Exiting Iraq

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(HOST) Commentator Allen Gilbert looks back on remarks that key administration officials made about Iraq nearly two years ago. The candor of their observatons now appears chilling.

(GILBERT) It’s been said that the most radical idea in America is a long memory. Americans are cursed – others might say blessed – with forgiving, forgetting and moving on. We don’t stay in one place long enough, physically or intellectually, to get our bearings.

I had this in mind when I pulled out a news article that I had clipped in February of 2003. That’s almost two years ago – long enough for my act to qualify, in the American sense, as a radical idea. The headline of the article said, “Exiting Iraq Could Take Two Years.” The statement was made by some of President George Bush’s key advisors. This was the first admission that the American invasion of Iraq, which would begin in March 2003, might not be the quick affair that officials had promised.

But, not to worry, the advisors said. Two years should do the trick.

We’re now within two months of those two years. I don’t think we’re close to leaving Iraq. The Pentagon has announced that it’s boosting U.S. strength in Iraq to 150,000 troops – the highest level since the invasion began. President Bush is about to ask for 100 billion more dollars to fund the war.

The advisors should be given credit for their candor when they said that “enormous uncertainties” surround U.S. plans for pacifying and stabilizing the country. According to Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith, “The most you can do in planning is develop concepts.” Undersecretary of State Marc Grossman said, with equal candor, “It would be a big mistake for us to set some sort of date when U.S. forces could hand administration of the country back to Iraqi civilians.” I wish Mr. Feith and Mr. Grossman had been on hand at Norwich University last month, or at Colchester earlier this month, to give those messages to Vermont National Guardsmen and women departing for Iraq.

It feels more and more as though we haven’t gotten the straight story on this war from the day that planning began. And a good many of us don’t seem to mind. But how many single moms in their 40s with teenage daughters at home can you tell to go drive a tank in the Iraqi desert, as one Vermont Guardswoman was ordered to do? How many sons and daughters coming home with debilitating wounds can mothers and fathers bear? How many 20-somethings can accept the early deaths of their high school classmates?

Ask anyone 50 and older, and they’ll tell you they’ve seen this before. Instead of events taking place in a jungle in Southeast Asia, the location is a desert in the Middle East. Most older Americans don’t want to remark too loudly on the similarities with Vietnam. It sounds unpatriotic, it seems defeatist and it makes them feel old.

And maybe that’s why a long memory is sometimes said to be the most radical idea in America. None of us wants to admit that we’ve been there, done that, and it turned out horribly wrong. That’s not the American way. But it’s our current reality.

This is Allen Gilbert.

Allen Gilbert is a former journalist, teacher and consultant currently serving as executive director of the ACLU of Vermont. He has a longtime interest in public policy issues. He spoke from our studio in Montpelier.

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