Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Talking about that other place

Peter Van Buren was a Provincial Reconstruction Team leader for the U.S. Department of State in Iraq, and he speaks with some authority when he says that the "diplomatic" presence in Iraq after the military withdrawal at the end of the year -- if that indeed happens -- will be in effect a continuing, and expensive, occupation.  An excerpt from TomDispatch:

... the [State] Department has requested $6.3 billion for Iraq. Congress has yet to decide what to do. To put these figures in perspective, the State Department total operating budget for this year is only about $14 billion (the cost of running the place, absent the foreign aid money), so $6.3 billion for one more year in Iraq is a genuine chunk of change.
How Does It End?
Which only leaves the question of why.
Pick your forum -- TomDispatch readers at a kegger, Fox news pundits following the Palin bus, high school students preparing to take SATs, unemployed factory workers in a food-stamp line -- and ask if any group of Americans (not living in official Washington) would conclude that Iraq was our most important foreign policy priority, and so deserving of our largest embassy with the largest staff and largest budget on the planet.
Does Iraq threaten U.S. security? Does it control a resource we demand? (Yes, it’s got lots of oil underground, but produces remarkably little of the stuff.)  Is Iraq enmeshed in some international coalition we need to butter up? Any evil dictators or WMDs around? Does Iraq hold trillions in U.S. debt? Anything? Anyone? Bueller?
Eight disastrous years after we invaded, it is sad but altogether true that Iraq does not matter much in the end. It is a terrible thing that we poured 4,459 American lives and trillions of dollars into the war, and without irony oversaw the deaths of at least a hundred thousand, and probably hundreds of thousands, of Iraqis in the name of freedom. Yet we are left with only one argument for transferring our occupation duties from the Department of Defense to the Department of State: something vague about our “investment in blood and treasure.”
Think of this as the Vegas model of foreign policy: keep the suckers at the table throwing good money after bad. Leaving aside the idea that “blood and treasure” sounds like a line from Pirates of the Caribbean, one must ask: What accomplishment are we protecting?
The war’s initial aim was to stop those weapons of mass destruction from being used against us. There were none, so check that off the list. Then it was to get rid of Saddam. He was hanged in 2006, so cross off that one. A little late in the game we became preoccupied with ensuring an Iraq that was “free.” And we’ve had a bunch of elections and there is a government of sorts in place to prove it, so that one’s gotta go, too.
What follows won’t be “investment,” just more waste. The occupation of Iraq, centered around that engorged embassy, is now the equivalent of a self-licking ice cream cone, useful only to itself.
Changing the occupying force from an exhausted U.S. Army that labored away for years at a low-grade version of diplomacy (drinking endless cups of Iraqi tea) to a newly militarized Department of State will not free us from the cul-de-sac we find ourselves in. While nothing will erase the stain of the invasion, were we to really leave when we promised to leave, the U.S. might have a passing shot at launching a new narrative in a Middle East already on edge over the Arab Spring.
Makes you think about the sheer role of inertia in human affairs...

Image:  The Baghdad embassy under construction.  It is strikingly like an Abbasid palace.

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