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'We broke Iraq, and like it or not, we bought it'

Samara Kalk Derby

The war in Iraq is not coming to an end anytime soon, no matter what any politician says, an internationally acclaimed writer and scholar of religions told a Madison audience Tuesday night.

Both the Democratic and Republican candidates for president are lying when they talk about the war, said Reza Aslan during a Distinguished Lecture Series conversation he shared with the Madison-born Gideon Yago, a writer and former correspondent for MTV News. The two men addressed an audience of about 350 in the Union Theater.

"This war is not coming to an end, no matter who the next president is," said Aslan. "We are in a very complicated, very dire situation. Frankly, nobody knows what the answer is. If somebody knew what the answer is, trust me, it would've worked by now. We're stuck. We broke Iraq, and like it or not, we bought it."

Hillary Clinton has said that on her first day in office she is going to begin the process of withdrawing troops, and Barack Obama has made similar promises, Aslan noted.

While Democrats promise to bring this war to a swift end, presumptive Republican nominee John McCain is talking about staying in Iraq long enough to win a victory, Aslan said.

Victory is a slippery topic, and the notion of victory in Iraq has changed repeatedly, Aslan said.

First, it was that victory would occur when the weapons of mass destruction were found. Then it was that victory would occur when democracy came to Iraq. Then it was that victory would occur when there was a stable Iraq, he said.

"Now, it's sort of victory will occur when violence is somewhat at a level where we can tolerate it -- and where there are not half a dozen headless bodies showing up on the streets every evening."

Aslan, a regular commentator for NPR's Marketplace and Middle East analyst for CBS News, said he has heard that withdrawing troops from Iraq is a process that will take anywhere from 18 to 24 months, even if it's done at a quick pace.

"We're not having a real or a realistic conversation about this fundamental problem we have in Iraq, which is, we can't stay and we can't go. So what do we do? That is an issue that hasn't been addressed in any serious way. And I don't think it will be addressed in any serious way until after the election," the Iranian-born Aslan said.

Yago said there is a consensus that if we start pulling troops out soon, it would lead to "massive, massive ethnic cleansing."

There is no debate in this country about what the U.S. should do about the 2.6 million Iraq refugees in the region -- a refugee population that is the largest in the world, larger than Darfur. The U.S. should be concerned about how to stabilize that population and respond to their basic concerns, he said.

"How do we provide jobs, power, utilities, education, stabilization, and normalization and repatriation? All of the things that would be involved in actually stabilizing that country," Yago said.

The debate in this country is largely about Americans for Americans and has very little to do with the Iraqis themselves, Yago said.

America has lost all its power for diplomacy and dialogue and has become almost toxic to the rest of the world, Aslan said. His first book, "No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam" has been translated into half a dozen languages. His forthcoming book is "How to Win a Cosmic War: Why We're Losing the War on Terror."

In January, President George W. Bush went to Ramallah in the West Bank and said Israel must immediately stop all settlement activity and withdraw to its 1967 borders. Bush said that Jerusalem must be split and that East Jerusalem has to become the capital of a new and economically viable Palestinian state, Aslan said.

"These are miraculous statements to come out of the mouth of an American president," he said. "My jaw hit the floor when I heard this. No president in American history has ever used the word Palestine and state in the same sentence, let alone made the kind of claims that George Bush just made."

It was an earth-shattering moment that went largely unrecognized, Aslan said.

"Nobody cared. The international press, the Arab press, just ignored it. Just ignored this miraculous statement from the supposedly most powerful man on earth because we've gotten to the point in which American soft power has become irrelevant in the eyes of many people."

Capital Times


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