the country’s as a whole, and the collective proprietorship means we collectively decide if it is used properly and the cause is worth their sacrifice–and whether that cause should be truncated or we stay there forever.”

The country as a whole has long been clear on that. The politicians never have been. Will someone please tell me how this ends?


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  1. about the toll on the Troops we are all supposed to support.

    As we all said at the time, it’s not a surge it is an open ended escalation.

    I wonder if after the primaries end if we will be able to ask tough questions of Obama re the war without being declared trolls.

  2. Will someone please tell me how this ends?

    The theory is that whoever is elected has a grand plan for

    getting out of this mess.  But until politics are removed

    there will be no end.  Someone is going to have to bite the

    bullet and make a bloody decision!!

  3. This is a great essay. Great research.

    I’ve said this before: it may not even be up to the next Democratic president to end the war. Strategically, Iran would be foolish to let us just walk away. Bush’s war has handed Iran a rare gift that they would not have been able to achieve on their own.

  4. …especially if the GOP smear machine somehow (God forbid) manages to put McCain in the Presidency.  And, no matter which candidate inherits bush’s folly, he/she will inherit a broken military.

  5. This, via Think Progress: Troops Back Pro-Withdrawal Candidates:

    “…Last month, Vice President Dick Cheney visited Iraq, where he vowed the U.S. would keep “a long-term military presence in Iraq until al-Qaida is defeated” there. The same day, a bomb killed two American soldiers outside of Bagdad, and a suicide bomber killed 43 Iraqis in Karbala…”

    “…Just after his visit, ABC correspondent Martha Raddatz spoke with soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan about their political preferences, and found that most of the soldiers she spoke to favored candidates who supported withdrawal from Iraq…”

    • robodd on April 10, 2008 at 1:19 am

    that we caused and that hasn’t even started yet.  Unless there is a financial crisis of such significance that we are compelled out.  Not good news in either case, I fear.

    • Viet71 on April 10, 2008 at 2:06 am

    like Iraq is a highschool debate topic.

    Or a topic for debate for college repubs and dems.

    Or a good topic for bored but well-educated Americans who have nothing, of course, at stake.

    Invading Iraq was a war crime.  Being there is a war crime.  Period.

  6. While the bush “administration” put their entire attention, money, and continue to sacrifice lives in Iraq, there are so many crises set to boil over, sooner rather than later:

    As pinche tejano informs us: The US Water Grid is Collapsing.

    Global Food Riots Break Out

    and Food Prices To Remain High For Now-More Riots Feared

    Most Economists say Recession has arrived (and most Americans-the ones not in the wealthiest 1%–would agree with that) And the fallout from the Housing bubble, etc is taking its toll on many Americans…

    Yet, all that the “bushies” seem to care about is squandering lives and money in Iraq-with no real interest in or plan for ending it all.  The Democrats are apparently so afraid of being seen as “soft on national security” that they’ve been all to willing to sacrifice national security by not standing up to the “bushies”, and by being afraid to say they’re willing to pull out of Iraq.  

  7. I think a great deal of thought has been given to this

    there’s still too little thought being given to what comes next

    It’s just that all the thought is about how to protect Junya and Deadeye and their obscene profits from war crimes tribunals and not how to rescue the 140,000 or so American soldiers (please note lower case, used generically in lieu of “troops”) imprisoned in Bush’s Mesopotamian Misadventure.

  8. we no longer have a need for their oil or whenever the empire is taken down, which ever comes first. In either case, it’s going to be a long time. McCain’s 100 years is probably in the ballpark.

    Cheney’s “So?” comment gets my vote. He flips the virtual bird to the American public and lets us see who really determines what our policy decisions are. Hint, it’s not the voters.

  9. The embassy in shambles.

    Buy a Boat.  Save the Seed.

  10. finally withdrew from Britain with they found themselves too extended, unable to control outbreaks on the borders in the north, They went home and the dark ages began and lasted about 800 years.

    Iraq is going to go through a dark ages of its own.

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