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Editorials Oppose Iraq Withdrawals -- As U.S. Sends More Troops
Greg Mitchell
May 29, 2006

NEW YORK Monday marked another Memorial Day, this time with the American death toll in Iraq well past 2400 lives, with over 18,000 injured. Just over six months have passed since hawkish Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) called for the beginning of a U.S. pullout in Iraq – but just days ago, President Bush outlined his latest plan, amid rumors of a withdrawal, to "stay the course,’ amid graphic reports of a new "My Lai."

All of this would seem to call out for a re-thinking of positions or assumptions on newspaper editorial pages. Indeed, three of the most influential did weigh in Sunday with Iraq editorials. All of them, despite voicing strong crtiicism in the same editorials, came out against starting to bring the boys home.

This continues the depressing tradition of newspaper editorials saying most of the right things, and pressing charges against the administration's handling of the war – while arguing for "more time" or "a few more months" for the latest "turning point" in Iraq to produce a positive outcome. This pattern could – and possibly will – go on nearly forever.

It ain't funny how time slips away.

As Bob Herbert, the New York Times columnist, put it on Monday: "Pretty soon this war in Iraq will have lasted as long as our involvement in World War II, with absolutely no evidence of any sort of conclusion in sight."

Then, on Tuesday, the military announced it was actually increasing troop levels in Iraq, transfering forces from Kuwait to troubled Anbar province. This is progress?

So, with that in mind, let's examine the latest from the editorial boards of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times.

The New York Times called its editorial "The Price of Iraq." As usual, it offered bitter truths on this subject. The following passages seemed to be leading to a call for a pullout. In fact, there seemed to be no other logical conclusion:

"American forces can never be a substitute for Iraqi soldiers and police officers who take seriously their duty to protect all the people, regardless of religion or ethnicity. Mr. Bush's premise that American troops should simply stay on the ground until Iraq gets things right and defeats all insurgent forces and terrorist groups, however long it takes, is flat wrong. The United States presence is dangerous — to the soldiers themselves, to American standing in the world, and most tellingly to large numbers of innocent Iraqis.

"The currently emerging story about what happened last November in Haditha, where at least two dozen Iraqi men, women and children were apparently shot by a small group of American marines, is only the latest indication of what terrible things can happen when soldiers are required to occupy hostile civilian territory in the midst of an armed insurrection and looming civil war. A military investigation is currently deciding whether any of the marines should be charged with murder, and whether a cover-up took place. All these questions have awful resonance for those who remember Vietnam, and what that prolonged and ultimately pointless war did to both the Vietnamese and the American social fabric.

"It was somewhat reassuring that Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair have stopped trying to pretend that everything has gone just fine in Iraq, since most of the rest of the world already knows otherwise. But it was very disturbing to hear them follow their expressions of regret with the same old ‘stay the course' fantasy."

Surely the time-to-set-a-deadline call would follow. But no, the Times concluded with: "It's time for Mr. Bush either to chart a course that can actually be followed, or admit that there is none."

This leaves standing the essential blunder that the Times editorial page, its star columnist Thomas Friedman, and so many other commentators have made: a) trusting that, surely, the president and his team will come up with a wise plan -- and even if they did b) could be trusted to carry it out successfully.

That's why all of these fine editorials nailing the administration for stupidly and incompetence in regard to Iraq are so hollow—if they are as stupid and incompetent as the Times suggests, why spend even one more day entrusting 135,000 American soldiers to their care?

To quote another wise lyric: History is a cruel judge of overconfidence.

The Washington Post, always more hawkish on the war, in an editorial called "Iraq's Uncertain Progress," worried that the small progress in forming a government there may "presage" troop withdrawals – before the new Iraqi government has a full chance to fix things: "If the ultimate measure of success is Iraq's pacification, the U.S. mission is producing results but no visible progress."

So, maybe, the Iraqis are using the U.S. as a crutch – or as an excuse? Perhaps we are doing more harm there than good? We are part of the problem, not the solution? Alas, the newspaper argued that it's "too early to draw that conclusion," to admit our "strategy is wrong" or "should be abandoned."

Instead, the "new government and its army…should be given a chance to tackle the insurgency and stabilize the country with U.S. support." You may be glad, and not surprised, to learn that there "is also a new plan to pacify Baghdad."

On balance, the paper is more afraid of withdrawals too soon rather than too late. It says it hopes Bush last week "was sincere when he declared that any reduction will be based on military rather than political considerations," such as the November elections. Supporting a statement by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, it declared that "our sense of mission should be equal to that" of the insurgents.

Unfortunately, the sense of mission for the insurgents is likely to last a long, long time.

The Los Angeles, which has grown increasingly critical on the war (and separately has called for Vice President Cheney's resignation) weighed in Sunday with a review of Bush's statement on Iraq last week: "What the president did not do was connect the dots between the disaffection he described and the need to hasten the disengagement of U.S. forces from Iraq. We hope his actions in the next several months reckon with that reality even if his words didn't."

But the editorial hastily added: "We aren't talking about a firm deadline for withdrawal, which we continue to believe would be a tactical mistake that might embolden Iraqi insurgents — or Shiite elements within the government who'd like to settle scores with the Sunni minority that was privileged under Hussein. But Bush needn't set a date for an American exit to make it clear that he wants it to occur sooner rather than later."

Of course, nearly everyone has wished for "sooner rather than later" for….years.

The editorial concluded not by urging the start of a withdrawal but warning that voters might prefer something even quicker: "With congressional elections looming, the Bush administration would be wise not to leave the impression with voters — or candidates — that the alternatives in Iraq are limited to a precipitous withdrawal or an open-ended role for the United States as the nursemaid of Iraqi democracy, prosperity and security. Given that false choice, voters might prefer to get out now."

The newspaper added that Bush last week "seemed more interested in urging Americans to be patient than in exhorting Iraqi politicians to get their act together." American newspapers, on the other hand, have done both, but the result has been the same: dozens of Americans expiring every month while more than 135,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq, with no promise of a reduction.

Greg Mitchell (Opinion) (gmitchell@editorandpublisher) is editor of E&P.

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