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Drinking the Kool-Aid

Who's right on Iraq — General Petraeus or Gov. Richardson?


Maybe instead of listening to Gen. David Petraeus, New Mexico's Congressional delegation should pay attention to First Sgt. Timothy Johnson. Sergeant Johnson, age 43, hails from right down the road in El Paso, but it's his recent experience on a road in Iraq — as reported last month in the New York Times — that might be enlightening.

In testifying to a Congressional committee that mostly acted like lapdogs, transfixed by the shiny stars on his uniform, General Petraeus predictably said things are going pretty darned well in Iraq and, in essence, Congress should butt out. President Bush's "surge" is working so well, in fact, that by next summer we ought to be able to pull 30,000 troops out of Iraq. That would leave troop levels back where they were when the "surge" began — a curious definition of success. A New York Times editorial aptly likened it to "dropping an object and taking credit for gravity."

The general did not speculate on how many of his soldiers would be added to the nearly 3,800 American deaths in Iraq in this effort to get back to where we started.

We can only hope that First Sgt. Timothy Johnson is not among them, and that he is able to return to family and friends in El Paso to tell them what he's seen. In the meantime, we have his account in the Times of what happened in mid-June as the sergeant was driving past a checkpoint manned by the Iraqi National Police. These are the Iraqi security forces, please note, that we are counting on to "step up" as American troops (at some indeterminate date in the distant future) "stand down."

Sergeant Johnson exchanged friendly waves with the Iraqis guarding the checkpoint, many of whom he knew well, and drove on. Barely 50 feet farther on, however, a sophisticated roadside bomb called an Explosively Formed Penetrator (EFP) blew up the rear of his Humvee. Johnson and his crew were unhurt, but their luggage was blasted out onto the road — where the smiling Iraqi National Police officers promptly stole a computer, camera and mobile phone. When confronted, the Iraqi police demanded $40 for the return of the computer.

"I don't trust them," Sergeant Johnson told the Times, in an evaluation both more pithy and more realistic than General Petraeus would deliver to Congress. "They will smile in your face and stab you in the back. They were just too close to that EFP not to have known."

Asked if the situation on the ground in Iraq has improved since that day in mid-June, the El Paso soldier shook his head emphatically. "No, they are the same," he said. "It's bad and it's not going to get better. We're not going to make a difference, not in the short term. Maybe if we stayed here forever."


Staying in Iraq forever seems to be exactly the strategy President Bush and his pet general have in mind. Members of New Mexico's Congressional delegation will be crucial to any hopes for escaping that tar-pit policy. In particular, our two US senators — who stand somewhat to the middle of their respective parties — will be swing votes in any attempt to wrench US Iraq policy into a stance of sanity.

As General Petraeus' hollow promises faded to echoes in Washington, the initial reaction of both New Mexico senators was encouragingly guarded. Neither senator seemed to be entirely drinking the Kool-Aid spooned out by the delusional Bush administration. (Just last month, according to the Sydney Morning Herald, President Bush told Australia's deputy prime minister that the US is "kicking ass" in Iraq.) Sen. Jeff Bingaman noted that the reports by General Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker emphasized security improvements, while downplaying the failure of the Iraqi government to meet US benchmarks. "The political reconciliation that is essential to reduce the violence and stabilize the situation is not occurring," Bingaman said. "Military progress alone is not going to solve this problem. It's not going to get us to the point where we can withdraw troops."

Even Sen. Pete Domenici, while saying he was "encouraged" by some of the testimony, sounded cautious and more realistic than some of his Republican colleagues: "The surge seems to be working on the security front. At the same time, I share frustrations expressed by Ambassador Crocker about the slow pace of progress by the Iraqi government to achieve national reconciliation."

But the New Mexico senators need to be far more skeptical, not just about the Iraqi government but also about claims that the surge is working. We wish that Sen. Domenici was as forthright as his fellow Republican, Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, who bluntly wondered: "Are we going to continue to invest American blood and treasure at the same rate we're doing now? For what? The president said, 'Let's buy time.' Buy time? For what?"

The most notable success cited by General Petraeus, in fact, was utterly unrelated to the surge and has been a complete surprise to US officials: In Anbar Province, local shieks have adopted a philosophy of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" and are working with US forces to combat insurgents.

As for the key goal of the surge — bringing calm to Baghdad — limited success has largely been achieved by, in effect, ethnic cleansing. Overall, 35,000 people have simply fled the city since the surge began. A detailed survey of Baghdad neighborhoods by New York Times reporters found that Shiite areas have been pacified by killing or driving out any rival Sunnis. As commentator Paul Krugman notes, "When a Sunni enclave is eliminated and the death toll in that district falls because there's nobody left to kill, that counts as progress by the Pentagon's metric."

The Pentagon's death-toll arithmetic, in fact, would have done the bean counters at Enron proud. According to a Washington Post report, the US military is highly selective about what it counts as "sectarian" killings, dismissing all other violent deaths in Iraq. Those deaths from car bombs that so numbingly make the news day after day, for example, aren't counted as sectarian killings. Not even all shootings are counted, as one intelligence analyst told the Post: "If a bullet went through the back of the head, it's sectarian. If it went through the front, it's criminal."

