On the matter of the Iraq war, there is no political progress to report in Baghdad or Washington.
Gen. David Petraeus went before Congress last week to deliver a progress report on the five-year-old war. "We haven't turned any corners, we haven't seen any lights at the end of the tunnel,'' he told lawmakers. The troop surge has lowered the level of violence, he said, but the progress is "fragile'' and "reversible.'' Instead of offering an exit strategy, the top U.S. commander in Iraq recommended a halt to the withdrawal of U.S. forces in July, leaving 140,000 troops on the ground until further notice. President Bush quickly embraced the recommendation, saying the general can "have all the time he needs'' to decide when to resume the troop drawdown.
So, despite the congressional hearings and briefings, the political threats and posturing on both sides, nothing has really changed. The Democrats say we can't afford to stay in Iraq; Republicans say we can't afford to leave. The real success of the troop surge was to buy time for the president. Bush is determined to leave the risky and difficult decisions on Iraq to his successor, and for all their rhetoric, Democrats in Congress appear powerless to stop the very war many of them voted to start in 2003. A majority of the American people have turned against the war, and it is now obvious it will be the voters — not the politicians — who decide when and how to end it.
If nothing else, Gen. Petraeus' testimony on Capitol Hill has framed what should be the central question in this fall's presidential campaign — whether to stay the course in Iraq with Republican John McCain, or to begin a careful and phased withdrawal with a Democratic president, either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton.
One thing is clear: A vote for McCain is a vote to continue Bush's open-ended war in Iraq at a high cost in American lives and treasure.
McCain is a fierce advocate of fighting on. He sometimes appears as delusional as Bush and Dick Cheney, as when he said last week the situation in Iraq was "approaching normal'' and "we can now look ahead to the genuine prospect of success.'' We should not shrug off concerns that McCain, who has an explosive temper and stubborn streak, not only would prolong the war indefinitely but might even escalate it. He has joked about bombing Iran, but no one is laughing. We should also worry that some of the hawkish neocons who promised a "cakewalk'' in Iraq are turning up in McCain's circle of foreign policy advisers, according to the New York Times.
Colin Powell, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, provided a reality check last week for both sides of the war debate. He told ABC's Good Morning America that the troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan cannot be sustained. Something will have to give. The U.S. military is stressed almost to the breaking point, and troops who have served multiple tours in Iraq are showing signs of mental health problems.
"Whichever one of them becomes president . . . they will face a military force that cannot continue to sustain 140,000 people deployed in Iraq and the 20,000 or 25,000 people we have deployed in Afghanistan and our other deployments,'' said Powell, who helped sell the war as Bush's first secretary of state.
The retired Army general, who so far hasn't endorsed a presidential candidate, said ending the war responsibly and as quickly as possible, as Obama and Clinton have promised to do, won't be easy. "They will have to continue to draw down at some pace,'' he said. "None of them is going to have the flexibility of just saying we're out of here, turn off the switch, turn off the lights, we're leaving.''
In 1965, Peter Bourne, a young Washington psychiatrist, spent a year in Vietnam with a research team from Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He wrote about his experience in a book called Men, Stress, and Vietnam. Some of his words could apply to Bush's war in Iraq.
He wrote: "The overwhelming desire for the success of policies to which a strong emotional attachment has been made also leads to an attempt to alter those facts over which one has control, making them consistent with the outcome that is desired. It is as though there is an expectation at a magical level that events over which one has no control will then also fall into the desired pattern. . . . Emphasis is placed on humanitarian acts of reconstruction while they remain trivial next to the enormity of the destruction."
This is what we keep hearing from our president and Republican hawks in Congress — a little more time, a little more patience, and we can prevail and begin the rebuilding of Iraq. It's not much of a stretch to wonder if the administration's Iraq policy is really a form of mental illness.
In choosing the country's next president, voters also will decide whether to either end the war or extend it. They should be under no illusions — American lives are at stake, literally, in this election.
Philip Gailey's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.