Operation Iraqi Quagmire

Presented by Lapham's Quarterly and the Institute for the Future of the Book

A Note from Lewis Lapham

Now that the American military and diplomatic triumph in Iraq has been officially listed as missing in action, where do we begin to look for it–in the White House Situation Room or in a desert somewhere west of Samara, on the old caravan road to Damascus or maybe in a set of power points that a staff sergeant in Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s office neglected to enter on the Pentagon computer screen plotting the map coordinates of operation Iraqi Freedom?

Is our victory to be won by formulating an exit strategy or by mounting a rescue mission? If a flight plan, when do we call in the helicopters? If an advance like Patton’s to Bastogne, where do we send the imperial elephants? Is it conceivable that what is presumed lost might yet be found, or do we content ourselves with the learning of an expensive lesson?

Lacking answers to any of the above questions, what we have in hand is a bluster of best guesses, few of them reliable and many of them delusional. The Iraq Study Group last December published a report notable for its ambivalence; on January 10th President George W. Bush offered a work of political pulp fiction. Because neither authority can be regarded as trustworthy, we can look forward over the next few months to a debate in Congress dependent for its wisdoms upon the rounding up of a parade of generals, a faculty of history professors, a host of intelligence specialists, think-tank operatives, deputy assistant secretaries of state–i.e. the same crowd of Washington experts responsible for setting the policy and planning the logistics of Operation Iraqi Quagmire.

Lapham’s Quarterly in association with The Institute for the Future of the Book means to do better. Approaching individuals outside the circle of self-serving military and industrial opinion, we’ve invited them to annotate the ISG report as well as the President’s January speech to the nation. At liberty to find “the way forward” in or out of Iraq, back to the future or across the Potomac and into the trees, they have elaborated both texts with a series of further remarks (revisions, clarifications, corrections, translations into plain English) that add to the sum of a discussion a good deal more instructive than the one available on CNN. The floor is now open to any other interested bystanders who believe that a democracy draws its strength not from its armies or its fleets but from the asking of as many questions as its citizens can put to the representatives of their own stupidity and fear.

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16 Responses to “ A Note from Lewis Lapham ”

  1. J Marra says:

    Well, Lewis, I’m a fan of yours for many years–call me a faithful wife who loves her husband warts and all.

    But you’ll never get anywhere until you address the paradoxes and unanswered questions regarding the events of September 11, 2001.

  2. stephan connors says:

    the usa “democracy” should be judged by the number of politicians and lobbyists hung per year. the higher the number of hangings the better the democracy rating.

    monies collected from these events could reduce the national debt or fund social security.

  3. Ross Vachon says:

    Set a deadline of March 1, 2008 for a full withdrawal of all U.S. forces. In the interim- send G.H.W. Bush as an emissary to Damascus to probe possible U.S.-Syrian areas of co-operation in stabalizing Iraq. Covene regional conference of moderate Muslim States (Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey, Kuwait, Qatar, Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, AND Syria) to discuss ways in which to create a just and sustained post-American Iraq. Explore possible areas of co-operation with Iran via back-channel communications using France as an intermediary.

  4. D. James Coburn III says:

    I only want to suggest that either we either bring Isreal into our union of States and dispense with the farce of ‘neutrality’ or treat it as any other foreign nation deserving of our compassion and and the occasional state visit (not a mini Knesset in our House and Senate).

    To discuss this and state that it is ‘impossible’ for us to leave for security reasons, whose security are we talking about? If politicians and lobbyists working at the behest of Isreali interests do not disclose their machinations, secular jewish-americans who have always given open-ended support to Isreal and all it’s policies may reap the whirlwind.

    I would also submit any time spent discussing the fossil fuels in the region is a waste and should indicate a failure to grasp how the world oil markets operate. Which makes it a good one for US comsumption as it is more than obvious to me most people don’t know and like most other things, suspect their lack of curiosity is in keeping with the american ideal.


  5. Dr. Amaal V.E. Tokars says:

    Iraq Study Group does point to the potential for chaos in Iraq, urges policy for an internal approach of strengthening Iraq’s ability to stand on its own, and an external approach of increased diplomacy with other Middle Eastern countries. However, there is much to be concerned about in terms of what the report does not convey. Here are three abbreviated points of concern on the report:
    – Rather than representing Iraq as sliding toward chaos; it would be more accurate to say that Iraq and the occupation of Iraq is in a state of chaos, as civil society has certainly been erased there.
    – The report places great emphasis on the importance of infrastructure but also claims victory as a goal as well. Rebuilding infrastructure is a symbol of peace but victory is a symbol of war. When these objectives are brought together they usually represent the long term goals of nation building and occupation.
    – The report states throughout its analysis of the problem that the Iraqis must take reasonability for themselves, yet the purpose of the report was alleged to analyze the problems around the U.S. occupation of Iraq. The report was void of any analysis of the relationship between the war/occupation and the pillaging of infrastructure and civil society.

