Ships and Planes and Déjà Vu – S. Russell

A young John Kerry, testifying for Vietnam Veterans Against the War, was famously asked “how” we could get out of Vietnam.

“Ships and planes, Senator, ships and planes.”

We now know that LBJ also desperately wanted out of Vietnam, but felt that he had inherited a situation where the United States was, as we say in poker, pot-committed. Finding that out reminded me of the old SDS slogan “Part of the way with LBJ,” meaning in context that we could support the war on poverty but not the war on Vietnam.

And it was a war on Vietnam, which is one of the few meaningful distinctions between Vietnam and Iraq. In Vietnam, we were on the wrong side of a nationalist uprising that was easily co-opted by communists because the USSR and China have always opposed imperialism outside their empires. The faux nation of Iraq is more complicated.

The former dictator Hussein, currently being slowly hung rather than speedily tried, has little to recommend him to anyone he hasn’t paid. His demise is no tragedy to anyone save his immediate family, and some of them are better off. So it can’t be said that the current unpleasantness in Iraq constitutes “fighting on the wrong side.” It’s more like fighting in somebody else’s war with no apparent national
interest at stake.

The primary issue in Iraq at this time is who was the proper successor to the Prophet when he ascended without leaving clear instructions. Unlike Sunni and Shi’ia, I am not informed of the Prophet’s intent, but I am informed that the United States has no public policy on the question and cannot until Mr. Bush gets his wish to repeal the First Amendment. The Kurds are a different problem.

The Kurds are our oldest and most reliable allies within Iraq. They have a legitimate historical claim to a homeland, Kurdistan. If the past is any guide, their legitimate claim will disappear off our radar screen now that we do not need them. Another ally, the country that is supposed to answer the trivia question “Can Islam and democracy co-exist?”, is opposed to an independent Kurdistan. Turkey’s wishes will no doubt prevail, and the Kurds can hope at best for regional autonomy within the Iraqi state, something for which they appear to be willing to settle.

Proving, I suppose, that garden variety ethnic and economic interests yield more readily to the political process than theology does. After all, more Irish are willing to kill over whether one may approach God directly or only through the medium of the One True Church than are willing to kill over British imperialism.

If Iraq is to be a viable state, Sunni and Shi’ia are going to have to agree on division of political power and therefore real estate and oil revenues. We cannot make that division, and there is no right or wrong division from North America. What matters is what the Iraqis think is fair or at least what they are willing to tolerate.

My son deploys to Iraq in September. I am not happy about this. If it was Afghanistan, I would still be unhappy but more willing to concede at least the necessity for the original incursion, bungled by the Bush Administration, but not illegal or immoral except in the sense that all war is immoral. I object to my son dying to settle a question of Islamic theology.

It will be said this is really about oil. Indeed, the neocons who first proposed this adventure to President Clinton and had to put it on the shelf until there was a regime change in Washington had no plans to leave while there was still oil. For the people who took us to Iraq on false pretenses, it really was and is about oil. For the American people, though, it is not, and it cannot be sold politically on that
basis. Not even Karl Rove could pull that off, although he might try to argue that the Iraq insurgency is in support of gay marriage.

John Kerry, now a Senator himself, is as able to read the neocon rants as I am. He voted wrong on the war powers resolution and his inability to admit that mistake in a timely fashion cost him the election and, I hope, another nomination. Ironically, he dithered for months about the U.S. commitment to Iraq and how to get out.

Ships and planes, Senator, ships and planes.

Steve Russell

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