Editorial Column: Burned Again?

Foreign Policy in Focus

May 12, 2008 – When an infant touches a hot stove, it learns a lifelong lesson: don’t touch a hot stove. The infant might grow into a thoroughly irresponsible person, might acquire a nasty heroin habit or provoke a barroom brawl with Mike Tyson. But never again will he or she touch a hot stove.

When it invaded Iraq in 2003, the United States touched a hot stove. Politicians seem to have less capacity to learn than babies. Many of those involved in this ill-fated operation had some connection, however remote, to the Vietnam War, the last seriously hot stove that the United States touched. And yet, the U.S. leaders that fought in Vietnam as well as the ones who ran in the opposite direction all stood around the burning hot stove that was Iraq and bear-hugged it.

“If what is shaping up to be the worst foreign policy disaster in U.S. history has an upside it is: that this war should definitively, permanently settle a handful of critical questions about American conduct in the world,” FPIF research fellow Miriam Pemberton writes in the introduction of a new book, Lessons from Iraq. “This book is an effort to fix some points. Nail a few things down. Declare some policies and practices off limits to American policymakers.”

Here are some of those lessons. Don’t politicize intelligence. Don’t torture. Don’t privatize security operations. Don’t leap into preventive wars. Don’t militarize the world. It’s a long list. Get a copy of Lessons from Iraq: Avoiding the Next War, edited by Pemberton and FPIF contributor William Hartung, and read about the other lessons from Chalmers Johnson, Frances FitzGerald, Michael Klare, Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes, Hans Blix, Norman Solomon, Phyllis Bennis, C. K. Williams, and many others. And put these Lessons from Iraq book events in Rockville, MD and Washington, DC in your June calendar.

The book is not a primer on how to do war better. It doesn’t give pointers on how best to touch a hot stove. Rather, it suggests ways of inscribing in the national DNA of the United States the painful lessons of the Iraq War – so that we don’t all get burned again.

The Funding Spigot

Even though the Dems are in charge, the current conversation about the Iraq War on Capitol Hill is more about dollars than withdrawal. As FPIF’s outreach director Erik Leaver explains in The Iraq Supplemental: A Three Ring Circus, Congress is now considering three separate amendments that will substitute for the war funding bill that already passed. The first would provide $166 billion for this year and next year to keep the war going. The second discusses withdrawal, but only as a non-binding goal, and requires Iraq to pony up a good bit of money for its own reconstruction (and subsidize U.S. purchases of Iraqi oil).

This second amendment does have a potential silver lining. “While it clearly does not meet the demands of bringing all the troops and contractors home now nor does it send a positive message about our financial obligations to Iraq, it does demand a change in course and it requires that Congress approve any long-term deal that Bush tries to cut with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki,” Leaver writes. “If passed, it would reflect a substantial change in policy, which during a Bush or a potential McCain presidency is unlikely to change from their ‘stay the course’ mentality.”

The third amendment addresses some key benefits for veterans, such as education, unemployment insurance, and Medicaid. This is a lesson of war that leaders never learn. Soldiers bring the war home with them. Nearly 300,000 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts have already filed disability claims. Every month, FPIF contributor Aaron Glantz writes in The Truth about Veteran Suicides, 1,000 veterans of American wars try to commit suicide. Every day, 18 of them succeed. “It’s not too late to extend needed mental health care to our returning Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans,” Glantz writes. “It’s not too late to begin properly screening and treating returning servicemen and women who’ve experienced a traumatic brain injury; and it is not too late to simplify the disability claims process so that wounded veterans do not die waiting for their check.”

While Congress jaws about the supplemental, the situation in Iraq looks grimmer by the day. FPIF contributor Ciara Gilmartin reports on one particularly sad reality: the huge number of prisoners in Iraq. Even after Abu Ghraib left a permanent stain on the U.S. reputation, occupation forces are holding more Iraqi prisoners than ever before. “U.S. forces are holding nearly all of these persons indefinitely, without an arrest warrant, without charge, and with no opportunity for those held to defend themselves in a trial,” she writes in The “Surge” of Iraqi Prisoners. “These conditions are in direct violation of international human rights law, though Washington claims that such legal constraints do not apply, because the United States considers its forces to be engaged in an ‘international armed conflict.’”

Many of the intelligence operatives on the ground in Iraq were civilian contractors, including some of the interrogators at Abu Ghraib. If you’re in Washington, DC next Monday May 19, join FPIF contributor Tim Shorrock at the Institute for Policy Studies for a discussion of his new book Spies for Hire about this shadowy world of privatized intelligence.

