If the latest polls are to be believed, the Republican frontrunner is John McCain, who favors continuing the Iraq War for decades if not centuries, and the leading Democrat is Hillary Clinton, who voted to give George W. Bush the power to start the misadventure in 2002 and remained a staunch war supporter until the eve of Campaign 2008.

In Congress, the Democrats appear so spooked about being accused of “partisanship” that they have replaced their periodic little white flags of surrender to President Bush on Iraq with a permanent large one. For his part, Bush is on his own personal victory lap of the Middle East, hailing the success of his “surge.”

In the U.S. news media, the Washington Post’s editorial page, which beat the drums early and often for invading Iraq, is not only still run by the same neoconservative writer, Fred Hiatt, but is still baiting those who “refuse to acknowledge progress in Iraq,” much as the Post ridiculed and marginalized early war opponents.

At the New York Times, publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. sought out and recruited prominent neoconservative writer William Kristol to bolster the op-ed ranks of other Iraq War enthusiasts, David Brooks and Thomas L. Friedman. (Sulzberger’s reputed first choice, Charles Krauthammer, was already locked up by the Washington Post.)

So, even though the neocons (and their political/media fellow travelers) deceptively maneuvered the United States into possibly the worst national security debacle in the nation’s history (or acquiesced to the catastrophe), they pretty much have avoided any real accountability and have a good chance of dodging any in the future.

In one of his first Times op-eds, Kristol followed the lead of the Post’s Hiatt in pounding the new drum of neocon triumphalism by mocking Democratic presidential candidates for failing to recognize the great “leadership of … George W. Bush” and praise his courageous “surge” policies.

Kristol took particular pleasure in hoisting war critics on their own petard by suggesting that it is the neocons who respect objective reality and it is the war opponents who are living in a fantasy world.

Though the neocons promoted the deadly falsehoods about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein’s fictional collaboration with al-Qaeda, Kristol charged that Sen. Barack Obama’s “view of the current situation in Iraq is out of touch with reality.”

Kristol took particular aim at Obama’s argument that it was the Iraqi perception of likely Democratic victories, which could herald a U.S. withdrawal, that encouraged the various Iraqi factions (both Shiite and Sunni) to tamp down their internecine violence and prepare for a post-occupation struggle without an American presence.

Kristol rejected this Obama argument, ironically by citing the pre-surge September 2006 agreement between U.S. commanders and Sunni tribal leaders, who turned against extremist al-Qaeda elements before the Democrats won control of Congress in November 2006. [NYT, Jan. 14, 2008]

(Kristol’s point, however, unintentionally undercut the importance of Bush’s troop “surge,” which wasn’t announced until January 2007.)

Why the Drop-off in Casualties

Though there is some logic behind Obama’s argument, other factors also played into the drop-off of casualty figures since summer 2007.

For one, the United States backed away from the aggressive tactics that were pursued during the early months of the “surge” and that led to a politically unacceptable spike in the U.S. death toll. (That spike made 2007 the deadliest year since the U.S. invasion in 2003 and helped push the total of U.S. dead to almost 4,000, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed.)

In effect, U.S. commanders accepted a de facto armistice on large-force movements against nationalistic Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias linked to radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Even risky Special Forces operations were curtailed, according to well-placed U.S. intelligence sources.

By summer 2007, U.S. forces in Iraq were relying increasingly on remote-controlled Predator drones, high-tech optical devices for detecting night-time movements, and low-risk air strikes to kill suspected insurgents, much like the tactics that Israel uses against Hamas militants in Gaza.

During the early phase of the “surge,” U.S. forces also detained “military age males” on the slightest suspicions. The mass detentions took many so-called MAMs off the streets and built up an Iraqi biometric data base (now exceeding one million people) for future field access by mobile satellite hookups.

A leading Pentagon weapons designer, Anh Duong, explained how the biometric data would help the war effort. “A war fighter needs to know one of three things: Do I let him go? Keep him? Or shoot him on the spot?” Duong told the Washington Post. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Mobile Labs Target Iraqis for Death.”]

Even before these mobile satellite hookups began to be brought online this year, U.S. forces were applying loose “rules of engagement” that allowed them to kill Iraqis on the slightest indication they might be insurgents, a reality that rarely gets front-page attention in the U.S. media, except as an afterthought.

For instance, a New York Times investigation cited 121 cases of veterans from the Iraq and Afghan wars returning home and then being implicated in killing other Americans. The article evinced sympathy for these stressed-out U.S. soldiers, but a secondary element of the article was that some were wracked by guilt for having killed innocent Iraqis.

Seth Strasburg of Arnold, Nebraska, who pleaded guilty to manslaughter in connection with a drunken New Year’s Eve shooting in 2005, recounted how in 2004, west of Mosul in Iraq, he was posted in an abandoned bus and assigned to look for Iraqis who might be planting roadside bombs.

