In a recent column, TAP Online Editor Richard Just and TomPaine.com Executive Editor Nick Penniman prescribed "the only moral and practical option" for liberals quavering over the war. It is, they wrote, "to begin immediately campaigning for a more ambitious, comprehensive and compassionate reconstruction of Iraq . . . while supporting the war effort that will lay the groundwork for such plans to be enacted."
Just and Penniman state two grounds for their claim to have identified the "only moral and practical option." The first is a call to consistency. Now that the war has started, they write, the liberation of Iraq from Saddam Hussein's regime is at hand. Liberals must support the rebuilding of Iraqi schools as much as they would the rebuilding of schools here at home.
In the second argument, as it turns out, morality and practicality are a matter of votes:
Well, we have news for our progressive friends. Dread isn't going to fly with the majority of American voters -- and it isn't progressive. In two months, U.S. forces will have liberated Iraq from Hussein's rule. How will a temperament of permanent dread look then? Imagine the line George W. Bush will land over and over again on the campaign trail "For those who said we couldn't plant the seed of democracy in the Middle East, I say, 'Never doubt the resolve of the American people.'"
Is this, then, where liberals are? To have our views, our attitudes and our convictions -- our very conception of morality -- dictated, a full year in advance, by a prediction of a campaign slogan? Craven doesn't begin to describe it.
Just and Penniman's argument is based on a point of view widely held in advance of the war, and expressed on March 16 by Vice President Dick Cheney, who said: "I really do believe that we will be greeted as liberators. . . . The read we get on the people of Iraq is there is no question but that they want to get rid of Saddam Hussein and they will welcome as liberators the United States when we come to do that."
There is no need to doubt the sincerity of this view. Nor do we have, even now, decisive evidence to prove it entirely wrong. But, right or wrong, it has been proved irrelevant.
The fact remains that a very effective armed gang, numbering in the scores of thousands, presently governs Iraq. That gang will continue to offer stiff resistance first to occupation and later to reconstruction, until it is destroyed, root and branch, by a far superior force. And, as it is now clear, the application of that force, if it can succeed at all, must entail a horrific level of violence.
In planning for this war, the military professionals faced a choice. As many actually recommended, we could have built up a vast and overwhelming force and reduced Iraq to rubble from the air before moving in. Such a strategy was widely anticipated by anti-war forces worldwide; it formed the basis of many advance condemnations. However, it was correctly judged by our political leaders to be self-defeating politically, in Iraq and in the wider world.
The other choice facing Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was to strike fast, with precision bombing ("shock and awe") and a fast-moving military force, bypassing the expected-to-be-friendly cities in the south and moving straight to Baghdad. But as strategy this entailed an elementary chess player's mistake: It did not take into account the reaction of the other side.
The main flaws are now plain. First, the strategy left very long supply lines exposed and vulnerable. Troops require water and tanks require gasoline. Without these, no force 250 miles from base will be useful for long. Second, Iraqi soldiers embedded in civilian populations -- both those along supply lines and in Baghdad -- can only be destroyed alongside those populations. Thus the Iraqis could force the transformation of the second strategy into the first. And, being military realists, they have done so.
The dilemma is now acute. Retreat is unthinkable. George W. Bush's neoconservatives (standing safely in the back) will figuratively execute any who quail. The level of violence will therefore be raised. Meanwhile, the prime stocks of precision munitions have been drawn down, and speculation about the future use of cluster bombs and napalm and other vile weapons is being heard. And so the political battle -- the battle for hearts and minds -- will be lost. If history is a guide, you cannot subdue a large and hostile city except by destroying it completely. Short of massacre, we will not inherit a pacified Iraq.
For this reason, the project of reconstruction is impossible. No one should imagine that the civilians sent in to do this work can be made secure. To support "the groundwork" for this effort is to support a holocaust, quite soon, against Iraqi civilians and also against the troops on both sides. That is what victory means. You can watch the beginnings (if you have satellite television) even now, as injured children fill up the hospitals of Baghdad.
The moral strategy would be to avoid the holocaust. To achieve that from the present disastrous position, the United States would have to accept a cease-fire, which would lead to the withdrawal of coalition forces under safe conduct. There would be no military dishonor in such a step. It would, however, entail the humiliation of the entire Bush administration, indeed its well-deserved political collapse. Too bad the moral strategy is not a practical one.
The practical alternative? It is to oppose, to speak up and to write against the war, to expose and illuminate the frightful choices we confront. Let us remind our leaders at every turn of their recklessness and miscalculation. The American public may, if it chooses, reject the liberal position and support the hawks. But let us give them a choice. It is quite sure anyway that no one, in a situation as grave as this, will line up behind a platform of preemptive cringing.
James K. Galbraith is a professor at the University of Texas at Austin.