Murtha's Strategy

As any professional debater will tell you, framing the terms of the debate is more than half the battle. We saw a good example of that in the Republican reaction to Democratic Rep. John Murtha’s call for withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq.

If the choice is between "cutting and running," which connotes cowardice and weakness, or "staying the course," which connotes strength and manliness, then of course we will stay the course. Trouble is, that is not the choice offered by Murtha’s suggested resolution.

Murtha, a battle-scarred ex-Marine, argues that the American military has done all it can be expected to do. It defeated Saddam’s army and toppled his government. By hanging around as an occupation force, it has now become a target, not only for jihadists but for nationalistic Iraqis. A recent poll of Iraqis showed that 80 percent want us out, and about 45 percent believe it is acceptable to attack and kill Americans.

Murtha advocates an orderly redeployment, which he estimates could be done safely in about six months. He advocates keeping a Marine force close enough that it could come back in if the new Iraqi government needs its help. In other words, Murtha’s proposal is a new strategy for the situation. He wants hearings and an intelligent debate.

The political stunt the Republicans pulled was designed to make sure there would be no debate. They voted to suspend the rules and force a vote after one hour’s debate on a cut-and-run resolution, yes or no. The idea was to sandbag the Democrats, but they voted virtually unanimously to stay. And they were right to condemn the tactic as a cheap political trick.

The Republican strategy is to stay until the insurgency is defeated. Trouble is, we don’t have enough troops in Iraq to defeat it. It is costing us about $1 billion a week; it costs the insurgency practically nothing. Iraq was one large, open-air ammunition dump after the war, and we stood around watching the country being looted — and a lot of the loot was ammunition, weapons and high explosives.

Iraqi society consists of large, extended families intertwined with various tribes. These ties are very meaningful to the Iraqis, and the concept of vengeance is a powerful factor. Thus, every time we kill an insurgent, we automatically recruit more. You might remember a boy who lost his arms, as well as his family, to American bombing. The military made heroic efforts to save his life, and the boy became a big media attraction. Eventually, he was transferred to England and fitted with the finest prosthetic limbs available. At his first press conference, he said he hoped the Americans who had killed his family would all be burned to death. You can’t make friends by treating the wounds you inflict.

The facts of a failed policy are on the ground for all to see. After two years, there are more attacks, not fewer; more American casualties, not fewer; and there is no security. Americans have to fort up, and they venture out only in heavily armed convoys. Electrical generation, clean water and oil production are still woefully inadequate. That is doubly our fault. We have failed to repair the facilities in a timely manner, and we were the ones who destroyed them in the first place.

The problem is that here in America, far away from the blood and death in Iraq, the war has become a political debate. Rather than trying to find solutions to real problems over there, people here on both sides are only interested in scoring points in the political debate. But the debate here is not the war over there. By playing word games here instead of seeking real solutions over there, we are betraying the troops in the most profound way.

This isn’t George Bush’s war. We the people collectively put those troops in harm’s way. They can’t speak for themselves, nor can they set policy. We owe them a serious debate and the wisest possible policy. You don’t stay the course if the course is the wrong one. So far, the Bush administration has refused all discussion and has simply replied with slogans, stunts and talking points.

The troops deserve better than that. Over there, it is not a political gotcha game. It is daily a matter of life and death. They will leave Iraq eventually. The question is, How many will die and be maimed before the departure date?

Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years.