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Cheney and Iraq

04/29/04 12:00AM By Jay Parini
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(Host) Jay Parini reflects on a statement about the Iraq war from a surprising source.

(Parini) Listen to the words of an incredibly astute critic who spoke out well before the recent preemptive invasion of Iraq. "Once you've gone to Baghdad," he said, "it's not clear what you do with it. It's not clear what likely government you would put in place of the one that's currently there. How much credibility is that government going to have if it's set up by the United States military...I think that to have American military forces engaged in a civil war inside Iraq would fit the idea of a quagmire, and we have absolutely no desire to get bogged down in that fashion."

Who was that talking? Ralph Nader or Howard Dean? No, that was Dick Cheney in a public speech given in 1991 to the Institute for Near East Studies, when he was Secretary of Defense under the first President Bush. If you want to check out that quote, go to Google, then type in Dick Cheney and the word "quagmire." It's all there. Would that Mr. Cheney had - in the past year - listened to his earlier self.

Hundreds of American soldiers have now been killed - precious young men and women who are just about the age of two of my own children. Thousands have been wounded, many of them severely. By most estimates, over ten thousand Iraqis have died, most of them civilians. This is a brutal harvest.

Now that we've got to Baghdad, as Mr. Cheney said, it's not clear what to do with it. The current plan is to turn over the country to a sovereign government of some kind on June 30th, but the dictionary defines sovereignty as a governmental entity that has control over its military. An Iraqi government that does not control its own military will become the target of anger and violence, and it seems unlikely to survive. Credibility is the issue here, as Mr. Cheney wisely noted.

The best argument for the Iraq war is that it's about establishing a democratic example for other Arab states to follow. Having a democratic flagship in the Middle East remains a good idea. The problem is that it's difficult, if not impossible, to impose democratic values on people who have no real acquaintance with this tradition. It's arrogant and, worse, deadly to make assumptions about other cultures, especially when you back up those assumptions with guns and tanks, with helicopter gunships and laser-guided bombs. Massive violence, as an agent of political change, has never worked very well. It doesn't encourage people to get out and vote.

Mr. Cheney was on the mark when he said that to have the U.S. military engaged in a civil war in Iraq would fit the definition of a quagmire.

And a quagmire it is. This war may well drag on for years. If it does, the cost will be exorbitant, not only with unbearable loss of life on all sides, but with the dollars of American taxpayers - money that might have been better spent elsewhere - in Afghanistan, for example, or in American schools.

Meanwhile, what are we to do about Iraq? I wish we still had Dick Cheney - the earlier one - to ask.

This is Jay Parini, in Weybridge.

Jay Parini, a poet, novelist and biographer, teaches at Middlebury. He spoke from studios at Middlebury College.
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