Editorial: Where We’ve Made a Desert...

By Becky O'Malley
Friday March 28, 2008

Our friend the J-School professor has directed our attention to a 2005 interview with Michael Smith, a reporter for the Sunday Times of London, which ran in the Washington Post on June 16, 2005. She’s been using it as a text in a news reporting class.  

Smith, you may or may not remember, led the press coverage of the top-secret British documents which were leaked to the press in the spring of 2005, starting with his report on the Downing Street Memo. These documents suggested that the Bush administration jiggered the intelligence reports about what was going on Iraq at the time of the invasion in 2002, and that, according to the Post article, “actions at the United Nations were designed to give legal cover to British Prime Minister Tony Blair.” 

This quote from the interview with Smith caught her eye, or more accurately sent chills down her spine: 

Michael Smith: “We’re stuck over a barrel now. The Geneva Convention says that if you occupy a country, you have to leave it able to govern itself and protect itself. The Brits will stick to that I am sure but we will see a drawdown of troops in the U.K.-controlled sector because it is much more peaceful and getting to the point where it needs to be able to govern itself. But when will Iraq be repaired enough for us all to leave? I suspect it will be a long time yet.” 

Just about two years out, that comment seems to have been prophetic. The British mostly withdrew from Basra City last fall, when they thought they’d gotten things approximately in order, and now all Hell is breaking loose—again. So talk of further British withdrawals from the area is being toned down, the Brits being a reasonably responsible bunch.  

Here’s what Caroline Wyatt, the BBC’s defense correspondent, said yesterday: “Having gone into Iraq in 2003 shoulder to shoulder with Washington, London cannot be seen to be abandoning its ally prematurely—nor leaving the people of Basra in the lurch.” 

What implications does this have for the election campaigns now underway in our own country? Wyatt again: “Britain’s future plans for its forces in Iraq also depend on another key election —that in the U.S., and the decisions made by America’s next leader on U.S. troop levels in Iraq.”  

Well, yes. How will the next U.S. administration deal with the mess we’ve made in Iraq?  

We ran Smith’s Geneva Convention quote past a former U.N. employee who has worked in humanitarian programs and studied international law.  

“The Geneva Conventions?” she said with a somewhat bitter laugh. “How long has it been since the United States paid any attention to the Geneva Conventions?” She pointed out that the Bush administrations—both of them—have taken pride in ignoring the Geneva Conventions, citing the writings of law professor Jordan J. Paust on the topic. One of his many law review articles starts out this way:  

“If one focuses on the January 25, 2002 Memorandum for the President by White House Counsel Alberto R. Gonzales and President Bush’s subsequent decisions and authorizations, there is evidence of the initiation of a Common Plan to violate the 1949 Geneva Conventions.” This particular article primarily concerns the maltreatment of prisoners at Guantanamo, justified by the administration’s reliance on a memorandum addressing possible war crime responsibility and designs for attempted avoidance of international criminal responsibility that was co-authored by Berkeley’s own JohnYoo. But the Bush administration’s cavalier attitude to the Geneva Conventions is similarly reflected in the mess it’s made in Iraq. The Brits might care about what they’re leaving behind, but we Yanks don’t seem to be worrying about it.  

Colin Powell—does anyone remember him?—had his own shorthand version, the Pottery Barn Rule: if you break it, you’ve bought it. But since Powell turned out to be the witting or unwitting vehicle for the phony baloney at the U.N. in 2002, no one pays any attention to him any more. 

There are just three possibilities for the next president of the United States: two lawyers and an old soldier. We could also throw in anothr lawyer, Ralph Nader, for humor if we want. None of them has any real experience of the kind that’s going to count if this country plans to try to fix what we’ve broken in Iraq.  

McCain talks grandly about winning the war, but what on earth could that mean? He doesn’t even seem to know exactly who our soldiers are fighting, for which he’s been roundly scolded, but do they themselves know who they’re fighting? How could they? What would “winning” mean? Would it mean, perhaps, causing peace to reign throughout the land, with our soldiers as police? Our police can’t even make peace in Oakland, or even in Richmond, so how can we make peace in Iraq? 

All three—or four—candidates are falling all over each other to establish who knew first that the invasion was a mistake. Obama seems to win that one, and Nader’s also in the running. But we’re in the soup now, whoever’s responsible. 

Mrs. Clinton wants us to believe that this race is about who will react fastest in the next crisis (the red phone commercial), but in actuality both she and McCain were quite a bit too fast on the draw in the last one, with disastrous consequences. And none of the four has had any relevant experience in the real world of international crises anyhow.  

We’re left with Smith’s question hanging in the air: When will Iraq be repaired enough for us all to leave? Who’s to judge? How will we know when it’s happened? Or maybe we should just pull out right away, leaving the hapless Iraqis to shoot it out until only a few are left standing. 

It’s time for all the candidates to stop bickering about how we got where we are, and to make some concrete plans for what we should do next. The simplistic solutions of the Cindy Sheehans of the world, just bring the troops home and forget about the Iraqis, aren’t enough, but McCain’s frequently quoted estimate that we’ll need a hundred years to make peace in Iraq is too awful to contemplate. 

Clinton and Nader have spent most of their lives in the adversarial environment of the practice of law, and McCain’s principal experience is with war, not with peace. Of the four frontrunners, only Barack Obama has had any experience at all with the tedious nuts and bolts of governing in a civil society. His years in the Illinois legislature, where he was exposed to many of the problems of corruption and self-interest which Iraqis will face if they ever have a chance to reconstruct their nation, should stand him in good stead in that regard. It’s time for him to get to work with whatever advisers he can muster to advance a real plan for doing more than just declaring victory and pulling out of Iraq, though we must do that as well.  

Tacitus, the historian of an ancient empire too much like our own, quoted a speech by a citizen of a territory conquered by the Romans, the British chieftain Calgacus: Auferre, trucidare, rapere, falsis nominibus imperium; atque, ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant. “To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace.”  

That’s not the peace we want to leave behind us in Iraq. How can we do better?