Desperate Houseflies: The Magazine

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Thursday, March 29, 2007

War and Peace, sans Tolstoy

In the recent (and no doubt soon to be revived) debate over the House and Senate Iraq funding bills, all the heat was centered on the bills' inclusion of a timetable for withdrawing from Iraq.

The argument against a timetable was, as best I can tell, two-fold: we don't want the enemy to know what our timetable is, and Congress should leave the timetable-setting to our commanders in the field. The first one I'll readily grant. I don't love the fact that the timetable in these bills is public. It's far from ideal.

The second argument sounded reasonable at first, until I started thinking about it. Then it made no sense at all. When it comes to tactical planning and even in-theater strategic planning, yes, absolutely, the commanders in the field should be making the decisions. But the beginnings and endings of wars are always political decisions, and -- except in military dictatorships -- they're always made by civilian politicians. Civilian politicians decide when a war will start, and they must also be the ones to decide when it will end.

According to the logic of the GOP's argument, once a war has been started, the American people can't stop it. No one can stop it except "the commanders in the field," because no one can decide when it will end except those commanders; and if you can't decide when a thing will end, you can't decide that it will end. Not even the Pentagon brass or the commander-in-chief could end it, since they aren't in the field. That's not a tenable position for a democracy to be in. The military works for the civilians. It goes when the civilians say go, and it stops when the civilians say stop. In between, the military commanders should be predominantly in control; but those two endpoints are completely the purview of the civilians.

So not only can Congress decide when a war will end (whether instantly or on a timetable), they must. Ultimately, it's their responsibility. Some, particularly on the right, argue that, no, this is all up to the president, who's in charge of foreign policy and is commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Personally, I have a hard time squaring that broad reading of presidential powers with Article I of the Constitution.

Regardless, the GOP acknowledges that Congress can end a war at any time when it points out that Congress can, of course, simply cut off the funding. But that then invalidates their "commanders in the field" argument against having a timetable. If Congress simply cuts off the funding instantly and immediately, like turning off a faucet, it's imposing a timetable: get everybody out right now. And if Congress can impose that timetable -- one that endangers our soldiers -- surely it can impose another -- one that doesn't. Put differently, if it can cut the funding all at once and leave everybody in the lurch, it can also say, "We're going to cut the funding by 30% on such-and-such a date, another 30% by such-and-such later date, and zero it out on such-and-such still later date. Commanders, plan your withdrawal accordingly." Should the commanders have input into those dates? Absolutely. Should they decide them? Absolutely not.

The GOP knows all this, of course. They don't really mean what they say (one hopes). All they want is to force the congressional Democrats into a false dichotomy: either cut off the funds precipitously and get a lot of our soldiers killed, or just sign the checks and butt out until we're ready to impose a timetable.

I've stated my position on the Iraq War here before. I think it was, at best, an obvious and horribly foolhardy mistake, but now that we're there, we should fight to win. So I have mixed feelings about the House and Senate bills. I would be fully opposed to them if not for the fact that it's clear to me that we, as a nation, are not going to commit fully to this fight. Not even the people who led us into it are fully committed to it. That being the case, I grudgingly lean slightly toward thinking the best course probably is to get out.

But regardless of what I think about this particular war, it's important to remember that, in America, war and peace are always political decisions. Not military ones.


Blogger Michael Lasley said...

I agree that these are political decisions. The problem with our leaders -- both sides -- is it's more important, seemingly, to win a political battle than win a "just" war. I think the GOP attacks are, as you say, misleading -- in that they set up the false dichotomy that you mention. I hate the rhetoric of: they don't support our troops. (Especially since our troops have supposedly been under-funded for quite some time under GOP leadership in Congress -- having to scrap together armor for their vehicles and whatnot -- and not getting good treatment for injuries when they get home and whatnot).

I guess the question is still: is it in our nation's best interest to withdraw? Both safety-wise and is-it-the-right-thing-to-do-since-Iraq-seems-extremely-unstable-and-might-be-in-need-of-some-help-wise.

9:54 PM  
Blogger Al Sturgeon said...

Excellent post (and comment, too, Mikey).

It is my opinion that our original invasion will have long-lasting negative consequences - no matter what we do now.

My second opinion is that staying as we are now carries no positives either (and, as Juvenal states, his option of huge increases in miitary troops isn't even an option to consider right now).

My third opinion (considering the first two) is to get out for the rather important reason that fewer people die.

5:39 AM  
Blogger juvenal_urbino said...

is it in our nation's best interest to withdraw?

Probably not, but it's in the best national interest that our recent and current leadership is willing to act on.

get out for the rather important reason that fewer people die

Fewer Americans, anyway. I don't think anybody really knows how it would affect Iraqi casualties. It seems likely they would see a spike in casualties, but how big a spike or how long it would last or what would happen after that or what would've happened if the Americans had stayed longer -- those are all unknowables. So it's impossible to say whether this plan or that plan will lead ultimately to greater or fewer Iraqi casualties.

Having reached the conclusion that the best, politically available option for America is to withdraw, that's the main thing that gives me pause: what will happen to the Iraqis, whose country we broke? We certainly owe them something, but what? Is all the time, blood, and money we've poured in there thus far enough?

I don't have satisfying answers when I ask myself those questions. About the only thing I'm sure of is that if it's even possible to spare the Iraqis from further suffering, the Iraqis are the only ones who can do it.

1:34 PM  
Blogger Michael Lasley said...

ed36g2Great point, JU -- about Iraqi's having to stop the suffering themselves. We need to do whatever we can, I think, to help fix the problems there. Just because it's the right thing to do. But, I don't think the answer is a military one.

3:02 PM  
Blogger Stoned-Campbell Disciple said...

I suppose one question might be "what would 'victory' look like in this context?"

And I agree we owe the Iraqi people something. But what is it? Perhaps simply peace.

One other minor question: When do the kingdom's interests trump those of America?

Bobby Valentine

3:39 PM  
Blogger Al Sturgeon said...

You're right, JU. I don't really know if our getting out would mean fewer people die or not, but it seems to me that standing there with guns while violence protesting our standing there occurs every day - well, getting out seems at least to give a shot for fewer people dying. The status quo isn't so hot.

Here's how I see it: suppose I break into a house uninvited & make a mess of the house. Let's say my intentions were pure, and I feel really bad about making such a mess. There comes a time where it's in everyone's best interest for me to get out of the house & try to help from outside instead of inside. Maybe I can hire some people to go in and clean up, and maybe the day comes when everyone invites me back in, but for now I just need to get out. I can still care.

I think Bobby's middle question may be the most interesting: what do we "owe" the Iraqi people?

From an "America" standpoint, I'd be interested in hearing some answers. Because I think the literal answer is "nothing." America is a nation admittedly self-interested, so we don't owe anyone anything (unless it benefits us somehow). As a nation, that is...

Now when you bring up "kingdom" thinking, that's a different story. Maybe we could bring the military soldiers home and send in Christians (if the Iraqi people would have us). Not the NRA Christians, mind you, but the ones willing to lay down their lives for others. Like Jesus.

7:22 PM  

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