When Sgt. Strasburg saw an Iraqi man looking for something in the dirt and then dragging a sack toward the road, he radioed the information to his superiors. Strasburg told the Times: “They said, ‘Whatever, use your discretion.’ So I popped him.”

It turned out the sack contained nothing but gravel. “I reported the kill to the battalion,” Strasburg said. “They said, you know, ‘Good shot. It’s legal. Whatever. Don’t worry about it.’ After that, it was never mentioned. But, you know, I had some issues with it later.” [NYT, Jan. 13, 2008]

Successful Repression

Another little-acknowledged factor in the supposed success of Bush’s “surge” is that repression – if inflicted brutally enough over a long period – can work. Throughout history, conquerors have achieved dominance over other people by engaging in mass slaughters or by inflicting severe economic deprivations.

Eventually, much of the population succumbs and accepts foreign control, even if some nationalist elements continue to resist.

That appears to be where President Bush is headed on Iraq as he tours the Middle East claiming vindication for his “surge” strategy.

“A lot of people thought that I was going to recommend pulling out [of Iraq] or pulling back,” Bush said while visiting Camp Arifjan, a U.S. base in Kuwait. “Quite the contrary, I recommended increasing the number of forces so they could get more in the fight, because I believed all along if people are given a chance to live in a free society, they’ll do the hard work necessary to live in a free society. …

“There is no doubt in my mind that we will succeed. There is no doubt in my mind when history is written, the final page will say: ‘Victory was achieved by the United States of America for the good of the whole world.’”

In the shorter term, Bush indicated that he was prepared to halt any reduction in U.S. force levels when they hit about 130,000 or roughly where they were before he dispatched 30,000 additional troops for the “surge.”

“My attitude is, if he [Gen. David Petraeus] didn’t want to continue the drawdown, that’s fine with me in order to make sure we succeed, see,” Bush told reporters. “I said to the general, ‘If you want to slow her down, fine.’ It’s up to you.” [Washington Post, Jan. 13, 2008]

Some Iraqi officials also are looking forward to a long-term commitment of U.S. troops, not to mention the delivery of expensive American military hardware. During a U.S. visit, Iraqi Defense Minister Abdul Qadir said he favored the continuation of a significant U.S. troop presence, to protect Iraq’s borders, until at least 2018 and possibly beyond. [NYT, Jan. 15, 2008]

The Frontrunners

Sen. McCain of Arizona, the new Republican frontrunner, said the U.S. military presence in Iraq could extend even further into the future.

On Jan. 9, the day after winning the New Hampshire primary, McCain was asked on ABC’s “Good Morning America” about a comment he had made that the U.S. presence in Iraq “could be 100 years.”

McCain responded, “could be 1,000, could be 1,000 years or a million years. … It’s a fallacious argument by people who don’t understand that it’s not American presence, it’s American casualties. If we can get American casualties down and eliminate them, Americans are not concerned.”

In other words, McCain is saying that the American public would be content with the United States becoming a long-term imperial power in the Middle East as long as U.S. military casualties could be minimized.

Stripped away of the window-dressing rhetoric about “democracy,” McCain’s position is essentially the neocon position: permanent U.S. bases in Iraq as a means of projecting American military power throughout the region and suppressing Muslim threats to the security of Israel.

So, as long as high-tech means can be used to kill suspicious Iraqis while keeping American deaths to politically acceptable levels, the U.S. occupation could go on indefinitely.

Meanwhile, Sen. Clinton of New York, who tops national Democratic polls, has opted for what looks like an audacious Karl Rove-like strategy of attacking Sen. Obama on his perceived strong point, his early vocal opposition to invading Iraq.

The Clinton campaign has targeted Obama’s failure to join the staunchest anti-war Senate Democrats in opposing all funding for the Iraq War as an argument that there is no real difference between him and Hillary Clinton on the war.

That was the context of former President Bill Clinton’s harsh dismissal of Obama’s anti-war credentials as “the biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen.”

Sen. Clinton picked up on the theme on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Jan. 13, attacking Obama for voting for $300 billion in war funding and opposing pullout “timelines and deadlines, initially.” Then, she added: “So I think it's important that we get the contrasts and the comparisons out. I think that's fair game.”

A casual viewer tuning in “Meet the Press” might well have gotten the impression that Sen. Clinton had been a brave Iraq War opponent, when the reality was that she consistently supported the Iraq War from her vote for the war resolution in 2002 until she repositioned herself as a war critic as she began competing for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2007.

Later in the program, host Tim Russert challenged her on exactly that point, playing excerpts from her Senate floor speech supporting the Iraq War resolution and Obama’s speech opposing the war.

“So it is with conviction that I support this resolution as being in the best interest of our nation,” Clinton said on Oct. 10, 2002. “And it is a vote that says clearly to Saddam Hussein, this is your last chance. Disarm or be disarmed.”

