Using meaningless language is a standard tool of politics, brought to high art by the present administration. Dick Cheney has added a new gloss on the old game, repeating an old argument about Iraq that has lost all meaning.
Here’s the way Cheney put it recent speech before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee 2007 Policy Conference:
… when members [of congress] speak not of victory but of time limits, deadlines or other arbitrary measures, they’re telling the enemy simply to watch the clock and wait us out.
This argument was used by Bush for the first few years of the war in Iraq to avoid setting a time table for withdrawing troops. Agree with it or not, the argument meant something:
The situation is us versus the bad guys. “We” are the coalition and the fledgling democratic government in Iraq. Insurgency groups dedicated to destroying any US supported government in Iraq are the bad guys. If we tell the bad guys when we plan to pull our troops out of Iraq, the bad guys will hang back, save resources until our troops are gone, then come out of hiding to destroy the Iraqi government.
This argument allowed the Bushies to govern in their preferred way: completely ad hoc, no goals to meet, therefore no way to determine failure.
Whatever value this description of the war once may have had, it clearly doesn’t represent what’s going on in Iraq today. Even the Pentagon admits there is an internecine civil war in Iraq, fought among multiple groups with diverse interests. The Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (a non-governmental group of former intelligence specialists) provide a clear analysis in their recent memo Denouement on Iraq: First Stop the Bleeding:
The vast majority of the violence in Iraq is sectarian in nature and involves a multifaceted civil war mostly pitting Sunnis against Shias. However, the violence also entails secular Sunnis fighting Sunni extremists linked to Al Qaeda and secular Shias battling Shia extremists…. in other words, a rabid dog fight with our troops in between. The only thing the various factions share is unflinching opposition to US occupation. But the notion that there is a monolithic group of “insurgents” or “enemy” falls far wide of the mark.
The “we can’t set a time-table” argument falls apart under these conditions. There is no “them,” holding back waiting for us to leave. The various coalitions are in full-out battle against the provisional Iraqi government and against each other. We have met the enemy, and he is…. well, everybody.
We are used to Cheney’s lies, but this is something different and worth attending to. It’s a concrete example of the administration using empty phrases to shore up support for a misconceived and unpopular war. “Support the troops!” “Democrats want to cut and run!;” smoke and mirror language used for effect rather than meaning. Sweeping aside empty language can raise the quality of the public debate about the war; and a debate based upon facts is precisely what the administration is trying to avoid.