When Senate majority leader Harry Reid said last week, "I believe ... that this war is lost," it was the contemporary American equivalent of the boy in Hans Christian Andersen's classic fable blurting out that the inconvenient truth that the emperor was not wearing any clothes.
In both the fable and in today's imperial America, the blurted truth contradicted what people were supposed to think. Like the crowd which complemented the emperor on his nonexistent new clothes, because they had been told that they would be considered stupid or unfit for their jobs if they thought they were invisible, most of the political elite in this country are afraid to admit that the U.S. military occupation of Iraq is futile and self-defeating.
But Andersen's fable ends with the boy's remark quickly circulating through the crowd, threatening the system of lies, as the people realize they had been misled. In Washington, however, most of the political elite are no longer capable of distinguishing between the realities on the ground in Iraq and the politically-constructed picture of the war they have adopted.
Reid's candor on Iraq has not started a groundswell of truth-telling. It has merely brought down the wrath of the pro-war establishment on Reid and the Democratic leadership. Thus The Washington Post's David Broder, who has turned into an instrument of the extreme right, bracketed Reid with Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez as a "continuing embarrassment" to their respective parties, equating the latter's transparently dishonest testimony before Congress with Reid's brutal candor about the uselessness of the American military in Iraq.
Meanwhile, right-wing Republican thugs hoping to discredit the hesitant and tenuous steps toward withdrawal by the Democratic majority, charged that the Democrats have "surrendered to Al Qaeda." Referring to Al Qaeda, Rep. Pete Hoekstra of Michigan, said, "They are outlaws. They are criminals. And we cannot concede [Iraq] to them like the majority leader in the other body did today."
The syllogism underlying the argument (if the United States has lost in Iraq, then Al Qaeda has won, and if Al Qaeda has won, then Democrats have surrendered Iraq to Al Qaeda) is a monstrous distortion of logic which suggests that there are only two choices in Iraq - long-term U.S. military presence or an Al Qaeda triumph.
Based on such twisted logic, the Democrats have incorporated into their Iraq withdrawal timetable an exception for operations directed against Al Qaeda. That Al Qaeda exception is a perfect example of the fearful crowd hailing the emperor's new clothes while staring at his bare ass. It ignores the existence of an alternative to keeping U.S. forces in the Sunni provinces of Iraq indefinitely to try to find and kill Al Qaeda jihadists that would be clearly better for Iraq and better for U.S. security interests.
The alternative is to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq and support the major Sunni armed organizations which have been effectively resisting the occupation for years but have also turned their guns on Al Qaeda. I have the discussed this Sunni alternative to U.S. occupation of the Sunni heartland in a news analysis for Inter Press Service this week. Several major Sunni resistance organizations accounting for a large proportion of the anti-coalition forces began to turn against Al Qaeda in 2005 when Al Qaeda tried to prevent Sunnis from going to the polls to vote against the Constitution in the October referendum. Since then the conflict between those non-jihadist organizations and Al Qaeda has escalated and the Sunni resistance are now reported by U.S. military officers to be attacking Al Qaeda "daily".
It should be no surprise that the Sunni anti-occupation forces have had greater success against Al Qaeda's network than foreign occupiers. The Sunni armed organizations have the support of the Sunni population and the trust of Sunni tribal leaders and know far more about how Al Qaeda in Iraq operates than the U.S. military ever will. In fact, the Bush administration gave serious consideration to supporting these Sunni armed organizations as the best defense against Al Qaeda in early 2006 but terminated the discussions because the Sunnis demanded the negotiation of a new government as part of a peace deal.
There is every reason to believe that a complete U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq would strengthen the ability of the non-jihadist Sunni insurgent groups to destroy the Al Qaeda network in Iraq, whereas the Democratic plan to keep tens of thousands of U.S. troops in Sunni territory to track down Al Qaeda would only help Al Qaeda maintain a base of support within the Sunni provinces.
Harry Reid was right on target in saying the war is lost. The only problem is that he and the Democrats have not really explained to the media and the public why the war could not have been won in the first place. As I argued in late 2005, there was never any chance that the United States could defeat the Sunni insurgency, because the overthrow of Saddam created a struggle for power between Sunnis and Shiites, in which the Americans were implicitly supporting the Shiites by trying to suppress Sunni resistance. That made for overwhelming support for the insurgents by the Sunni population, demonstrated concretely by the refusal of Sunni security forces to fight against Sunni insurgents in 2004.
The other dynamic at work was the radicalization of the Sunni population by the U.S. military's violently repressive and indiscriminate counter-insurgency tactics. That in turn helped Al Qaeda recruit more Iraqi Sunni to join the foreign jihadists. The Bush administration eventually turned around and began selling the occupation as necessary to prevent an Al Qaeda victory rather than to defeat the Sunni insurgents.
Unless Reid and the Democrats explain why the war was lost from the beginning, they will continue to be on the defensive about Reid's speaking what is apparently still unspeakable. And if they are to fight back effectively, they will have to begin to address the problem of those modern-day American equivalents of the swindlers in Andersen's fable who convinced a gullible emperor they could make him the finest clothing imaginable, visible to all but those who were stupid and unfit for their posts.