Russert then noted that on the same week, Obama gave a speech, saying: "I know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors. ... I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. …  I am not opposed to all wars. I'm opposed to dumb wars."

Russert then asked Clinton, “Who had the better judgment at that time?”

Avoiding a direct answer, Clinton insisted that her pro-war vote “was not a vote for preemptive war. … It was a vote to put inspectors back in to determine what threat Saddam Hussein did in fact pose. … My belief was we did need to pin Saddam down, put inspectors in. But I said I was against preemptive war, I spoke against it.”

Though Clinton then tried to turn the discussion back onto Obama’s alleged inconsistency, Russert said, “I want to stay with your vote because that same day, Senator [Carl] Levin offered an amendment, the Levin amendment, and this is how the New York Times reported it. ‘The [Levin] amendment called ... for the U.N. to pass a new resolution explicitly approving the use of force against Iraq. It also required the president to return to Congress if his U.N. efforts failed.’ ...

“You voted against Carl Levin, who was saying give diplomacy a chance and yet you said no. You voted to authorize war. The resolution you voted for, Robert Byrd said was a blank check for George Bush. Ted Kennedy says it was a vote for war. James Carville and Paul Begala said anyone who says that vote wasn't a vote for war is bunk.”

Clinton responded, “Well, Tim, if I had a lot of paper in front of me, I could quote people who say something very differently, so I know you're very good at this and I respect it, but let's look at the context here. Number one, the Levin amendment, in my view, gave the Security Council of the United Nations a veto over American presidential power. I don't believe that is an appropriate policy for the United States, no matter who is our president. …

“It is absolutely unfair to say that the [war resolution] vote as Chuck Hagel, who was one of the architects of the resolution, has said, was a vote for war. It was a vote to use the threat of force against Saddam Hussein, who never did anything without being made to do so.”

Title of War Resolution

Russert then reminded Clinton, “The title of the act was ‘The Authorization for Use of Military Force against Iraq’ resolution.”

Clinton: “Now, we can sit here and argue about 2002 or we can say what has happened since and what needs to happen going forward in the future. And I think that you have two different story lines here. You have Senator Obama's story line, the speech he gave in '02, to his credit, which then was not followed up on. By '03, it was off his Web site. By '04, he was saying he didn't know [how] he would vote and that he basically agreed with George Bush on the conduct of the war. There were others, Tim, who voted against it, spoke out against it and never wavered over that period of time.”

Russert: “But you voted for all the funding for the war.”

Clinton: “I did. I never--I'm not premising my campaign on something different.”

Russert: “And then until '06 was against the timetable.”

Clinton: “But I did what I--my principal concern has always been doing what I thought was best for our country and what I thought was best for our troops. I'm not here saying anything different than that. I'm not giving you a story line that does not hold up ... under the facts and the times we were in.”

Russert: “Did he [Obama] have better judgment in October of 2002?”

Clinton: “You know, look, judgment is not a single snapshot. Judgment is what you do across the course of your life and your career.”

Russert: “A vote for war is a very important vote.”

Clinton: “Well, you know, Tim, we can have this Jesuitical argument about what exactly was meant. You know, when Chuck Hagel, who helped to draft the resolution, said it was not a vote for war, when I was told directly by the White House in response to my question, ‘if you are given this authority, will you put the inspectors in and permit them to finish their job,’ I was told that's exactly what we intended to do.

“Now, I think it's important to take a look at the entire context here. If Senator Obama's going to get credit for his speech and his position against the war, then he deserves to be asked what happened in '03, '04, '05, '06 and '07. I voted for the authorization. ... And his answer was very political. …  I mean, his whole point is that he doesn't make political decisions.”

As the Democratic presidential campaign moves into a decisive phase over the next several weeks, Clinton’s strategy appears to be to muddy the waters about Obama’s purity as a critic of the Iraq War and thus minimize any advantage he might have with voters for having the foresight to oppose the original war vote.

In doing so, Clinton seems to have taken a page from Karl Rove’s playbook that calls for attacking opponents at the point of their perceived greatest strength. In 2000, Rove made a mockery of Al Gore’s early support for the Internet and advanced technology; in 2004, Rove helped demean John Kerry’s heroism in the Vietnam War.

Now, Hillary Clinton is trying to make Obama look like a hypocrite for highlighting his opposition to the Iraq War. In effect, she is trying to transform a major Obama positive into a negative. How well that strategy works remains to be seen.

But it is clear that if the current poll standings hold up – and the two major parties nominate John McCain and Hillary Clinton – the overriding message will be that no one will pay a serious political price for handing George W. Bush a blank check for war in 2002.

And elsewhere within the U.S. political and media establishments, virtually all the architects and all the apologists for the war will continue to profit from their positions while avoiding any meaningful accountability.

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.

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