So, apparently, if only we could get all the Iraqis to shoot each other face to face, we could declare victory and bring our troops home.


But General Petraeus has those stars on his uniform, so we can believe him, right? Only if you believe that the general was also right back in 2004 — six crucial weeks before President Bush's re-election — when he pronounced that "Iraqi leaders are stepping forward" and "Iraqi security elements are being rebuilt." Presumably those are the same security forces that tried to ransom Sergeant Johnson's computer.

The truth is, as Krugman points out, no independent assessment — including the latest report from the nonpartisan Government Accounting Office — has concluded that violence is down in Iraq. Estimates based on morgue, hospital and police records, rather than Pentagon wishful thinking, suggest that daily civilian deaths are almost double the average figure at the same time last year.

But Americans aren't getting the truth from either our military or our civilian leadership. Instead we get General Petraeus' carefully scripted testimony and photo ops of President Bush making a surprise visit to Iraq. Perhaps the president would be more realistic about progress in Iraq if he took a ride with El Paso's Sergeant Johnson, instead of staying within the safe and comfy confines of the airbase that Marines nickname "Camp Cupcake."

New Mexico's Congressional delegation needs to take the lead in yanking our Iraq policy back to reality. When the president asks for $50 billion more to continue his surge strategy — enough to fund the children's health care program he vowed to veto, with $20 billion in change — they need to vote no. They need to take the only step the president can't ignore and vote to cut off all funding for the Iraq conflict except that needed to bring US troops home safely and expeditiously.

Our representatives in Washington need to pay attention to General Petraeus' stunning answer when asked by Virginia Sen. John Warner — another Republican — whether our open-ended commitment in Iraq was making America any safer. At least the general was honest: "Sir, I don't know, actually." If not even the general in charge can say that America's Iraq strategy is making us safer, for heaven's sakes why should we stick with that plan a single day longer?

Indeed, our US senators and representatives need to listen to another New Mexico politician who knows what he's talking about when it comes to the real world beyond our borders — governor and presidential candidate Bill Richard_son. "I am convinced that only a complete withdrawal can sufficiently shift the politics of Iraq and its neighbors to break the deadlock that has been killing so many people for so long," Richardson recently wrote. "Our troops have done everything they were asked to do with courage and professionalism, but they cannot win someone else's civil war."


Giving Good Weight

A new gardening column adds to this issue's hefty contents.


If you threw your back out picking up this issue of Desert Exposure, please don't blame us (as I blamed J.K. Rowling and her hefty Harry Potter finale for my own back woes, last issue). It's not your imagination, though, that this month's issue seems especially suitable for, say, rolling up and replacing your hand weights. Our racks and the suspensions of our delivery vehicles are indeed groaning under the burden of the biggest issue yet.

Assuming you don't really mind getting even more Desert Exposure, please do thank our advertisers, who once again have shown their support in record numbers. Each month, it seems, we collapse in exhaustion saying, "Well, we can't possibly have any more ads than that one!" And yet each month we do somehow manage to grow compared to the same issue the year before.

But we don't simply fill each ever-fatter issue with more and more ads. As noted previously in this column, we believe it serves our advertisers best to give readers some reason to, well, read the whole issue, not just flip through and file it in the recycling. So this issue brings a bumper crop of content, too, along with the October harvest of ads.

Speaking of agricultural metaphors, among the content filling this issue's pages is a new column, "Southwest Gardener," by Vivian Savitt. Our recent reader survey detected a surge of interest in gardening tips and expert advice, and happily Savitt happened to raise her spade at just the right time. Prior to moving to Silver City and writing the occasional feature for Desert Exposure (notably including a piece on "gardening with principles" in July 2006), Savitt worked in the Washington Bureau of CBS News. She's also written for publications ranging from The Walking Magazine to Texas Monthly.

While living in Washington, Savitt reports, she occasionally found time to visit the National Arboretum; now she concentrates on tending her own garden at her home, dubbed "Ditch Cottage." Besides being a veteran and avid gardener herself — and a visitor to many of the world's great gardens — Savitt is an expert researcher (a trade she formerly plied for "60 Minutes") who can ferret out whatever she doesn't know already about growing things. Her Southwest Gardener column will focus, of course, on the special challenges and pleasures of growing things in our corner of the world.

Sadly, however, Savitt's first column — on the topic of putting your garden to bed for the winter — will be the last until spring. Assuming readers respond to this fall preview as we think they will, look for the return of Southwest Gardener with the arrival of warmer weather and 2008 seed catalogs. In the meantime, let us know what you think at editor@desertexposure.com or PO Box 191, Silver City, NM 88062.

Let's just hope that by spring our readers have recovered from the strain of lifting this issue in time to pick up their trowels.


David A. Fryxell is editor and publisher of Desert Exposure.


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