Maybe it sounded good when politicians, pundits and online fundraisers talked about American deaths as though they were the deaths that mattered most.
Maybe it sounded good to taunt the Bush administration as a bunch of screw-ups who didn’t know how to run a proper occupation.
And maybe it sounded good to condemn Donald Rumsfeld and George Bush for ignoring predictions that several hundred thousand troops would be needed to effectively occupy Iraq after an invasion.
But when a war based on lies is opposed because too many Americans are dying, the implication is that it can be made right by reducing the American death toll.
When a war that flagrantly violated international law is opposed because it was badly managed, the implication is that better management could make for an acceptable war.
When the number of occupying troops is condemned as insufficient for the occupying task at hand, the White House and Pentagon may figure out how to make shrewder use of U.S. air power—in combination with private mercenaries and Iraqis who are desperate enough for jobs that they’re willing to point guns at the occupiers’ enemies.
And there’s also the grisly and unanswerable reality that Iraqis who’ve been inclined to violently resist the occupation can no longer resist it after the U.S. military has killed them.
If the ultimate argument against the war is that it isn’t being won, the advocates for more war will have extra incentive to show that it can be won after all.
If a steady argument against the war maintains that it was and is wrong—that it is fundamentally immoral— that’s a tougher sell to the savants of Capitol Hill and an array of corporate-paid journalists.
But by taking the political path of least resistance—by condemning the Iraq war as unwinnable instead of inherently wrong—more restrained foes of the war helped to prolong the occupation that has inflicted and catalyzed so much carnage. The antiwar movement is now paying a price for political shortcuts often taken in the past several years.
During a long war, condemned by some as a quagmire, that kind of dynamic has played out before. “It is time to stand back and look at where we are going,” independent journalist I. F. Stone wrote in mid-February 1968, after several years of the full-throttle war on Vietnam. “And to take a good look at ourselves. A first observation is that we can easily overestimate our national conscience. A major part of the protest against the war springs simply from the fact that we are losing it. If it were not for the heavy cost, politicians like the Kennedys [Robert and Edward] and organizations like the ADA [the liberal Americans for Democratic Action] would still be as complacent about the war as they were a few years ago.”
With all the recent media spin about progress in Iraq, many commentators say that the war has faded as a top-level “issue” in the presidential race. Claims of success by the U.S. military have undercut precisely the antiwar arguments that were supposed to be the most effective in political terms—harping on the American death toll and the inability of the occupying troops to make demonstrable progress at subduing Iraqi resistance and bending the country’s parliament to Washington’s will.
These days, Hillary Clinton speaks of withdrawing U.S. troops, but she’s in no position to challenge basic rationales for war that have been in place for more than five years. At least Barack Obama can cite his opposition to the war since before it began. He talks about changing the mentality that led to the invasion in the first place. And he insists that the president should hold direct talks with foreign adversaries.
The best way to avoid becoming disillusioned is to not have illusions in the first place. There’s little reason to believe that Obama is inclined to break away from the routine militarism of U.S. foreign policy. But it’s plausible that grassroots pressure could pull him in a better direction on a range of issues. He seems to be appreciably less stuck in cement than the other candidates who still have a chance to become president on January 20, 2009.