Endgame, Anyone?

Bipartisan move toward some sort of exit plan for Iraq


Make no mistake, the "Homeward Bound" resolution calling on the White House to come up with a timetable for getting U.S. troops out of Iraq will go nowhere as legislation. President George W. Bush has already used a radio address to slap the notion down, calling for "nothing less than victory," and Karl Rove has yet to set about knee-capping anyone who voices support for the measure. Still, something significant is going on here.

Take a look at the members of Congress introducing the measure. Neil Abercrombie, hippie. Check. Dennis Kucinich, pocket-sized socialist. Check. Ron Paul, principled libertarian office-holder. Check. Walter Jones, conservative "freedom fries" guy. Whoa.

The same Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-NC) who sent a note to Justice Antonin Scalia commending him for standing up against sodomy? Yep. And in March introduced a resolution in support of a Marine who shot two Iraqi civilians and then was charged with murder? The same. Who two weeks ago received the officer's sword of that Marine, Ilario Pantano, during an emotional American Legion fish fry celebrating the dismissal of charges against Pantano? He does get around.

Clearly Jones does not fit the mold of a pol looking to score some quick points with the anti-war crowd. The House Armed Services Committee member could easily have taken a pass on co-sponsoring the exit strategy measure. Back home the move proved so touchy that the Onslow County commission considered passing a resolution calling on Jones to resign his seat effective immediately. But, significantly, the local pols backed down and Jones' office reports calls from his district are coming in split 50-50 on Jones' position. This should give the Bush administration pause.

Jones' district, which he carried with a Saddam-like 91 percent in 2002 and 71 percent in 2004, is not just home to three big military bases and some 60,000 military retirees; all of Eastern North Carolina has long been a Pentagon playground, a region deeply attached to the necessity of a strong national defense. Residents of Goldsboro, for example, are fairly proud that, yes, a B-52 did accidentally drop a nuke near the town in 1961 but that, no, it did not go off and no one panicked.

The military presence is conspicuous for miles around Camp Lejeune, Ft. Bragg, Cherry Point, and Pope and Seymour-Johnson Air Force Bases, but the region also happily plays host to more covert arms of the national security apparatus. The CIA has an "extraordinary rendition" airfield in Johnston County, servicing a business-jet fleet tasked with whisking evil doers around the globe when the need arises. Head east from there toward the colonial capital of Edenton and you'll find—or more likely not—the Harvey Point Defense Testing Facility. The CIA and DoD and everyone else have been blowing stuff up there for decades. The site is complete with a nice boat slip and an airfield, along with assorted bunkers and ranges. The site was expanded by 240 acres in 2002 to help cope with post-9/11 demands for secrecy. Up the road Moyock way, straddling the Virginia border, you'll find another dark gray, if not black, site: a Naval Security Group listening post that seems to be transitioning to a military prison.

In sum, and employing the gross oversimplification of the age, this is just not red state territory; it is blood red, arterial red, the very heart of a justly proud Southern tradition of military service. And because of that, the deployments to Iraq have hit families and communities especially hard. Jones saw that impact-point first hand as he attended funerals and wrote letters of condolence. Couple that painful on-the-ground experience with Don Rumsfeld and his gang of civilian planners' constant complaints about the uniformed services, especially the Army, and you have the ingredients for serious discontentment with the current course in Iraq. Rummy and his pals have for almost three years asked Americans to choose between Pentagon suits and their own sergeant, captain, or corporal brothers, sons, and dads. A verdict may be at hand.

Military families know that America went into Iraq with the greatest fighting force it has ever fielded. U.S. troops have performed remarkably well, often completing missions they were never trained to undertake, such as artillery men being charged with infrastructure repair and tankers told to dismount and hoof it. In particular, leadership from the company level on down has proven to be very adaptable and ingenious. But that force continues to be attrited away by more or less constant, although low-level, combat.

It is the nagging fear that the U.S. military is not actually moving closer to ending the bloody insurgency that has gained currency in recent weeks. Top-down intelligence studies along with anecdotal evidence from the field suggesting there is no shortage of willing car bombers in, or soon to be in, Iraq do not square with Bush administration assurances of progress. Worse, the bad guys kept improving their tactics. Roadside bombs now use encrypted detonation signals, for example. Even Rummy has had to acknowledge that "statistically" the security situation in Iraq has not improved much. Tentative moves in the direction of drawing down some of the 145,000 troops in Iraq have been shelved by the Pentagon as the tempo of operations has once again picked up.

This is the skeptical undercurrent that the Homeward Bound discussion now rides upon. It can be easily swamped.

Jones has already had to spell out that he does not advocate "cutting and running" and does not want Congress to set some artificial date for bringing troops home. Indeed, attempts to dictate to the executive branch exactly how to conduct an armed conflict will not get very far with an American public that, for better or worse, likes strong presidents. But framing the need for a clear exit strategy as a kind of global welfare reform for the Middle East fits with broadly conservative beliefs in the need for self-sufficiency. In other words, the certitude that Uncle Sam is going to pull the plug sooner or later, be it on food stamps or paratroopers, pushes you to shape up. Baghdad, get your shit together; we're leaving next Tuesday.

It is a bass-ackwards way to come up with an end game for Iraq, but much superior to no way at all.