Columns written for the Berkeley Daily Planet newspaper, Berkeley, CA




April 6, 2007

And thus Captain Ahab shouted as he clung to the side of the great white whale in the midst of the sea, stabbing at it over and over with his harpoon: "’I turn my body from the sun. … Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! THUS, I give up the spear!’

“… Next instant, the heavy eye-splice in the rope's final end flew out of the stark-empty tub, knocked down an oarsman, and smiting the sea, disappeared in its depths.

“For an instant, the tranced boat's crew stood still; then turned. ‘The ship? Great God, where is the ship?’ Soon they through dim, bewildering mediums saw her sidelong fading phantom... And now, concentric circles seized the lone boat itself, and all its crew, and each floating oar, and every lance-pole, and spinning, animate and inanimate, all round and round in one vortex, carried the smallest chip of the Pequod out of sight.”

From the novel “Moby Dick,” by Herman Melville

It would appear that America at war in Iraq has a madman like Captain Ahab at the helm of the ship of state and, like the officers of the ill-fated Pequod, the members of the United States Congress now have an enormous dilemma immediately facing them while they struggle to save that ship.

Is George Bush actually a madman? Who knows what lurks within the hearts of such men? What we do know is that, bunkered down and entrenched in his insistence that we continue the war in Iraq at any cost, to an end we cannot fathom, Mr. Bush may not be a madman, but he certainly is looking more and more like he is playing one, convincingly, on tv. And in the coming showdown over the funding of the Iraq war, events may overtake us so rapidly that it may be difficult to tell the difference between the reality and the pretense and the posturing of the man whom we call President, and by the time we figure it out, it may be too late.

So, some thoughts, and advice, to our friends in the National Congress.

It is said by those amongst us who are experts on the military that retreat under enemy fire—or withdrawal, if that term makes you feel more comfortable about discussing the subject—is probably the most difficult and dangerous of maneuvers an army can attempt. You do not have to be a military expert to understand why this would be so. Either entrenched or moving forward, an army’s eyes and weapons can be easily pointed to both the front and either side. But try walking backward, or walking forward while looking and pointing something menacing in your hands in the opposite direction, behind you, and you will quickly see that this is not a neat trick, even if no one is lobbing artillery shells and rockets and bullets your way.

And thus, any withdrawal of American military forces from the front lines of the war in Iraq—either into fortress bases within that nation or to ring Iraq from surrounding Middle Eastern countries—would be a delicate and dangerous business calling, first, for careful, coordinated planning between the Defense and State Departments and the commanders and officers of the both the American armed forces and the Iraqi Army which must, by necessity, take their places in the field.

But while the Bush Administration has shown itself wondrously adept at scheming and political maneuvering, it has proven that long-range government planning is not its stong suit, even when it concerns issues about which it is enthusiastic and believes it should play an active role. And leaving Iraq, we know, is not something is especially enthusiastic about.

If it were forced to abandon its commitment to continuing the war in Iraq, one could argue that the Bush Administration would not deliberately sabotage the effort and precipitate a chaos in its wake in order to justify its dire predictions. But we can probably be assured that by reluctant foot-dragging coupled with its general incompetence, it could cause a result that would be virtually indistinguishable.

And that is what leaves members of the United States Congress in a dilemma, particularly those who either feel that the United States never should have invaded Iraq, or, having failed in our mission, should now leave.

These Congressional forces have coalesced to pass bills—slightly different in the Senate and the House—that grant continued money for the war effort only so long as it is coupled with a timetable for withdrawal.

Mr. Bush has promised that he will veto the legislation, leaving war opponents with the choice of either introducing a new spending bill that funds the war effort without the withdrawal language—opting to fight that withdrawal battle at another time—or, alternatively, refusing to pass any new funding approval that does not include the withdrawal language, forcing the President to back off and sign, or else force a defacto withdrawal by leaving U.S. armed forces without food or bullets to shoot or gasoline to put in their humvees and helicopters.

Most of my friends on the left—longtime opponents of the war—argue that Congress is obligated on moral grounds to draw a line in the sand, and draw it right now. The war is morally wrong, they say, and the funding should be withheld—not a dollar more for war—and if chaos ensues, so be it, since temporary chaos is preferable to continued killing. If one believes that the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq is morally wrong, it is difficult to argue with this position.

But that does not ease the burden of decision for those in the Congress who believe the war should end.

Anti-war members of Congress have a duty and obligation to end the U.S. occupation of Iraq as quickly as possible, but must do so—as much as possible—in a way that makes this a permanent military withdrawal, and not a prelude to U.S. military re-entry into a wider Middle East war. In this, the recent past is not a guide. There was virtually no chance that once out of Vietnam, the U.S. military would have been immediately re-introduced into another Southeast Asian war. The U.S. had geo-political interests in Southeast Asia as a battleground in the Cold War with Russia and China, but no vital economic interests beyond that. This is not the case with the Middle East, where the preservation of and access to vast oil reserves are currently in America’s national interest—much as the green among us are working to make it less so.

There is currently a fragile anti-war majority in America, with most Americans feeling that the U.S. army should leave Iraq. This is what led to the overturn of the Republican majority in both houses of Congress in the last election. But that anti-war majority is tenuous, coming of age based more on the Bush Administration’s bungling of the war in Iraq than to widespread American war opposition in theory or in principle. Events following a U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq—such as a wider Middle Eastern war resulting in an immediate threat to the area’s oil reserves, for example, leading to gas rationing and $10 a gallon pump prices—could quickly make that majority turn to beating plowshares back into swords.

So where does that leave us?

Much as we would like them to move immediately, Congress must move cautiously on the war issue. Because the anti-war majority in the country has not yet hardened, this is not the time to test its resolve in a showdown with the President. If Mr. Bush vetoes the military spending bill because of its withdrawal language—as he has promised—Congress should give in, and pass legislation that leaves the withdrawal language out. A point will have been made, and in the next budget showdown—which will inevitably come—the anti-war members of Congress will have the stronger hand.

Bush might blink in this first standoff, and sign a military funding bill with withdrawal language, but it is more likely that he will not. Like Captain Ahab, so consumed by his pursuit of Moby Dick that he failed to see the consequences to ship and crew, Mr. Bush may have lost sight of the dangers to the nation and the world in his pursuit of his aims, whatever they are. Congress has to be the more responsible party, with thoughts not only for today and tomorrow, but for the long term as well.

Does this mean that the anti-war forces outside of Congress should lay down and be quiet in the interim? Absolutely not. National sentiment against the war in Iraq grew, in no small part, because of the protesters and public speakers and agitators who have consistently opposed the war, the people who wrote editorials and letters and commentary and spoke up wherever there was someone to listen, and that opposition should continue, and even escalate. Anti-war elements in the Congress will need that agitation and that push from the outside, perhaps more so, now, than ever. This is not a counsel for retreat. But like the tide coming up on the shore, sometimes things must be pulled back a bit, and gathered, before a final rush take the waves completely over the rocky barriers.