After Fidel

Cuba’s long-serving leader Fidel Castro is still alive and reportedly active behind the scenes. But the conversation about Cuba’s future has moved on as his brother Raul charts a new path. But what is the end point of this new path? Chinese-style market socialism? North Korean-style isolation? Or something completely new? In a strategic dialogue on this question, FPIF contributors Saul Landau and Samuel Farber stake out different positions.

“Seventeen years after the USSR vanished Cuba remains the world’s only socialist state,” Landau writes in Cuba: The Struggle Continues. “Its critics call it a ‘failed state’ or ‘a basket case,’ but over the last decade Cubans’ standard of living has risen steadily. Bookies have stopped taking bets on the date of its demise.”

Farber laments the lack of political opening under the other Castro. “In the short term Raúl Castro is trying to increase his popular support and legitimacy by granting liberalizing reforms to remove current restrictions, particularly on the economic life of the country, while maintaining a tight political rein to prevent any degree of democratization of Cuban society,” he writes in Life after Fidel. “This seems to be his highly discretionary and selective response to the popular demands that were made after he called for an open and frank national discussion in his speech of July 26, 2007.”

In their responses to each other’s essays in Strategic Dialogue on Cuba, Farber and Landau agree about the counterproductive U.S. sanctions against the island but disagree about pretty much everything else. “Cuba’s one-party state is, by its very nature, antithetical to socialist democracy,” Farber writes. “Its constitution enshrines the political monopoly of the Cuban Communist Party and criminalizes other competing parties. The constitution also enshrines the ruling party’s monopoly over Cuba’s mass organizations, such as the state’s trade unions and women’s organizations, which are to act as its transmission belts. This outlaws all independent organization of unions, women, blacks, gays, and other groups.”

“I agree with Samuel Farber that the left should rid itself of illusions about that nature of the Cuban regime,” Landau writes. “Cuba does not serve as a model for other third world countries. But neither does China or Vietnam – unless savage capitalism run by Communist parties is somehow preferable to the state socialist system in Cuba. Farber does not offer other models because there are none.”

China: Basket Case?

There is much talk of China the new superpower. The United States is both obsessed with a Chinese “threat” and highly dependent on the investments and consumer products flowing from the country. China is certainly a huge place. It has an immense population. But what if everything else about its military and its economy is exaggerated, magnified by smoke and mirrors and wishful thinking?

FPIF contributor Samuel Bleicher explores this thesis in China: Superpower or Basket Case? “Just as we failed to predict and prepare for the implosion of the Japanese economy and the collapse of the Soviet Union, we appear unready for a dramatic economic and political reversal in China that would be a defining event of the 21st century,” he writes. “The depth and scale of the transformation taking place in every dimension of Chinese social, economic, and political life is difficult even for the most knowledgeable observers to comprehend. With luck, this great experiment can be one of the most successful developments in human history. If it fails, the consequences for China and for the rest of us could be tragic, and possibly catastrophic.”

Success or failure for China may well hinge on energy. As FPIF columnist Michael Klare argues in Global Power Shift, an excerpt from his new book Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet, “as recently as 1990, China accounted for a mere 8{cd9ac3671b356cd86fdb96f1eda7eb3bb1367f54cff58cc36abbd73c33c82e1d} of global energy consumption while the United States was absorbing 24{cd9ac3671b356cd86fdb96f1eda7eb3bb1367f54cff58cc36abbd73c33c82e1d} of the available supply and the Western European nations 20{cd9ac3671b356cd86fdb96f1eda7eb3bb1367f54cff58cc36abbd73c33c82e1d}. But China’s growth in the past decade and a half has been so vigorous that, by 2006, its net energy use had jumped to 16{cd9ac3671b356cd86fdb96f1eda7eb3bb1367f54cff58cc36abbd73c33c82e1d} of total world consumption. If its growth continues at this torrid pace, China will hit the 21{cd9ac3671b356cd86fdb96f1eda7eb3bb1367f54cff58cc36abbd73c33c82e1d} mark by 2030 – exceeding all other countries, including the United States. The challenge for China, of course, will be to procure all that additional energy. To succeed, the Chinese leadership will have to oversee a substantial increase in the yield of its domestic energy production while obtaining staggering quantities of imported fuels, especially oil. By the nature of things, this can only happen at the expense of other energy-starved nations. No wonder the rise of China has produced such alarm among older industrial powers.”

And no wonder that the United States would go to war for oil, even if it meant doing something so politically, militarily, and economically stupid as touching the red-hot stove of Iraq.

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