Unpronounceable Words

George McGovern and William R. Polk, Out of Iraq: A Practical Plan for Withdrawal Now

March 2007

Dear Andrew,

I have finished McGovern and Polk’s primer on the catastrophe in Iraq and how to get out of it. It does remind me in form of Carter’s book on Palestine: short, succinct, easy to read, intended for a huge audience. Certainly, a huge audience in America could and should be enlightened by this book. Early on, the authors ask, “How can a person distinguish between propaganda and fact?” And they respond in a way that is a challenge to us, CTSA, and our students: “The short answer is diligence and time, plus a healthy dose of skepticism.” [14] “The challenge is to devote the time. On the Iraq war the American public and Congress clearly did not.” [15]

The early chapter on what is Iraq and who are the Iraqis would be welcome, I think, for so many of our students, given their (our?) poor sense of history and geography. I am reminded of a remark a young Palestinian woman made to me in Ramallah, “We know everything about America, and Americans know nothing about us.” Her remarks generalize beyond Palestine, of course. The authors show how embedded journalism does us no real service: “Few reporters went to Iraq knowing the local language, and so they could not hope to get the opinions and observations of most Iraqis. We tend to accept this fact as a given, because Arabic is a difficult language known to few Americans, but we should ask ourselves how we would rate reports on American political affairs written by a Chinese journalist who could not speak or read English.” [10]

There is plenty here to remind us of these last awful years, but let’s not simply, as you remind us, be hard only on the Bush Administration—think of the horrors inflicted on Iraq by the Clinton administration (bombing and sanctions). Also, the chapters on how the war and occupation have respectively harmed Iraqis and Americans is disturbing but necessary reading. I really do think this war is going to be with us till we die, the effects of it, anyway. I find myself saying—still, after all these years—that for some Americans, including my students, the Vietnam War isn’t over, because their own fathers and uncles haven’t recovered.
And the chapter on how to “get out” really tries to see a serious way forward beyond the trendy slogan of the peaceniks, Troops out now! For example, I’ve never heard anyone in the peace movement add to their mantra of “bring home the troops” such an idea like Polk and McGovern’s: “The US and UN agencies should help reconstitute the Iraqi public health system through the rebuilding of hospitals and clinics and purchases of diagnostic and therapeutic equipment.” [118]

I think it was smart of you to buy the book in relative bulk and encourage people participating in the Occupation Project to read it. But as I was reading the “how to” chapter, I did begin to wonder what planet the authors are on (or I am on). As you heard me say about Arnove’s laundry list of what needs to happen: “Well, what will have to happen HERE for all that to happen,” so, too, at the opposite end from Arnove’s activist spectrum do I wonder about the dissident elite end of the spectrum of McGovern and Polk: What will have to happen in United States society that would lead ANY US administration to do something like this recommendation from McGovern and Polk make: “America should express its condolences for the large number of Iraqis killed, incapacitated, incarcerated, and/or tortured.” [120] Think back to the 70s when Carter was in power: he was asked if he thought reparations were in order for Vietnam, i.e., should the US pay Vietnam reparations? His response: “Not at all, because the destruction was mutual.” Really? I suppose you can go to San Francisco today and still see the trace evidence of the harm the Vietnamese did to us. The world’s only superpower does not apologize or make a sincere act of contrition. Except cheap acts about the distant past.

Or this assertion: “Alongside the financial measures, indeed prior to them, must be gestures that are primarily political and moral….The first is acknowledgement of the fundamental right of Iraqis to manage their own lives.” [92] This totally goes against many decades of US statecraft, from the Truman and Kennedy liberals to the Reagan and Bush administrations. US power has not and cannot acknowledge that others have the same right of autonomy that we have. So, my nagging question: What would have to happen here for whatever administration to make good on such an “acknowledgement”?

I suppose what struck me about the book is that it represents the outermost limit of liberal thinkable thought. Don’t get me wrong: there is plenty to learn from this book. But here are some examples that made me raise my eyebrows, because, as you often say, “words are important”:

“The notion that we can grandly adjust the way Iraqis live is one of the delusions that got us into the Iraq quicksand in the first place.” [94] But this is not an aberrant delusion: It’s the essence of the elite US worldview, Democrats and Republicans.  Those who accept our “adjustments” are called moderates, those who reject these adjustments are dangerous, subversive, Communist, terrorist, etc.

“Only if America respects the fundamental right of people in Iraq to determine their own future can America’s reputation in the world community, so grievously harmed by the Iraq war, be reconstituted.” [95] Was our global reputation before the nefarious Bush invasion unblemished? We could ask the Vietnamese and Laotians. Or we could inquire of the Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Nicaraguans. Or we could consult the Palestinians. Or visit the Japanese atomic bomb survivors, hear what they say. And then we could drop down to East Timor and ask what they think of America’s reputation.  That remark of Polk and McGovern is liberal delusion.

“But today the American people and our soldiers increasingly know that the invasion and occupation of Iraq was a mistake [sic] ordered by our current Washington leadership. Now is the time for healing the wounds of war and trying to understand its lessons.” [122] “The lesson that North Koreans and probably the Iranians draw from Iraq is that, to be secure from America, they must acquire nuclear weapons. A future Iraqi government may come to the same conclusion; others almost certainly will. Drawing that lesson is, of course, the worst thing that could come out of the Iraq misadventure [sic].” [134] What even McGovern and Polk cannot say is “war crimes,” “aggression,” “crimes against humanity.” A really, truly bad mistake, or misadventure, or error.

I am surprised that this book has, according to you, dropped off the planet. You would think there’d be somebody of liberal bent willing to say how “right on” they are. I mean, theirs isn’t a radical critique, “radical” in the sense of the previous remarks, which is how US power is exercised in the world in a bi-partisan way, with differences, sure, of tone and rhetoric. Do peace movement people really think that Hilary or Obama or a Kerry-clone are going to act totally different vis-à-vis “the war on terror”?

Let’s not kid ourselves.

CTSA: Center for Theology and Social Analysis

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