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Debating Iraq: A Murtha Moment and the Slide to An Exit

The much-maligned Mr. Marx said history often begins as tragedy and repeats itself as farce. That was never more true last Friday night as we watched the great Iraq war "debate." Those of us with the stomach to do so saw the consequences of years of increasingly polarized partisanship in our Congress. It was as a manipulated and managed an episode of theater that I have ever seen. It was more like a fraternity food fight than an honest discourse on all sides.
November 21, 2005

Even the Washington Post, the local organ of media power, was disgusted, noting: "Aggressive challenges to the Bush administration's military and political strategy -- even calls for an immediate withdrawal of troops, such as that made by Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) on Thursday -- must be part of that democratic discussion. Yet what we've mainly seen during the past two weeks is a shameful exercise in demagoguery and name-calling."

That's because no one is really saying what they believe. The Democrats want out but are afraid to say so and the self-styled patriots see the end coming but need someone to blame beside themselves. The drama on the hill represented a triumph of message point politics with thoroughly robotic and irrelevant cliché-ridden speeches on the Republican side with Congress member after Congress member playing at patriotism by finger pointing.

It was matched I am afraid, by equally vitriolic opportunism by leading Democrats who had blindly supported the war and now avoided talking about the truth of what their hawkish colleague Mr. Murtha was talking about. Instead they defended his character and military record, but rarely backed his courageous call for withdrawal.

The "debate" was a transparent maneuver by the Bush lovers to set up a straw man with a phony resolution to prove how stupid the usually hawkish Murtha was to suggest that redeployment and withdrawal was now called for to save what face we can in a losing war in Iraq.

The response bizarrely echoed the days when Senator Joe McCarthy took on the US Army with suggestions that they were infiltrated by reds. The Army won that encounter. And make no mistake about it. Murtha is today a political stand-in for a silenced military, which is warning us that the fight is lost. He was on Meet the Press revealing that his information comes from leaders of the Pentagon.

"There is nobody who talks to people in the Pentagon more than I do," he said and revealed the he has come up with a bi-partisan plan concocted with former heads of the military. "We are going to get out Tim, there's no question about it." He predicts that that will happen just before the 2006 election, a sign of how politicized this "debate " is. It's about domestic positioning, not Iraq. Murtha is the voice of a demoralized and beaten military, not his party.

Murray Kempton, the great chronicler of Red Scare era spoke of a "shadow line" that McCarthy and his supporters crossed. To paraphrase an essay in his "America Comes of Middle Age," "the sun goes down on the same war upon which it rose not so long ago."

In a sense it is the military on trial in the Congress not as a den of communist but as force incapable of delivering the impossible victory, the "mission accomplished," demanded of them by their President and the neo-con chicken hawks in the Pentagon. And yet like Ahab in Moby Dick they are under unrelenting pressure to catch the elusive white whale. Significantly reality may even be catching up with the Administration because their rhetoric is softening even if their policy is not.

Reports Bloomberg News: "White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said last week that Murtha was aligning himself with extremists within his party. (Quote: "it is baffling that he is endorsing the policy positions of Michael Moore and the extreme liberal wing..."Unquote)

" Vice President Dick Cheney, before Murtha made his proposal, accused administration critics on Nov. 16 of using the war to ``play for political advantage.'' The president himself called some of his Democratic opponents ``irresponsible.''

Today Bush is changing his tune saying the critics ``have every right to voice their dissent.''

Bear in mind that Murtha is not against the war per se; the bloodletting, the devastation of a country, the civilian casualties, and the war crimes are not on his agenda. What we have done to Iraq is not his passion. He says we need to act in our own self-interest because the "future of our military is at risk." He argues, "our military and their families are stretched thin. Many say that the Army is broken. Some of our troops are on their third deployment."

Read John Burns in the Sunday New York Times and you find him echoing Kempton of 40 years ago by calling the war "the shadowlands America fell into when it led the invasion of Iraq more than 30 months ago—shadows that still obscure an understanding of the landscape." His reporting confirms Murtha's conclusion.

