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Juan Cole | Wrong Again, Senator Graham

Sen. Lindsey Graham

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., repeated on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday his hope that the United States can maintain at least two permanent air bases in Afghanistan. He was pushing back against Vice President Joe Biden’s pledge that the U.S. would be out of Afghanistan by 2014 “come hell or high water.” Graham has been wrong about almost everything in the Middle East for a decade and a half, so this harebrained proposal is hardly surprising. But it signals the harder line likely to be pursued by Republicans now that they have taken back the House of Representatives and have much strengthened their position in the Senate.

While pundit Bill Kristol has been tagged as perpetually wrong about everything for his various incorrect pronouncements about Iraq, Graham has largely gotten a pass for saying all the same things, from a greater position of power. Graham was among the earliest to be fooled by the ideologues around George W. Bush into thinking that the ramshackle Saddam Hussein regime posed a threat to the United States. Just after the “Axis of Evil” State of the Union address in 2002, Graham told Chris Matthews of Bush, “I think he was very direct about what the nation faces, about Iraq being a possible target sooner, rather than later.” He virtually salivated at the prospect of a war: “I think the danger to this country from Saddam Hussein is great. The president was amazingly direct about people who procure weapons of mass destruction.”

A little over a year later on Tim Russert’s “Meet the Press,” Graham gloated at the imminent outbreak of war, accusing Saddam Hussein of lying when he said he no longer had chemical weapons stockpiles. He accused the dictator of supporting the Shiite Hezbollah in Lebanon and of hosting al-Qaida. He denounced then German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder as a “chancellor of appeasement” for not jumping on the war bandwagon. He pooh-poohed the notion that Iraq’s factious ethnic and sectarian groups would war with one another once the Baath government was overthrown: “This arrogance that we possess in the West, that there is multifactions, there’s ethnic and religious differences in Iraq and they can’t handle it, is the height of arrogance.”

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When former U.S. Rep. Tom Andrews warned that an economist had estimated the cost of an Iraq war at $1.3 trillion, a price tag that might push the country into economic crisis, Graham was dismissive. Everything Graham said was a falsehood.

In August 2003, after the fall of Saddam’s regime and the outbreak of a guerrilla war, Graham pronounced confidently on Fox News, “The population centers in Baghdad, Basra and other main areas, you’ve got most people wanting us to succeed, with a handful of people that are trying to destabilize us.” The millions of sullen and angry Shiite Sadrists and of Sunni Arab nationalists were thus made to disappear into a “handful.”

By September 2006, after guerrilla war had turned to civil war and as many as 3,000 civilians were being killed a month, Graham admitted, “I know Iraq is a mess and we have screwed up seven ways from Sunday,” though he continued to insist, bizarrely, that “the fundamental idea behind Iraq is still correct.” Despite his admission of failures, Graham never apologized to the Iraqi people for the hundreds of thousands killed, the 4 million displaced, the ruined lives and livelihoods he had helped inflict on them. Nor does he seem in the slightest stricken with conscience over the tens of thousands of U.S. casualties incurred for the sake of stopping “weapons of mass destruction” that did not exist.

When the Iraqi Parliament forced the Bush administration to agree to a timetable for leaving the country by the end of 2011, Graham still wanted to overrule the sovereign voice of the Iraqi people by deferring to American military commanders, saying of President Obama “… I am hopeful by picking Secretary Gates that he will listen to him, Petraeus and Odierno as to how we get out of Iraq. We’ve gotten an agreement that says 2011. There’s a likelihood where we negotiate to have some footprint past 2011.” Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has insisted that there will be no such negotiation, and that U.S. troops will be out by the end of this year.

American bases in Afghanistan are constant objects of attack by Pashtun fundamentalists opposed to what they see as the foreign military occupation of their country. Just last month, six U.S. troops died in a single assault near Kandahar. There is no prospect that those Pashtuns opposed to foreign troops will change their minds about this issue by 2014. In fact, the trend lines are altogether the other way. A recent poll sponsored by ABC, the BBC and other news organizations found that Afghan esteem for the United States and its military has plummeted since 2005.

Graham makes glib comparisons of Iraq and Afghanistan to South Korea, where the U.S. still has military bases decades after the Korean War ended. But as usual with hawks’ misuse of history, the situation is simply not the same. During the Cold War, acceptance of U.S. bases was eased in many countries by the perceived threat of the Soviet Union and international communism. In contrast, the Shiite government of Iraq is not afraid of any of its neighbors, with the possible exception of close U.S. ally Saudi Arabia, from which U.S. bases would be unlikely to offer protection. Likewise, the government of Hamid Karzai does not fear invasion by Iran or Uzbekistan or China, the countries with which the U.S. has problems. Karzai most fears Pakistan’s backing for Pashtun insurgents, and since the U.S. is closely allied with Islamabad, it can hardly offer itself as a savior in this regard.

Moreover, the Korean War was largely a conventional military conflict, not a set of local tribal and fundamentalist struggles such as have become common in the 21st century and which produce decades-long staccato violence (consider Lebanon, Somalia, Afghanistan, and now likely Iraq). Keeping U.S. air bases in Afghanistan, in the absence of a large American troop presence, would be like building Las Vegas-style casinos in downtown Mogadishu, Somalia. Graham is wrong yet again.

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