This month began with 140,000 American troops
in Iraq 13,000 more than in late July.
Almost 30 months have passed since Time magazine's mid-April 2004 cover
Easy Options," reported that "foreign policy luminaries from both
parties say a precipitous U.S. withdrawal would cripple American credibility,
doom reform in the Arab world, and turn Iraq into a playground for terrorists
and the armies of neighboring states like Iran and Syria."
Back then, according to the USA's largest-circulation newsmagazine,
"the most" that the president could hope for was that "some kind
elected Iraqi government will eventually emerge from the wreckage, at
which point the U.S. could conceivably reduce the number of its troops
significantly. But getting there requires a commitment of at least
several more months of American blood and treasure."
As I noted in my book War Made Easy, which came off the press nearly
18 months ago,
"Hedge words were plentiful: 'the most' that could be hoped for was
that 'some kind' of elected Iraqi government would 'eventually emerge,' at which
time the United States 'could conceivably' manage to 'reduce' its troop level
in Iraq 'significantly,' although even that vague hope necessitated a commitment
of 'at least several more months' of Americans killing and dying. But in several
more months, predictably, there would still be no end in sight just another
blank check for more 'blood and treasure,' on the installment plan."
President Bush keeps demanding those blank checks, and Congress
keeps cutting them. What Martin Luther King Jr. called "the madness of
militarism" provides ample justifications. For Bush, one of them involves
couching the choices ahead in military terms to be best judged by
military leaders. This is, in essence, an effort to short-circuit
Bush likes to tell reporters that U.S. troop levels in Iraq hinge on
the assessments from top military commanders. This explanation is so
familiar that it's hardly newsworthy. But journalists and the
public should take a hard look at that rhetorical scam.
Civilian control of the military means that the president is
accountable to citizens, not generals. But despite the growing
opposition to the Iraq war, as reflected in national opinion polls the
president fervently declares his commitment to the U.S. war effort.
Rather than directly proclaim that he will ignore public opinion, Bush
prefers to shift the discussion from domestic political accountability to
ostensible military necessity.
That's where the it's-up-to-the-generals gambit comes in. As soon as
the question is re-framed around what multi-star generals say, a closed
loop turns into a tightening noose. And a fraud. After all, until the
moment of retirement, the generals are in a chain of command with the
president, as commander in chief, at the top.
The president's claim that key deployment decisions rest in the
hands of military chiefs is not only a dodge. It's also manipulative
shoving public discourse toward the mindset of assessing military tactics
instead of ethical choices. And the claim dangerously encourages the idea
that military leaders should have a major say in U.S. foreign-policy
Most of the time, the shift of responsibility is a subtle matter.
But sometimes it's quite flagrant. Either way, the news media often play
along with the abuse of the democratic process.
More than two years ago, in early May 2004, confirmation emerged that U.S.
troop deployments would stay higher and longer in Iraq than previously stated.
The New York Times reported the story under the headline "U.S. Commander
to Keep 135,000 Troops in Iraq Through 2005."
Such headlines marked the success of efforts to portray the troop-level decisions
as military calculations rather than presidential choices. And the spin wasn't
only coming from the headline writer. "The commander of American forces
in the Middle East, putting on hold the goal of reducing troops in Iraq, plans
to keep at least 135,000 soldiers there through 2005, Pentagon and military
officials said," the Times lead reported.
Fast forward more than two years, to a story that broke last month.
The Associated Press reported on ascending U.S. troop totals in Iraq:
"The increase comes as the U.S. Marine Corps is preparing to order
thousands of its troops to active duty in the first involuntary recall
since the early days of the war." The explanation from the head of the
Marines' manpower mobilization, Col. Guy A. Stratton, was telling. "Since
this is going to be a long war," he said, "we thought it was judicious
and prudent at this time to be able to use a relatively small portion of
those Marines to help us augment our units."
But it's not up to military officers to decide whether this is going
to be a long war. Under the Constitution, in theory, the president and
Congress share that power derived from the consent of the governed. We
must hold the president and Congress accountable.