The Language of Politics


Richard W. Crockett


In urging us to extend President Bush a chance to succeed with the “surge,” Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, remarked that General Petrais may be the “General Grant of the surge.”  Implicit in this reference to General Grant is a comparison of the Iraqi civil war to the American Civil War of one hundred and fifty years ago.  However, following this line of thought, one will discover that the comparison fails to be convincing.  While it is an interesting observation coming from Graham, a son of the South, I think Petrais is more representative in this historical analogy of “the Robert E. Lee of the surge.”  The parallel shows both Petrais and Lee to be brilliant commanders, but trying to accomplish a losing, hopeless, and unwise cause.


 It is true that in both cases of civil war the side firing the first shots enjoyed some initial success. In the early stages of the American Civil War, the South enjoyed initial success, perhaps up to the battle of Gettysburg.  The Americans enjoyed success in Iraq up to the “mission accomplished” banner on the aircraft carrier, Lincoln. Eventually, other factors took over. In both cases, the initial successes did not hold up.


 In the American Civil War, superiority of numbers of men and material turned the tide, even with inferior military leadership, although General Grant was clearly competent.  In the Iraq civil war, the dogged determination of competing, religious zealots to consolidate power is likely to prevail.  In Iraq, we are an invading “liberator,” and our actions have led to a civil war between Shiites and Sunnis at a minimum. What we have liberated are the Shiite and Sunni sects who want to push their own brand of sectarianism and guarantee its survival through the exercise of political power.  As Iraq has descended into this civil war, the Americans are becoming increasingly irrelevant.  We refuse to employ the numbers of men and material needed to establish anything approximating “success” by whatever definition we employ.


 The surge is more of the same.  Twenty thousand troops is not a full mobilization. Rather it is a continuation of a doctrine of lighter, fewer and faster in the manner of Don Rumsfeld, which worked fine for ousting Saddam Hussein, but failed miserably in occupying Iraq. In this instance it may be lighter, fewer and slower, because the “surge” has not manifested itself as yet—too little, too late. Moreover, we have no business mobilizing at the level needed to assure any particular outcome of someone else’s civil war, albeit a war of our making.


A more apt comparison to our civil war would require an intervention in our civil war by a major European power, seeking to referee the outcome.  It is true that Briton continued trade with the South, and showed a southern tilt, but at no point did they attempt to referee between the North and the South at the point of a bayonet or gun.  Imagine if they had.  Would it have been welcomed in the North to have them interfere with Lincoln’s effort at preserving the Union, or would the South have wanted interference from the outside with their goal of establishing a viable Confederacy?  Not likely in either case. Nor would we have welcomed in the North a well-meaning attempt to partition this country along any other lines dividing the country between slave and free states, or cultural nationalism, or any other conceivable explanation for our civil war, as some have suggested for Iraq, by dividing the country into semi-autonomous regions of Sunni, Shiite, and Kurds.


What the language of politics reveals in our discussion of this war is that we are limited by our experience, and the main problem is that the American experience is not one that can be easily replicated in the Middle East. To argue for any version of “success” in the civil war in Iraq, and to do so from an American perspective is to delude our selves.  To refer to American historical legends, Lee or Grant or any other figure from the American experience, in an attempt to understand Iraq, interferes with our capacity to recognize what is possible, because it is an American filter with American qualities, which does not work with an Iraqi lens. Our mistake in entering this war occurred when we willfully ignored the peculiar attributes of the culture of the place we sought to transform.  We can do “good” in this world, but the “mission of America” has its limits.