Do you ever note the insidious meanings built into the euphemisms we use? Take the word setback. During the long years that cancer consumed my mother’s health and body, doctors who treated her would refer to a setback when something bad happened. I immediately took the term not as a polite way to talk about some unfortunate episode, but as an example of dishonesty. Why? Because setback implies recovery. It suggests that the doctors want to make everything right in the end, but they and their patient have encountered a reverse along the way.
Of course everyone in the conversation knew that wasn’t the case at all. Doctors and family all knew that my mother would not recover. You might see some hopeful, less painful days, but no one could prevent the painful outcome at the end. Yet rather than help my mother through a difficult process, doctors actively pushed her – in her weakened state – and persuaded her spouse – in his vulnerable state – to accept aggressive and toxic chemotherapy intended to prolong her life. They did that when they should have reached for the best palliative care available. When you advocate aggressive chemotherapy in a case where you know it will fail, of course you will refer to setbacks when it does fail.
Why do I write down these reflections about my mother’s medical care now? Setback is the current term for Iraq’s military reverse on May 15-17, 2015. Ramadi, capital of Anbar province, Iraq’s largest region, fell to the Islamic State. Ramadi is slightly smaller than Fallujah, also under the Islamic State’s control. Almost a million people lived in Ramadi before 2003, before twelve years of warfare forced many of them to find new homes somewhere else.
If you were not able to leave, the Islamic State may have executed you and dumped your body in the Euphrates River by now. The loss of Ramadi is a setback, according to our friendly, ever-optimistic White House spokesman, Josh Earnest. DC strategists gravely assure us that Iraqi forces will take the city back, neglecting to add that holding a city is far easier than regaining it after you have lost it. If Iraqi forces could not hold Ramadi, why would you stake your credibility on assurances that they will regain it?
DC strategists speak euphemistically and falsely, like the doctors who treated my mother. They know what’s happening in Iraq, but they can’t own up to it back home. Iraq is not going to get better. It is not going to reunify and become the sovereign, democratic, friendly state we dreamed about back in 2003, when we launched our attack. The doctors know that we have lost the long battle to save Iraq, but they can’t bring themselves to say that we’ll have to make the best of this situation. If we deliver more ordnance from the air, train up a few more crack Iraqi units, we’ll be able to retake Ramadi. It is quack chemotherapy applied to the Mesopotamian desert. Until Baghdad falls, we will pretend that Iraqi and so-called coalition forces can save the country.
The difficulty with that last thought is, why would the Islamic State want to take Baghdad? Yes, it would be a big victory for them – another feather to make Washington take notice. Nonetheless, they would have to fight Iran, and all the Shiite militias Baghdad can muster. The Islamic State is shrewd, and Ramadi may be all they need or want. If they secure their eastern frontier, they can concentrate their forces in Syria, and prepare to take Damascus. Yes, Iraq has more oil than Syria does, but Syria has the Mediterranean coast. Assad is weaker than the Kurds and the Shiites. With Anbar, Ramadi, and Mosul in hand, I’m not sure why the Islamic State would fight for more cities in the east. It already has access to a fair amount of oil there.
Whatever plans the Islamic State carries out, Iraq is partitioned. The Kurds will not relinquish their sizable enclave. Iraqi Shiites will fight hard for their large chunk of oil-rich territory. Who in the entire eastern territories would have real motivation to retake the western part of the country from the Islamic State? Washington does not plan to do it, Baghdad does not plan to do it, Tehran does not plan to do it, and Riyadh certainly does not plan to get involved in the north. The Islamic State just secured a large piece of desert for themselves, whatever the jokers in DC might say about setbacks and turning things around. The smug foreign policy strategists who used to reach across the globe to – as they thought, create their own reality – now just cause others to resent them for their poor efforts to look optimistic.