It is clear that the polemicists on the right who are championing "our troops," and terror-baiting the critics, are only prolonging their agony. Burns is on the ground and the war's cheerleaders are not. He quotes General William Webster to the effect that 153,000 troops are "exhausted... and have simply been overwhelmed."

For more details, read James Fallows in the current Atlantic. He concludes that the US military is failing in its efforts to build an Iraqi Army, the force that has been presented as necessary precondition for US withdrawal. Here is his assessment:

" The crucial need to improve security and order in Iraq puts the United States in an impossible position. It can't honorably leave Iraq—as opposed to simply evacuating Saigon-style—so long as its military must provide most of the manpower, weaponry, intelligence systems, and strategies being used against the insurgency. But it can't sensibly stay when the very presence of its troops is a worsening irritant to the Iraqi public and a rallying point for nationalist opponents—to say nothing of the growing pressure in the United States for withdrawal"

We are getting into a situation where those doing the fighting see no good choices. "On the current course we will have two options," a Marine lieutenant colonel who had recently served in Iraq told Fallows." We can lose in Iraq and destroy our Army or we can just lose."


" The officer went on to say that of course neither option was acceptable which is why he thought it was so urgent to change course."

This explains the call for withdrawal by the Congressman closest to the military.

This debate is getting bitter. The days of a united Congress singing God Bless America on the steps of the Capitol are long gone. The ugly hyper-partisanship of the GOP has provoked a reaction of acrimony and bitterness.

Here's Murtha on Vice President Cheney's comments,

" I like guys who've never been there that criticize us who've been there. I like that. I like guys who got five deferments and never been there and send people to war, and then don't like to hear suggestions about what needs to be done."_

But what now? Is it enough for Democrats to return a volley of insults with insults of their own? No, says a member of Congress anonymously to Josh Marshall's Talking Points blog:

" I'll bet you a dollar that the Democratic response (if there is one) will be a) unorganized (from Biden through Dean), b) incoherent (or at least internally inconsistent), c) slow, d) measured, and e) cerebral. All the wrong things to do. What they need to do is show some blood and gore, use a couple of veterans, and ask the question -- is this worth it? If it is, why are the families of Bush, Cheney, Wolfowitz, Delay, Hastert, Rumsfeld et al. not on the front lines? As we say in Marketing, an anecdote is worth a thousand data points."

The Washington Post expresses a fear: "the country is in danger of splitting into pieces." The truth is that once again we have become a nation divided against itself.

We are in a Tom Paine moment: "This is a time for all good men (and women) to come to the aid of their country." That means it's time to crank up the volume of protest and press the press to tell the truth about what's really happening by calling for an honest debate based on reality, not rhetoric and fantasy. Most politicians seem stuck in a cesspool of their own making. We need a media that tells the truth about the real choices.

And that's something we can all demand so as to deepen this debate, avoid the trap or partisan righteousness and the ongoing pissing contests that divert attention from a war that is tearing Iraq and our own country apart.


News Dissector Danny Schechter edits Mediachannel.org. His new books are "The Death of Media" and "When News Lies: Media Complicity and the Iraq War." For more information: www.newsdissector/store.htm. Comments to  dissector@mediachannel.org

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I love it 20.Nov.2005 20:51

g.d. dem

I love seeing a brouhaha on the floor of the House on C-SPAN. That's the way they do it in the House of Commons in England. Why not here?

It should be like that much more often. What I hate is the staid old two-party one-big-happy-family.

I don't agree that it was more of a "fraternity food fight than an honest discourse on all sides."

Sometimes honesty results in heat.

The Republicans are a war party. Period. The Democrats are finally up to calling them on THIS war (although, except for progressives like Dennis Kucinich, not on the whole war thing). The people are cheering the Democrats on.

I say to the Dems -- DON'T STOP NOW! It's just getting good.

I agree with the anonymous member of Congress that what we need next is "some blood and gore".

Bring it on.

... 21.Nov.2005 17:56

this thing here

what the goddamn u.s. congress needs is a "question time", also a feature of the house of commons. there, minority members of the house of commons can directly question other members, ministers, cabinet members and the prime minister. in other words, they ACTUALLY HAVE TO THINK, CHALLENGE, REASON AND DEBATE. imagine that. the complete opposite of what happens in the u.s. congress.