Deck Chairs on the Titanic?

Recently, the phrase "rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic" has been used to describe the American Congress and its "activity" on the questions of Iraq, and by extension, on the question of our imperial presidency.

The Sunday Washington Post features an article on those who warned in 2002 that this all-Bush, all-the-time — yet strangely Clintonesque — adventure in war for democracy, and invasion for humanitarianism would fail miserably. In the article, retired U.S. Generals Bill Odom and Tony Zinni are asked about how they feel knowing they were correct about Iraq, and that no one in Congress, in the administration, or in America listened to them. Now they are asked for their advice on what to do. They give it clearly, and in some detail. They say bring the troops home!

One wonders why this article is delegated to the Style section. We should not. Rearrangement of deck chairs on a sinking ship makes for damn fine news reporting. Particularly when the ship is filled with colorful images of the rich and powerful and the impoverished, desperate, and hopeless — all joined in the same disaster, and most but not all destined for a horrible death.

Incidentally — those saving themselves are highlighted in the front page of the same paper. Seems as if two million Iraqis have fled their country since 2003. These survivors and their families had the intelligence, education, capital, international connections and risk-tolerance that made them the backbone of the Iraqi entrepreneurial class.

These were the guys and gals in that formerly secular country of Iraq that we were going to "let" rebuild a Saddam-free Iraq.

Two million survivors — many without a home at all and facing life at least as difficult as that left to the remaining twenty some million Iraqis who couldn’t leave, are already dead or injured, locked up, or just can’t leave yet.

Imagine if you will, our own country suffering a three-year emigration of 26 million of our best-educated, most-skilled and wealthiest Americans — with all of their know-how, their money and economic skills, and their networks. Twenty-six million. This is the number of veterans who had their personal information placed at risk with last years’ VA computer mishap. This is more than the number of Americans who have diabetes. Not impressed yet? It is more than the 20 million aliens said to be living and working illegally in this country. That upsets some people. OK, it is more than three times the number of cats and dogs we euthanize each year. Heartbreaking, isn’t it?

The administration often invokes our own American efforts to become a Republic when it tries to explain Iraq. Yet in the late 1700s, we had the best and brightest on our side, and in our cities, and in our countryside. Not only were they not leaving, they were leading.

Rearranging deck chairs is certainly more entertaining and more fun than the reality of a country we hastily and rudely destroyed, and now won’t let recover. It is ugly to think that we remain to pick at the wounds, tearing dead flesh like the oil-hungry vultures we are accused of channeling.

Foreign Policy published a short essay last week, entitled "Insurgencies Rarely Win — And Iraq Won’t Be Any Different (Maybe)." Naval War College professor Don Stoker suggests that insurgencies don’t win because historically, they can’t govern. The article — intended to support the idea that a few more American troops can somehow "win" in Iraq struck me as kind of funny, in a sad, small way. This article was published in defense of the administration’s infamous "surge," already begun even as Congress putters over its legality.

The author’s description of the reasons for the insurgency’s weakness and failure are instructive. He writes, "They lack governmental authority, established training areas, and secure supply lines." Sounds like us, and the Iraqis we’ve been trying to train to be politicians, policemen and soldiers, rather than the 95% of Iraqis who can’t escape our mistakes and want us to simply leave — fast!

Just as useful is the author’s praise for the Soviet established puppet government in Afghanistan, circa 1989. Here he writes, "In fact, the regime the Soviets established in Afghanistan was so formidable that it managed to survive for three years after the Red Army left."

Now there’s a standard to shoot for, literally. Yeah, Americans, let’s do that in Iraq! Er, I mean, keep trying to do that….

Misplaced faith in the power of military might and centralized bureaucracies to "make things right" or "bring freedom," or to foster "democracy" and "economic fulfillment" is a disorder that afflicts many Americans. It is for this reason that we are indeed happy to rearrange deck chairs in our foreign policy, enjoying the entertainment provided by doomed musicians like Stoker. We avoid the gaze and the wisdom of those who understand the design limitations of force, of centralized, authoritarian, and expensive governments —at home, or in foreign countries we covet.

It was blind faith in the Titanic, that massive monument to human engineering and genius, that led to a devaluing and disregard of human intuition and alertness. It was this lack of care and this abundance of arrogance that brought us that disaster of epic and famous proportions.

In slow motion, we watch the same disaster unfold in Iraq. We can’t be blamed for thinking about the order and placement of deck chairs — it is apt. And we will only truly understand what we have done wrong after the ship sinks. Contrary to the strange optimism found in some corners, the sinking of the American ship won’t take much longer in Iraq.

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