Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Random Thoughts: Half-Truths

The recent Congressional testimony of General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker about the "proper" way forward in Iraq didn't offer anything unexpected. Essentially, it served only to provide a platform for both sides of the Iraq debate to argue the merits of their position. A major reason for the lack of a substantial discussion was the President's refusal, despite the urging of Congressional leaders, to allow the Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Mike Mullen, to join Petraeus and Crocker at the witness stand. Their exclusion was a deliberate move to stifle the debate and it is a point that, in the conversation of Iraq, is not being raised nearly enough.

For a seemingly resolute President who has no qualms gambling away that which our nation holds most sacred on the successes and failures of a corrupt and incompetent foreign government, it could very well be a sign that he realizes the futility of his broader Iraq policy.

Let me explain.

Regardless of your beliefs on how the Iraq war is being waged, there are two undisputed truisms to take away from the Petraeus/Crocker testimony. One, both Petraeus (the military counter-insurgency expert who has become the most respected and high-profile General of his generation) and Crocker (our nation's most skilled and experienced Middle Eastern diplomat) are, without question, true public servants and patriots doing their duty. They are undoubtedly trying to help steer our nation toward what they see as a just conclusion to our significant involvement in this conflict.

Two, the testimony and perspective of both was provided solely through the prism of Iraq - not through the larger prism of our overall national security interests. After all, the Petraeus/Crocker sphere of responsibility and influence resides solely in the military, economic and political progress made in Iraq. So when repeatedly confronted with legitimate concerns and important questions about the enormous costs (both economic and human costs) of this war, the strain being placed on our military, and the undermining of our ability to address other contingencies (including our greatest security threat - a reconstituted Taliban and al-Qaeda), all Petraeus and Crocker could do was shrug their shoulders and say it wasn't their job to answer those questions. No, it was the job of Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen. We never heard their answers over the course of those two days of testimony because their Commander in Chief wanted headlines written a certain way and he wanted to prop up a military poster boy with four stars who, in his mind, would provide the only testimony worth hearing about our military policy in Iraq. It’s too bad because the times are too grave and the stakes are too high to perpetuate a debate of half-truths.

Don't get me wrong - within the realm of Iraq-specific policy, there are critical questions to be answered and there are crucial strategies to be debated. However, to remove the entire context from which these judgments should be derived, to take away the larger picture perspective, is dangerous and foolhardy. And while, over the past five years, the President has acted as if there were an unlimited amount of lives, resources, and taxpayer dollars at his disposal, the reality is that when we focus an inordinate amount of attention and resources in one area, it takes away our ability to focus on another area. It is the job of General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker to do everything they can, and ask for everything they need, to complete their mission in Iraq regardless of competing priorities elsewhere. It is the job of Admiral Mullen and Secretary Gates to balance these priorities in a manner consistent with our broader national security interests. That is why it is dangerous to blindly follow the path advocated by Petraeus and Crocker without any consideration of the broader implications of doing so.

So when the President tells the world that he will give Petraeus “all the time he needs”, it means not only that we will have an open-ended commitment of at least 130,000-140,000 troops in Iraq but it means much more. It means that our hands will be tied while our true enemies grow stronger. It means that we will be less able to address the deteriorating security conditions in Afghanistan. It means that we will be less able to hunt down those who attacked us on 9/11 while they recruit, plot future attacks, and hide in the mountains along the Pakistani border. It means that we will be less able to use force as a credible deterrent against dangerous enemies such as North Korea and Iran or to stop the genocide in Darfur. It means that our forces, particularly Army and Marine Corps, will continue to shoulder an unsustainable strain that could take decades to repair. It means that dwell time for troops between deployments will remain dangerously inadequate and continue to cause undue hardships for service-members and their families, and contribute to their growing susceptibility to post-combat mental health problems. It means that the Pentagon, in a desperate attempt to meet recruitment and retention goals, will continue providing billions in bonus payments and continue lowering enlistment standards through moral waivers - thereby endangering the long-term integrity of the force. It means that, as Iraqi surpluses sky-rocket due to the high price of oil, American taxpayers suffering through a recession will continue to subsidize them by providing the billions necessary to rebuild their country, provide basic services to their people, and train their security forces – all at the expense of investing in our own country, in priorities such as education, health care, and economic development.

In short, America’s security needs, our economic well-being, and the future of our military will continue to be held hostage by a reckless President and the actions or inactions of the Iraqi government. The loss of 4,000 American lives, 30,000 wounded, and hundreds of billions of dollars demands that we have a legitimate debate about our future involvement in Iraq. It is a debate that needs to be fully aired and it is a debate that, out of respect for those who have sacrificed so much, deserves to be about more than half-truths.

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