Iraq on autopilot
By Dan Smith
Global Beat Syndicate
Washington—“We believe we are on the right glide path.” That is the bottom line from Major General Rick Lynch, a deputy chief of staff of coalition forces in Iraq, in a press briefing in mid-August. Lynch had chided the press for not reporting more on the large and varied reconstruction projects completed or in progress; the stacks of weapons, ammunition, and other military items seized; and the building “sense” among Iraqis that, on balance, there are more positive than negative encounters between coalition forces and Iraqis.
A day earlier, Senator Chuck Hagel (NE), during a hometown meeting with “real people,” told the gathering, “We are seen as occupiers, we are targets. We have got to get out. I don’t think we can sustain our current policy, nor do I think we should.” He reiterated that message on an August 21 nationwide Sunday talk show.
At first glance, the messages from the front lines and the home front appear incompatible. Lynch seems to be asking reporters for stories with less about gore and more about governance—that is, the process of empowering Iraqis to govern themselves, which nominally is now the reason Saddam Hussein was ousted. Hagel, for his part, was expressing deep reservations about the ability of coalition forces to overcome all the missteps of the past because of what the troops on the ground do today and tomorrow.
Taking the two men as fully representative of their institutions, Lynch’s metaphoric use of the well-worn phrase “glide path” suggests an unconscious congruence of views between the warriors and the lawmakers.
The term itself, defined as “the final path followed by an aircraft as it is landing,” is familiar to most everyone. Pilots change engine power and adjust movable surfaces of the plane so the aircraft neither falls short of nor overshoots the runway. And should an aircraft stray too far from the optimum descent slope, verbal communications from air traffic controllers and cockpit warnings alert pilots to make adjustments.
Airplanes that land safely do not make news. It is those that crash or have significant problems that draw headlines. We all presume successful take-offs and landings, following an approved glide path.
So too with Iraq. The successful “take-off”—Saddam Hussein’s ouster and the White House’s embrace of the “mission accomplished” banner used as a backdrop during the president’s May 1, 2003 declaration that major combat had ended—brought with it expectations of a quick withdrawal of most U.S. troops. But U.S. and coalition forces have been in Iraq for so long—like a plane too long in the air—that there is not enough power left to regain a safe glide path for a smooth exit (the “safe landing” predicted by the administration).
That is Senator Hagel’s point. The Bush administration has been so absorbed in defending its past obfuscations and deceptions on Iraq that it has effectively put that war on auto-pilot. Moreover, the longer that occupation forces are unable to curb insurgent violence and restore reliable basic public services to Iraqis, the fewer the resources available to keep the new government aloft—and the greater the public distrust of the structures that emerge from the deliberations of Iraq’s constitutional commission. Hagel is saying, in short, that we have a responsibility to scrap the autopilot and let those who know the terrain and landing fields pilot the craft.
A pilot who maintains the prescribed glide path with a missile chasing him courts certain disaster. For 27 months, Washington has not changed course despite clear evidence that the occupation itself is driving the violence in Iraq. It is time to “cancel auto-pilot” and declare unequivocally that no U.S. troops or bases will remain in Iraq.
Such a declaration could act like an emergency airfield where a safe landing is possible using a steep but manageable glide path. The administration’s “pilots” have erred to such an extent that no other course is ethical, manageable, and for many Iraqis and U.S. personnel, survivable.
But is there enough time?