A different definition of deadlines

Posted: Jun 22, 2006 9:05 AM
Here’s an important question: How long has the United States been at war with Iraq? Congressman Jack Murtha thinks he knows. “We’ve been there three years longer than World War I, we’ve been longer than the Korean War and almost as long as the war in Europe,” Murtha told CNN. Well, much longer, actually. The U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq in 2003, but the U.S. has actually been at war with Iraq since 1991.

Despite the parades and the books written to celebrate our victory in the Gulf War, there was one detail overlooked: The troops came out, but the mission never ended. As soon as the guns went silent in 1991, the U.S., Britain and France established “no-fly zones” over parts of Iraq. Allied aircraft patrolled the zones every day to keep the Iraqi military out.

These military operations caused some deaths, as all military operations eventually do. In 1994, for example, 26 people died when the Air Force accidentally shot down two Army helicopters. It’s impossible to say how many Iraqi civilians were killed during the 12 years we enforced no-fly zones, although Saddam Hussein’s government claimed in 2001 that 300 people had been.

During those years, Iraqi anti-aircraft batteries and radar stations frequently targeted the allied aircraft. Whether we liked it or not, they were in a shooting war with us. It was probably just a matter of time before Saddam’s soldiers managed to bring down an American plane.

And let’s not forget that three presidents, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush ordered airstrikes against Saddam’s Iraq. American taxpayers spent tens of millions of dollars delivering destruction to Baghdad and environs. During the 1990s the U.S. military enforced economic sanctions that didn’t seem to harm Saddam (he had his choice of presidential palaces) but made life more difficult for ordinary Iraqi citizens.

In 2003 we finally changed our approach.

Now we have actual troops on the ground, and they’re fighting alongside a growing Iraqi army to kill terrorists. Instead of pretending it’s enough to use the military to keep Saddam “in his box,” we’ve used it to remove him and his regime and replace them with a democratically-elected government. Meanwhile, we’ve helped stave off the Iraqi civil war that’s supposedly just around the corner.

In October 2004 New York Times columnist Tom Friedman predicted on CBS that what we’d know “in the next six to nine months is whether we have liberated a country or uncorked a civil war.” More than two years later, in May of this year, Friedman was holding to his timeline. On MSNBC he announced, “I think that we’re going to find out, Chris, in the next year to six months -- probably sooner -- whether a decent outcome is possible there, and I think we’re going to have to just let this play out.”

But Friedman’s looking at it from the wrong direction.

As Americans, we assume Iraq is bound to fail, unless we can accomplish X, Y and Z in the next six months. After all, we like to accomplish things under tight deadlines. But Iraqis work on different deadlines.

Think of all they went through under Saddam: a lengthy war against the U.S., a 10-year stalemate with Iran, hundreds of thousands of people “disappeared.” Compared to that, a six-month wait for a prime minister doesn’t look so bad. We say, “The future of Iraq is up to Iraqis,” but we don’t really believe it. We still assume only Americans, operating on our own schedules, can get the job done and we assume that if we fail, Iraq will as well.

But if Iraqis wanted a civil war, they’d be having one. American troops are one reason they’re not, but our military isn’t the only reason. Iraqis have many other motives for minimizing bloodshed and finding ways to make their government work. They seem to be doing that. We should be optimistic that they’ll continue to do so -- over the next six months and the next six years.

Of course, not everyone thinks we’re making progress. “What I’ve been saying over and over again, we can’t win it militarily,” Rep. Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat, told CNN on June 16. “What I am saying is we should withdraw and redeploy as soon as practicable.”

Fair enough. You can call Murtha’s position “cut and run” or call it “sensible redeployment” but at bottom, it’s simply his proposed policy alternative. Oh and by the way, if his party retakes the House this year, Murtha says he’ll attempt to become the Democratic majority leader. So this is about American politics as much as American policy.

We’ll know, in less than six months, which policy and which politicians the American people support.