Getting Out While We Can

Iraq continues its long downward spiral into chaos, death count rising faster than the desert mercury.

The news today -- 50 hostages seized from Iraqi Higher Education Ministry by masked gunmen masquerading as Interior Ministry commandos, the Iraqi police apparently complicit -- is horrific, unbelievable. Yet is seems almost familiar in its way, as if we've heard it before.

And we have, in so many permutations, in beheadings and kidnappings, roadside bombings and mosque attacks.

Three and a half years now into this ugly war and Iraq is in flames and American troops, ostensibly the best in the world, are helpless to stop the madness.

For too long too many were unwilling to admit this, unwilling to admit that the decision by an American president and his administration to send troops into a country that had not attacked us, a country with little capacity to defend itself and to send those troops in on the cheap could only result in a deadly blowback that will be with us for years and years to come.

Because, make no mistake, the forces that have been unleashed in the desert, the hatreds we have sown, the enmity we have engendered, will not go a away for a long, long time.

I am no expert on this, of course, just the editor of a pair of suburban weekly newspapers who watches the news and reads the paper, the headlines daily screaming of death and kidnapping and the occasional, but all-too-infrequent moments of kindness and joy.

I write this a week after an election in which American voters spoke out about this madness, chasing a Republican majority that has walked in lock-step behind the president and his administration for three-plus years. I write this having listened to voters in the towns my papers cover, upscale voters and working stiffs, offer comments similar to those I read in the national papers.

A small sampling (from The Cranbury Press):

• "Change is the only thing we can hope for to do anything." -- Steve Quidor, Jamesburg.

• "The Iraq War is taking a terrible toll on the country and on the people that are serving there admirably. It is time for a change and staying the course with the Bush administration is absolutely foolhardy." -- Sid Hausner, Monroe.

• "I've got to get rid of the Republicans, mostly because of the war in Iraq. Needless, needless -- poor boys who were killed and maimed for nothing, absolutely nothing." -- Charlotte Rubin, Monroe

Admittedly, these votes were cast in a blue county in a blue state, but they differ very little from the sentiments being voiced around the country, where 30 or so Republicans were chased from the House of Representatives.

The national news media is painting this as a win for conservatives -- Democrats have moved to the right to win -- and there is some truth to this on some issues. But the key issue was Iraq and Republican control of Congress and it is why GOP moderates were whisked away in states like Vermont and Connecticut.

And it is why we have been hearing a new tune from Bush and his neocon allies (some, like Richard Perle, jumped ship before the election). The president is now open to new ideas, but not a timetable -- something needed to extricate the United States from this mess.

There are no good options. But leaving and allowing the United Nations and the regional powers (with a significant monetary contribution from us) to come in and clean up the mess we created is the least-worst option available.

There is just no reason to keep American troops in Iraq, where they are both targets for insurgents and symbols of an American arrogance that, in the words of the British journalist Robert Fisk, has many Arabs desiring "another kind of freedom -- freedom from us."

This arrogance &endash;- the sense that we are the indispensable nation -&endash; underpinned so many of the assumptions made by the Bush administration and its followers, assumptions that were wrong. We were not treated as liberators and our "exceptionalism" was seen as the new brand of colonialism that it was -- even if we did take down one of the most thuggish dictators of recent times.

So, as I said, we have to get out of Iraq as soon as we can. And we need to admit that there are limits to our own influence if we hope to avoid another debacle in the future.

Hank Kalet is a poet and managing editor of two central New Jersey weekly newspapers: the South Brunswick Post and The Cranbury Press. Email His blog, Channel Surfing, can be found at

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