Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Riding The Tiger

General Petraeus' testimony yesterday was a disgrace -- a linguistic maze of cowardly gobbledegook that said little and committed to less. Would that he and Ambassador Crocker could face the American people with a fingernail-sized sliver of the courage that his soldiers show in battle -- we and they deserve no less, although it was hardly in evidence. Nonetheless, politicians and press continue to quail before anyone in a brass hat: Coverage of the hearings was muted and the political response was more frustrated and resigned than anything else.

Petraeus and Crocker said that reconciliation in Iraq was "hard"; Patrick Cockburn, The Independent's award-winning Iraq correspondent, thinks it well nigh impossible. Yesterday, Cockburn -- whom one of his peers calls "quite simply, the best Western journalist at work in Iraq today" -- published Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq, an assessment of the Shiite cleric and political power. Departing from traditional Western reporting, Cockburn view Muqtada as a canny, skilled leader who owes his position to his family's long-time opposition to Saddam Hussein and his ready grasp of Iraqi opposition to occupation of any kind.

Sadr's power grew after the occupation began, when American leadership proved unable to provide food, water, and electricity to the people of Baghdad. Moreover, the Iraqi provisional government, hunkered down in the relative safety of the Green Zone, "rapidly turned into a kleptocracy comparable to Nigeria or the Congo. Muqtada sensed the loathing with which the government was regarded, and dodged in and out of government, enjoying some of the fruits of power while denouncing those who held it."

In the last chapter of his book -- available here -- Cockburn describes how the best chance of Shia and Sunni alliance collapsed when the Sunnis reject Sadr's calls for unity by refusing to denounce Al-Qaeda in Iraq, an organization hated and feared by the Shia community. Unwilling or unable to accept their minority status, the Sunnis began their protracted guerilla war with the Shia factions. Ethnic cleansing of neighborhoods ensued and the fissure between the two groups became unbridgeable. Cockburn observes that "the only way the Sadrists and the Mehdi Army could create confidence among the Sunni that Muqtada meant what he said when he called for unity, would be for them to be taken back voluntarily into the areas in Baghdad and elsewhere from which they have been driven. But there is no sign of this happening. The disintegration of Iraq has probably gone too far for the country to exist as anything more than a loose federation."

Cockburn describes Moqtada, whose hold on the Shia militias is hardly absolute, as "a man riding a tiger, sometimes presiding over, sometimes controlling the mass movement he nominally led." Which begs the question: If as influential and capable a man as Moqtada al-Sadr is riding an Iraqi tiger that he can't control, what are we doing? I circle back to the galling Petraeus-Crocker testimony and wonder why no one asks this question: What about the situation in Iraq and the Administration's performance to date leads anyone to believe that the United States can dictate as positive outcome in that tragic country? Or, for that matter, play any constructive role at all, given who is in charge?

Bill Sher writes from Northampton, Massachusetts: When Gen. David Petraeus testifies about the status of the Iraq occupation, I'll be thinking about my neighborhood elementary school. Because the Bridge Street School in Northampton, Mass., may have to close for lack of funds, while we continue to waste billions on a failed foreign policy.

My town is facing a shortfall in our school budget between $800,000 to $1 million. We are forced with a choice between closing an entire school, which doesn't even make up the entire gap, or a series of cuts across the entire school district, including teaching positions, school buses, special education, music and arts education and supplies.

We're not alone in Massachusetts. The Boston Globe reports:

"Across Massachusetts, cities and towns face the prospect of deep cuts in what appears to be the grimmest fiscal year since 2003. Local revenue and state aid can't keep up with such rapidly rising expenses as employee health insurance, heating oil, and even street paving. School costs, like special education requirements, are sapping local budgets. And now beleaguered residents are seeing home values dip even as taxes continue to rise."

And it's not just Massachusetts, school budgets are being squeezed across the nation. While we are starved for investment in our schools—not to mention our health, our energy, our environment and our infrastructure—the occupation saps our resources. As Joseph Stiglitz, co-author of The Three Trillion Dollar War, said on MSNBC yesterday: "Spending on the war is the worst form of spending. I mean, just think about it. Paying a Nepalese worker to work in Iraq doesn’t stimulate the economy in the same way that spending that same dollar in the United States."

Paying for cheap Nepalese labor (sometimes lying to lure them into Iraq) doesn't even help rebuild Iraq's economic foundation, let alone ours.

How does this relate to the Bridge Street School's possible closing? According to the National Priorities Project, while my town of Northampton faces a school budget gap of nearly $1 million, Northampton's share of the cost of the occupation is a massive $55,800,000. It is critical that we invest in America's foundation if we are to thrive in the global economy of the 21st century. If we're wasting our money on a failed foreign policy, we won't have the resources to invest in the next generation.

War always has costs. If war is a strategic necessity, then those costs may be worth sacrificing. But the conservative goal of this war, a permanent military occupation of Iraq, is a dangerous and destabilizing goal not worth one penny or one life. And we're paying far more than that.

You can find out from the National Priorities Project how much your town is paying for the occupation at

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