Cassandra Speaks

Thursday, April 29th, 2004

” … the poets honey their truth with lying;
but religion-vendors and political men
pour from the barrel, new lies on the old,
and are praised for kind Wisdom.”

— Robinson Jeffers, “Cassandra”

Scott Ritter’s bluntness doesn’t win him a lot of friends in high places, where the truth is spun until it becomes compatible with ideology.

That makes him a good guy to talk to if you want a straight answer about something, such as why are we really in Iraq and how do we get out? Like Cassandra of Greek myth, who predicted the fall of Troy, he serves up his opinions without honey.

In 1998, the ex-Marine resigned as chief weapons inspector for the U.N. Special Commission to disarm Iraq, loudly accusing the Clinton administration of failing to stand tough against Saddam Hussein and risk a confrontation over the dictator’s evasion of U.N. weapons sanctions. They didn’t much like him in Iraq, either.

Keep this in mind when you hear his assessment of the quickest, least drastic way to extricate U.S. forces from the current quagmire and spare the Iraqi people civil war and maximum bloodshed: Free Saddam. Restore him to power.

“It’s the smartest move there is – the only one that will prevent disaster,” he says. “I’d rather see Saddam in power than 6,000 Americans die in the next four years.”

Here’s the thing, see. We are in a terrible bind, “a nightmare,” says Ritter. We put ourselves there, with 8,000 bombs, 130,000 troops. We toppled Saddam’s statue. Yeah, mission accomplished. Quagmire accomplished. “The president went to war on a prayer.”

So, by the grace of God, we broke Iraq. We created a leadership void and set loose not just hope but all the country’s desperate, vying factions, and opened doors for foreign interests as well (Iran, Syria, Turkey) to back their favorite militants and try to gain influence and control in the country. Like the sorcerer’s apprentice, we created chaos.

“Staying the course is ideologically driven terminology to disguise the fact that we have no clue what we’re doing,” Ritter told me recently. “There is no plan. There is no exit strategy. We are in a nightmare that will last at least four more years.”

Everybody hopes Scott Ritter is wrong, including me. But gosh, he sees with clarity, and speaks without allegiance to any pet political viewpoint. And he knows, of course, that Saddam will never return to power. His point is that only a strong, independent (and God forbid, ruthless) leader can fill the gaping, U.S.-taxpayer-sponsored void at the center of Iraqi politics.

And someone like this, heading a movement that is “an amalgam of fundamentalist Islam and nationalism,” eventually will seize power in Iraq.

“How radical will (this movement) be? The longer we stay in Iraq, the more radical it will be.” The parallel, Ritter says, isn’t Vietnam. It’s Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Israel went in, with U.S. backing, to wipe out the PLO, wreaked utter havoc and wound up creating its worst nightmare: Hezbollah.

And, he says, “The future (of Iraq) holds a yet unformed ‘Hezbollah.’ After a bloodbath of civil war, these guys will be uncontrollable. The sooner we get out and the more money we put into Iraq, the less radical it will be. But we’ll have to pay.”

This is an exit strategy that boils down to full reverse. We can’t undo the invasion or untopple Saddam’s statues, but we can begin to re-empower the Baathists, a Ritter recommendation that is already under way.

But neither Bush nor Kerry has the will, the guts or the mandate to “unstay the course” and pursue a viable exit strategy. That means, according to Ritter’s Cassandraesque vision, that we’d better start getting used to the wholesale deaths of American soldiers, because we’re doomed to be in the quagmire at least until 2008. Thousands more will die before we have the political mandate to stop perpetuating Bush’s disaster.

Ritter is equally blunt about who bears responsibility for this horror: every last one of us, including the peace movement, which failed, he says, to transcend its “Kumbaya” ethereality and achieve broad national support.

“The American public has disassociated itself from citizenship. The only thing that could have stopped this war is good citizenship. Maybe we have to have a lot of Americans die before this country will wake up.”

Cassandra speaks.