Saturday, August 28, 2010

Lipstick and a smiley face

Imagine being a soldier in a place where there are no more combat troops, where all the missions have been accomplished and where all the social indices are worse than before you arrived and the off-stage insurgents, driven back for a minute by your nation's overwhelming and totally unsustainable surge, are now roaring back.

When, in 2006, the official Iraq Study Group seemed to notice that the Bush Cheney plan had no future, our local Congressperson, Earl Blumenauer, posted a statement on his website that ended with this:

“The war in Iraq has cost Oregon taxpayers nearly $3 billion, which otherwise could have provided health care for 655,850 people or upwards of 18,000 affordable housing units. With so much at stake, action on Iraq needs to be measured in hours and days, not weeks and months. It is time to face reality in Iraq, and the President and Congress must rise to the occasion.”
That was four interminable years ago, more than three and a half unsuccessful years into an occupation that was always doomed, and was one month after the American people spanked the Republicans in the mid-term elections, a bruising that the Democrats have now earned and will take for what they've done with Afghanistan.

At the same time the James Baker mushy report was being investigated and produced, I was asking myself why we so-called experts on conflict transformation weren't constructing a plan to transform that ill-advised invasion and occupation. I had no knowledge of the Baker-Hamilton investigation and was simply aghast that my intellectual betters in my field hadn't come up with the answers. Without resources, I started. The first people I approached were not the hotshots at, say, the Kroc Institute at either Notre Dame or San Diego, nor the leadership of the Peace and Justice Studies Association--my field's academic association. I thought that if they had been all about that, I would certainly have known, since I was co-chair of PJSA then. Instead, I just started talking with my fellow nonviolent civil resisters in Portland, Oregon, with whom I had been arrested by Homeland Security at Senator Ron Wyden's office in a successful attempt to get him off his political butt on Iraq.

Christina Hulbe, Linda Weiner, Ann Huntwork and some others thought, sure, we can do better than our federal government on this, since they apparently have done nothing with our billions and the massive State Department resources. Give it that home town try. So I asked a local family foundation for a little money and they provided enough for some airfare for some interesting players (no honoraria for anyone, just all volunteers on all sides), we rounded up some local expertise, invited all the fed elected officials from our area, and held a one-day study at Portland State University. The evening beforehand, we held a public hearing there.

One of our speakers, Army Colonel Douglas MacGregor (ret.)--we just called him "Tank Guy," since he had helped lead the tank rumble in Desert Storm in 1991, and there was a tank pointed at you on his website--advocated immediate and unconditional withdrawal of all American military from Iraq. He scorned all the USA Today, Donald Rumsfeldian spin on it and just noted that what was inevitable was that Iraqis would resolve their own situation as soon as we left, that we might not like how they did it, but that unless we wanted to babysit them with big guns and lots of US casualties literally forever, that is exactly what would occur. He had little patience for those who offered a more dignified face-saving US exit, often framed as responsible. "Look," he said, "you can take your lipstick and paint a smiley face on that dead rat, but it's still a dead rat."

Would I get along with MacGregor philosophically? Of course not; he's a violent warrior and I'm a pacifist. But I'm glad we brought him in. His predictions matched what we all knew, or should have known, in our field of Conflict Resolution, but he presented them from his experience and education as a military officer.

Now, more than three and a half more interminable years from that December 2006 watershed, here we are, and USA Today is still painting smiley faces on that dead rat. Suicide bombers are literally exploding all over Iraq and they say it's all just the jostling of civic engagement, that, "Democracy is alive in Iraq." Welcome to the new surrealpolitik.

Some day, perhaps, our wonderful country will discover how to properly acknowledge massive mistakes and make reparations. We need to do that about slavery, about stealing 3,119,885 square miles of land from Native peoples, about propping up military dictators with guns and money, and about multiple invasions of other people's lands. That's the short list.

Owning our actions is part and parcel of democracy. Before we shove what we call democracy down anyone else's throat, we should live up to the decent principles of it ourselves.

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