Politics & Policy

Our Flip-Flopping Wars

Iraq was never lost and Afghanistan was never quite the easy good war.

We don’t hear all that much about Iraq these days, do we?

The war at one point almost tore apart this country. Public anger sent George W. Bush’s approval ratings plummeting. And the outrage over our losses helped elect vocal anti–Iraq War candidate Barack Obama.

But Iraq is hardly in the news anymore. That seems odd, given there are still 120,000 American troops stationed there.

So, why the silence?

In short, Americans are not dying in Iraq as they were from 2006 to 2008. Twice as many Americans have died in Afghanistan this year as in Iraq. As of this writing, in December, there have been four coalition fatalities. That’s about one-tenth of the number of people murdered per month in Chicago in 2008.

Perceptions of the war in Iraq have also changed in unforeseen ways.

“No blood for oil,” for example, was once a common anti-war cry. But Iraq’s auctioning of its oil leases has gone mostly to Europeans, Russians, and Chinese — not Americans.

The U.S., it turned out, did not go to Iraq to steal its natural resources. Apparently, we instead ensured a fair auction by a constitutional government that preferred non-American companies to pump its oil. In the end, we were more idealistic — or naïve — than conspiratorial.

Then there is Iran, which, many argued, was supposed to have been empowered after we removed its nemesis, Saddam Hussein. And, indeed, it sure looked that way when Iranian agents were stirring up violence in Iraq.

Yet this year, a million Iranians went out in the streets to demand free and fair elections of the sort they hear about constantly across their border. In other words, perhaps the democratic experiment in Iraq — where Shiite Muslims enjoy freedom — will prove destabilizing in the long term to the Iranian theocracy.

Here at home, the portrayal of the two wars we’re engaged in is just as topsy-turvy. When fewer than 100 Americans were dying each year in Afghanistan, and the Taliban were in hiding, the Afghan conflict was proclaimed a necessary, good war — in contrast to the optional, costly, and apparently failed effort in Iraq.

But in 2009, George Bush’s bad war quieted down. And the good war in Afghanistan, now overseen by Barack Obama, heated up.

In turn, the politics flipped as well.

Once upon a time, presidential candidate Barack Obama argued that combat troops should leave Iraq by March 2008, and more soldiers should be sent to Afghanistan. That seemed popular at the time, since most then thought Iraq was hopeless.

But under the present reversed conditions, President Obama apparently has followed the Bush-Petraeus plan of incremental withdrawal from Iraq. And, with Afghanistan, he waited months before granting the requests of his generals for more troops — while insisting on a deadline to start bringing them back home.

As a result, the left-wing loyalists who helped elect Obama on his anti-war credentials are now furious at the Nobel Peace Laureate for sending any additional troops to Afghanistan. And his biggest supporters, ironically, are his usual right-wing opponents, who now applaud him for listening to his generals.

The media coverage of Afghanistan and Iraq has been just as schizophrenic. So far, the rising violence in Afghanistan is not quite front-page news, as Iraq once was. Most in the media seem reluctant to tar Obama with creating a messy quagmire — at least not yet — in the way the reporting from Iraq helped bring down George Bush.

Many in the media (not to mention Congress) once were delighted that retired high-ranking officers — in a “revolt of the generals” moment — came forward to criticize Bush and our conduct in Iraq.

Now, though, we hear all kinds of concern that Gen. Stanley McChrystal once publicly expressed impatience with the decision-making of the Obama administration. Whether it is good or bad for officers to wade into politics, or whether surges are doomed or logical, apparently depends on who is in the White House.

What are we to make of all these flip-flops?

Iraq was never lost and Afghanistan was never quite the easy good war. Those in the media too often pile on and follow the polls rather than offer independent analysis. Campaign rhetoric and politics are one thing — the responsibility of governance is quite another.

And when wars break out, no one ever quite knows how things will finally end up.

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