  6. Des Donnelly says:

    Terrorism To Go

    As a child of the Irish Troubles it is plain to me that the US can only win any guerilla war by becoming a terrorist government. I’d say this is reasonably well advanced in terms of;-

    the obfuscation for the entire conflict
    the seize and transport policy
    the imprisonment without trial
    illegal intelligence activities on US soil
    international concentration interogation camps

    All of these bend or break American law; some of them are contrary to the Geneva Convention, all of them run contrary to human decency…

    So ask yourself what sort of country lies to its elected representatives and citizens in order to prosecute a needless war. How can any government in this century justify seizing people, transporting them to concentration camps, denying them access to legal representation, to their family, not allowing them to participate in the due process using established law laid down over the last few hundred years. We had these kangeroo courts in the north of Ireland and they were an absolute travesty.

    America has become MAC’TERRORIST – everywhere you look there is innocent blood on their hands, moronic officials beat the convenient terrorist drum, the terrorists are at the gate, democracy is under treat by the terrorists. Many of the groups in the conflicts the US is promoting are guerillas not terrorists, many of them could not operate successfully without the support of a large ethnic group – what do you do ? attack this entire ethnic group, oh that sounds like a familiar response that worked well in the last century…

    It is almost too late, unless there is a major effort by groups within the US to roll back the right wing agenda of this government we will all wake up some day to martial law. Personally I favor the forming of local militia… *laughs*

    Des Donnelly
    Co Tyrone Ireland / East Durham New York

  7. Dave Everitt says:

    The phrase: “the asking of as many questions as its citizens can put to the representatives of their own stupidity and fear” hints at the following:

    1. people are ill-informed (‘stupid’);
    2. they are also fearful (perhaps because of being ill-informed);
    3. fear leads people to develop collective received ‘opinions’;
    4. ‘stupidity and fear’ are by-products of social manipulation, combined with a low self-awareness that allows for unchallenged opinions to spread;

    What kinds of questions can be asked from such a viewpoint? Which cultural forces can move the ‘stupid and fearful’ towards becoming ‘informed and assertive’?

  8. Don Lantz says:

    I applaud your efforts at open and incisive questioning of our policies. Our republic needs constant oversight of our elected representative, especially our chief executive.

  9. Simon Salosny says:

    Having seen long time neighbors of arabic origin dancing and applauding in the street, a short while after the news told details about 9/11, and knowing that the Islamic boys are brainwashed for years while studying the Qran (reason why most are ready to die when cued); I don’t see a way out of the Quagmire, but for another Hussein taking the reins of power. One good example is what happened to the Shah of Iran (who was on the right road), with the helping hands of misguided and misinformed U.S.politicians and extreme Human Rights activists who replaced him by a fanatic Ayatollah. You just can’t apply logic to a generalized situation that defies western understanding and the idea of “democracy”.


  10. duncan says:

    For many years, and especially since WW11, muslims who say they want to conquer the world have been engaged in a killing spree. This was finally brought home to the West by bombings in Bali, Spain, Britain and the US. Both the Democrat and Republican governments agreee that something has to be done with anti-western hatred fomented in the Middle East. Critics of the western governments conveniently ignore the reality that the West is the victim and is defending itself against indiscriminate serial murderers. Iraq and Afghanistan were the logical entry points in a Middle East strategy of taking the conflict to the enemy. If one ignores the flagrant media bias and hypocrisy of politicians out of power and compares the current “stopping militant islam” campaign with historical precedents, an unbiased observer might conclude that this is one of the most successful military and “humanitarian interventionist” efforts ever undertaken. We are under attack by salafists who gloat in their propaganda that the citizens of the West are too stupid to stop them. If you are unfamiliar with “salafism” you are reading the wrong press and can count yourself among the stupid. In conclusion, I would like to say “thank-you” to our fighters on the front lines.

