Good news from Iraq

Good news has just come out of Iraq, so why is the Republican response, “We’re f—ed?”

For some time, I have wanted to write the title for this column. Given the U.S. media’s virtual blackout of coverage of the Iraq War, little news at all seems to come out of the country – much less good news. Sure, every once in awhile we’re told the standard line that “the surge is working.” In a minimal way this is correct as “only” 29 U.S. troops were killed in June versus 62 before the escalation began in January 2006. However, Iraqi deaths have not changed much in that same span with 554 deaths reported by the Associated Press in June. This is similar to pre-escalation levels.

Rather, the good news came when Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki indicated in an interview with Germany’s Der Spiegel that the U.S. occupation should end “as soon as possible” and then added, “U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama talks about 16 months. That, we think, would be the right timeframe for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes.” Maliki suggested that this was not an endorsement of Obama, but rather his effort “to say what they [the Iraqis] want.” A statement was sent out by the U.S.-led Multinational Force in Iraq, claiming that Maliki had been “misunderstood and mistranslated” but cited no specific corrections. Other news outlets then confirmed the translation and it was revealed that the translator was Maliki’s, not Spiegel’s. Then on Monday, with Obama visiting Baghdad, an actual government spokesman not working for the United States reiterated, “We are hoping that in 2010 that combat troops will withdraw from Iraq.”

This is undeniably good news. U.S. public opinion has been on the side of ending the occupation for some time. The only hitch has always been whether Iraqis “still needed us.” Now the prime minister is saying, in effect, that they will not in the near future. Despite this good news, a “Republican strategist who occasionally provides advice to the McCain campaign” told reporter Marc Ambinder that the news meant, simply, “We’re f—ed.”

This intemperate comment is revealing in so many ways. Clearly the advisor was discussing the comment’s electoral implications, but the worldview it reflects goes much deeper given that the advisor knows it’s a rejection of McCain’s very definition of what it means to be “victorious” in Iraq. McCain’s current policy towards Iraq has hinged on long-term – even hundred year – “Korea-style” occupation where “victory” is defined in terms of zero U.S. casualties and permanent bases. Such a view of “victory” – undoubtedly rooted in McCain’s Vietnam experience – is what is being fundamentally rejected by Maliki. Indeed, in the same interview, he suggested, “So far the Americans have had trouble agreeing to a concrete timetable for withdrawal, because they feel it would appear tantamount to an admission of defeat. But that isn’t the case at all. If we come to an agreement, it is not evidence of a defeat, but of a victory.”

Thus, Maliki’s comments do more than come into agreement with U.S. public opinion on when the occupation should end. They also offer us a more useful definition of “victory” – one which is limited and not rooted in visions of grandeur for an imperial United States.

Jason Stahl welcomes comments at [email protected]