"If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention." The bumper sticker caught my eye, floating--as it seemed--amongst the many "Kerry-Edwards" and "David Price for Congress" tags on the cars outside Binkley Baptist Church in Chapel Hill last Friday morning. Binkley: Liberal bastion of the Hill. Price: The Hill's favorite son, and sometime disappointment, come to talk about "The Way Forward in Iraq."
Is he paying attention? Yes, he is. And after an hour on or so, after he'd said his piece and tried to answer a series of the kind of damning questions only friends can ask, Congressman Price let it be known that he, too, is outraged. "I have just never seen an administration like this one," he said of President Bush & Co. "And the world has never seen one."
Bush's abandonment of the post-World War II alliance of Western nations when he invaded Iraq will be seen as a historic tragedy, Price went on in a rush, and Congress's vote to sanction it (which Price, to his credit, opposed) remembered as "a massive abdication of congressional responsibility."
More than the words themselves, it was the way Price said them that conveyed his real anguish. Think of him: thoughtful, reasonable, professorial; a man always willing to see the other's point. But now, Price was shaking his head, talking to himself almost, as some 200 of us looked on. Iraq is a disaster. He knows that. Maybe an irretrievable one. "When I say the window of opportunity is closing," he said, pausing to consider whether he should go on, "maybe it's already closed."
But Price, two and a half years after the invasion, is still not ready to grasp the conclusion and run with it. He still talks about Iraq in terms of how the United States can succeed, put things right, and "prevent" the country from imploding or becoming "a basing point for international terrorism." What's needed, he says, is "a major course correction"--in technique.
He is not, therefore, talking about getting out or conceding what his Binkley friends think is obvious: That whatever Iraq's fate is to be, our military occupation there will not--and cannot, given that it's under George Bush's control--make things come out better; instead, it's making even a tolerable outcome less likely to occur.
Democrats in Orange County, and in Price's 4th Congressional District, both adopted resolutions this year urging the government to "begin withdrawing immediately" from Iraq and to support international peacekeeping and reconstruction efforts thereafter.
So, as questioner after questioner at Binkley got up to first thank their friend David for his excellent analysis of the situation, and second to ridicule his conclusions, a frustrated Price finally declared that "what I've said here today would be assented to by the vast majority of Democratic members [of Congress]."
No doubt. But Price's district, among the most solidly progressive in the country, doesn't want or need a garden-variety Democratic member when it comes to the war. Price's model on Iraq is Joe Biden. But the situation demands a Howard Dean.
Price spelled out his position on Iraq in a speech on the House floor July 29, and he largely repeated it on Friday. The full text is at www.price.house.gov, and it's worth reading for its factual depiction of the mess we're in, but to summarize: The carnage, for Iraqis and our troops, is awful; the insurgents are gaining; Iraqi troops and police are far from ready to take over security operations, nor will they be ready in the near future; reconstruction is lagging badly; and the "coalition of the willing"--always a fiction--is down to 135,000 U.S. troops, 12,000 Brits and 2,800 South Koreans.
Oh, and Iraq was never a real country, as the task of writing a constitution has made clear; it's three distinct regions whose proximity makes them enemies, not allies.
So what does Price suggest we do now? If you remember John Kerry's position, or you've heard Sen. Biden's, then you know Price's, too. We should "signal" that we'll withdraw from Iraq some day, leaving no permanent bases. We should "accelerate" the training of Iraqi troops, with international help. We should get more international help. We should also put our money behind more small-scale reconstruction projects, less Halliburton-level stuff with their giant security requirements.
And "benchmarks." Bush must establish "benchmarks" so we can measure success and our progress toward it.
It's a position, if I may say so, that might have moved the ball forward on Iraq a year ago. But not today. As Allen Spalt, the former Carrboro alderman, told Price, "The image of a course correction, even a 'major' course correction, is not what we should be looking for."
It's too mild, Spalt said, and the situation is too dire.
Nor does it help, as Spalt among others said, for Democrats to keep demanding benchmarks from Bush, who simply blows them off. Sure, you could imagine useful benchmarks if you were the commander-in-chief, but since it's Bush who's in charge, what's needed--what's been needed for as long as we've been in there--is Democrats setting the benchmarks and then, as Bush serially fails to meet any of them, demanding withdrawal as a consequence.
That's what Andrew Pearson, a leading anti-war activist, wants from Price. "All of us," Pearson said, in a respective bow to Price's standing in the district, "would like to see you walking with us, rather than have to drag you along from behind."
But Price resists. Yes, he says, the American occupation is fueling the insurgency. Interestingly, though, he always speaks of the insurgency in the singular, rhetorically closing himself off to the sectarian violence going on among various insurgencies even as he argues that we must stay to quell the other, unspecified "factors beyond the American military presence that are feeding the insurgency and could plunge Iraq into civil war, or even the conditions of a failed state, after we are gone."
If I read what he's saying correctly, Price is warning that the Shiite majority will seize control and its militias exact revenge on the Sunnis (Saddam Hussein's supporters, that is), unless we stay and make everybody adopt a pluralistic system of government, American-style.
If ever that fantasy outcome was possible, two-plus years of brutal American occupation has eliminated it. The Shiites, while giving the Kurds autonomy in the north, will control the rest of Iraq, and its oil, and they will be allied with Shiite-controlled Iran, not with us. What they will do to the Sunnis, and the Sunnis to them, is something over which we will have no control whatsoever once we leave, just as we have none while we're there.
The longer we stay, however, the more likely the failed-state outcome is with its "terrorist-basing" consequences.
That's how I see it, anyway. "Success" in Iraq was toppling Saddam's regime and confirming what we should have know already, that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. Invading was sure to result in Shiite control (as Bush's father feared, when he stopped short of Baghdad in '91), or else in a civil war.
Failure, in other words, is inevitable. We can't "prevent" it. But there are better failures and worse, and we're doing our best to make it the latter.
Price has another town meeting scheduled Wednesday, Aug. 31, 7-8:30 p.m. in the Fuquay-Varina Town Hall. He's invited to speak, too, at a Sept. 13 Town Hall meeting in Chapel Hill planned by antiwar groups.
Heroes and zeroes
Hero: Cindy Sheehan. She was here in March, if you recall, for the antiwar rally in Fayetteville. She's sure stayed with it, hasn't she?
Hero: Janet Cowell. Five Democrats in the state Senate are holding off the lottery, but the other four are veterans of the General Assembly. Props to rookie Cowell for deciding, right off, on principle over its obverse--and sticking with it. Nearly as heroic: First-term House member Grier Martin, D-Raleigh, who voted against the state budget because of the pro-lottery language in it. But other House Democrats chose the go-along route, making his vote superfluous.
Zero: State Sen. Vernon Malone, D-Raleigh, who represents East Wake but thought it important to slip $5 million in the state budget so his developer pals could get a low-priority road extension built sooner up in North Raleigh. That's a zero for his own district, a zero for housing, schools or social needs, and a zero for him, too.
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