  11. Ron McAllister says:

    My 8 year old son asked me the other day why mankind goes to war. Complicated yet simple. The primary reasons I believe are fear and greed, ironically the same main reasons the stock markets rise and fall. Until mankind takes a more reasoned long term view of conflict we will forever remain in the trees.
    One big obstacle to peace is our, and I mean most western countries, especially the U.S., reliance on the military industrial complex. India, Russia and China being other large producers of military hardware. It really is an existential question and it hits home deep into mankinds psyche. As a species it doesn’t appear we are ready to overcome issues of race, ethnicity, religions, colour and class. I answered my son honestly.
    For an 8 year old he made the startling observation that though extinct the dinosaurs lasted 165 million years. He asked me how long man has been around. When I told him only 4 million years as a species but roughly only 15,000 years in our present form you could see his worry that we may not come close to the life expectancy of the dinosaurs. His worry is mine and until more humans take this worry more seriously we will forever be damned to repeat our same heinous mistakes born from our hubris.


    Ron McAllister

  12. Elizabeth A. Wilson says:

    Let’s go back to the beginning. His first state of the union address, when he was discussing higher education and said “Hey, if the country needs more hairdressers, we should …” That is his idea of higher education. Then let’s take each state of the union speech apart. The man does actually let you know what he thinks.

    Thank you for your efforts. We’ll keep the lights from going out. e

  13. Christopher Hanna says:

    Dear Lewis,

    What a marvelous idea!!

    It would be interesting to provide a “mapping” or some other suitable annotation that indicates those recommendations, guidances, etc, that the current administration DID cherry-pick (to prolong Baker’s fruit salad analogy), the extent to which their execution was complete or half-hearted, what the consequential outcome was as compared to expectations, etc. In addition, I’d be interested in those points they said would be executed upon, but nothing happened.

    In short, as someone who spends his days thinking about business process metrics, it would be fantastic to see an integrated “scorecard” of ISG recommendation follow-up, as well as an updatable dashboard of progress across key metrics as a consequence of their (in)actions.

    Fantastic idea.

    Chris Hanna
    Chicago, IL

    PS Saw your movie on Sundance last night — LOVED IT! Vehemently recommended it to my Harpers-and-Lapham-Quarterly-reading brothers…..

  14. Thor says:

    Re-arranging Deck Chairs on the Titanic

    There seems to be a couple of the more foundational points about this whole issue that don’t get much attention by anyone.
    1. What justifies the use of U.S. military force?
    2. Can an insurgency be won by military force?
    1. According the U.S. Constitution, the purpose for funding, equipping, and training military forces is to defend interests of the U.S nation-state. While humanitarian disasters, genocide, and other assorted nastiness is unfortunate, yea even catastrophic, it does not justify the spilling of the lives, blood, and treasure of the nation. This question of Jus Ad Bellum, the justice of war, if given any attention at all these days is usually quickly whisked away with a “Yes, but we’re there now” comment. And while this is most definitely true, we do now have the tiger by the tail and it behooves us to understand if we really needed to poke the big kitty in the eye or not to perhaps prevent such hubris in the future. Further, we are there…and to simply walk away w/o creating a stable foundation for the Iraqi society to continue from is unjustified on any basis, political, moral, strategic, or otherwise.

    2. Terrorism, counter-insurgency, irregular warfare, etc is nothing new. They are tactics that have been used by sundry groups of hominids possessing less power and technology than their opponents down through history.
    The historical options for dealing with the “terror tactics” via more conventional military approaches are a) the stronger power tires, redefines “victory” and goes away, or b) the stronger power annihilates the large majority of the enemy population. See the Romans for the first 800 years or so of their history and the U.S. versus the Apaches, 19th century. (Geronimo and his warriors make Al Quaida look like a bunch of choir boys.)

    The cancer analogy seems to fit all to well in this scenario. To destroy a tumor (conventional target set) is relatively easy for advanced technology. To destroy every last cancer cell and prevent it from regrowing somewhere else is not. Of course, one sure-fire way to kill the cancer is to blow the brains out of the cancer patient…a “baby and the bathwater” kind of argument, at best.

    Do I have all of the answers? If I did, I’d sell a book myself. But I do know that such questions as these need to be examined…and not simply assumed.

  15. Javier Hernandez-Miyares says:

    what is necessary is to build a revolutionary party within the united states.

  16. Todd Cereghino says:

    It is sad that the changing of the name of 11 November from Armistice Day to Veterans Day has led the Pentagon to trust in armed coercion in place of trying to learn from 1914 and not whitewash it into a just crusade. We had strong warnings in Korea and Vietnam, but the Pentagon has sought an honourable death in place of life. May we survive!