Withdrawal on the Agenda

What to make of the most recent proposals to pull the US out of Iraq — and the fierce Bush administration response to them.

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Republican Congressman Walter B. Jones (famed for insisting that the Congressional cafeteria re-label French fries as “freedom fries” on its menu), a man who represents North Carolina’s 3rd Congressional District, home to the Marine’s Camp LeJeune, voted enthusiastically for the Iraq War, but recently changed his mind. Last week, he became one of four congressional sponsors of a resolution calling for a timetable for withdrawal. “Do we want to be there 20 years, 30 years?” he said at a Capitol Hill news conference. “That’s why this resolution is so important: We need to take a fresh look at where we are and where we’re going.”

Various explanations for his unexpected change of mind (and heart) have been offered. In the last lines of a June 13 piece, Sunni-Shiite Quarrel Edges Closer to Political Stalemate (scroll down), New York Times reporter Sabrina Tavernise made the following connection:

“[Jones’s] remarks came two weeks after military commanders told a Congressional delegation visiting Iraq that it would take about two years before enough Iraqi security forces were sufficiently trained to allow the Pentagon to withdraw large numbers of American troops.”

About two years. I was struck by that phrase in part because I had just been rereading a piece I wrote less than seven months after our President announced from the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended.” I called it “The Time of Withdrawal” and posted it on October 31, 2003. At the time, I offered the following:

“Two years hence, according to [occupation head] L. Paul Bremer’s men in Baghdad, we Americans are still going to be ‘reconstructing’ the country. In the Pentagon, according to the latest reports, generals are discussing what our troop levels there will be in 2006.”

That was then, this is now — or do I mean, that was now, this is then? After all, as Tavernise and other reporters, quoting our military commanders in Iraq, make clear, we’re still that miraculously receding “two years” away from significantly drawing down U.S. forces and having a reconstructed Iraq (not that the reconstruction of Iraq is much mentioned any more). In other words in October 2003, we were talking about 2005-06. In June 2005, we’re talking about 2007-08. What’s wrong with this picture?

Sadly, if anything, the similarities may be deceptive. After all, at the end of October 2003, it was still possible for most Americans to imagine a pacified — or as the Bush people would now say, “democratic” — Iraq by 2005-06. Today, as poll figures indicating fast-sinking support for the war and the President tell us, as edgy monthly casualty figures tell us, as Walter Jones’s changed position tells us, as the latest nose-dive in military recruitment figures tells us, as the fact that 35% of Americans, according to a Pew poll, think we are now back in Vietnam tells us, things in Iraq are just getting worse and worse.

John Newton, a reader from Michigan, recently framed this in an interesting way when, after reading a Jonathan Schell piece on our failing attempt to create an Iraqi army, he sent the following into the Tomdispatch e-mail box:

“It occurred to me that we’ve reached the point where we’ve got to bribe everyone to fight this war. The Iraqi Army salaries aren’t much by our standards, but they are probably twice or three times what an ordinary Iraqi makes. And yet in a place with massive unemployment, they still desert. We have perhaps 20,000 or more “contractors” doing security work who make salaries in the 6 figures to be in Iraq. And now the military is offering signing bonuses of up to $40,000. For a high school kid, that is a down payment on a house and a car. That is not so easy to pass up, but the recruiters still can’t get them to sign.”

He’s right. In a sense, between 2003 and 2005, we’ve moved decisively to the devolving side of our first free-market war. Before the invasion of Iraq even began, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was eagerly privatizing the Pentagon, stripping its forces, beefing up its technology, and outsourcing many matters which were once distinctly military to the private economy. (In other words, Halliburton, of which our Vice President was previously the CEO, and its subsidiary, KBR, off constructing bases and doing KP.) Hence, even before the invasion of Iraq, when General Eric Shinseki was essentially laughed out of neocon Washington for telling Congress that we would need an army of “several hundred thousand” men to occupy a defeated Iraq, such an army already didn’t exist. (The statement was undoubtedly Shinseki’s way of saying: Don’t go in!)

Next, under the label of “reconstruction,” the Bushniacs attempted (catastrophically) to privatize Iraq, more or less turning it over to friendly “free market” corporations like Bechtel and Halliburton (which had the good fortune of getting Global War on Terror goodies coming and going — it was, after all, responsible for building much of that jewel-in-the-crown in the Bush administration’s Bermuda Triangle of Injustice, Guantánamo prison, and only recently got a $30 million contract to add further facilities there). Now, as Newton points out in his letter, the Bush administration is trying to privatize defeat by turning military recruitment in Iraq and at home into a bonus-plus bidding war. Under these circumstances, the draft-era phrase from the Vietnam years, “Hell no, we won’t go,” is morphing into the Volunteer Army phrase, “Hell, no, I won’t join.”

Withdrawal on the Agenda

Back in 2003, when I wrote “The Time of Withdrawal,” I offered the following simple summary of our situation and why withdrawal should be on the American agenda:

“History, long term and more recent, is not on our side.

“We are a war-making and an occupying force, not a peacekeeping force.

“We never planned to leave Iraq.

“Time is against us.

“Or to boil all this down to a sentence: We are not and never have been the solution to the problem of Iraq, but a significant part of the problem.”

I wouldn’t change a word. In October of 2003, however, the “time of withdrawal” was distinctly not upon us. Now — finally — it is. We seem to have reached the actual moment when the idea of “withdrawal,” at least, is being placed on the American agenda — by the unlikely Walter Jones, among others. This is, of course, a far worse moment for withdrawal than in 2003, for Iraqis as well as Americans, just as 2007 will be worse than today.

But at least it’s here. How can we tell? Several signs (other than just the Congressional resolution) point to its arrival. First of all, there’s the return of Vietnam. It’s on everyone’s mind these days — and not just because our President is at the moment welcoming the Vietnamese prime minister to the White House and announcing that a visit to our former enemy’s land is in the offing. (Keep in mind that when Richard Nixon started feeling the combined pressure of Vietnam/Watergate, he used travel to strange lands — think: Communist China and the Soviet Union — as a way to try to distract public attention.)

Representative Jones, for instance, recently said: “When I think about what happened in Vietnam — we lost 58,000 — I wonder, Wouldn’t it have been nice if, two years into the war, some representatives would have said, ‘Mr. President, where [are] we going?'” At about the same time, Marine Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, director of operations for the Pentagon’s Joint Staff, “alluded to the precedent of Vietnam, in which plummeting public support for the war was blamed for undercutting the U.S. effort.” You could pile up such examples endlessly.

Perhaps more important, the President is now working off what clearly seems to be the Vietnam playbook — Lyndon Johnson’s playbook circa 1967. Like Johnson, facing falling polling figures and calls for withdrawal, he is staging a series of major addresses to “reassure” the American people (and shore up those polls). Just last Saturday on the radio, in his radio address, he declared that there would be no cutting-and-running for him, no withdrawal option at all: “This mission isn’t easy,” he said, “and it will not be accomplished overnight. We’re fighting a ruthless enemy that relishes the killing of innocent men, women, and children. By making their stand in Iraq, the terrorists have made Iraq a vital test for the future security of our country and the free world. We will settle for nothing less than victory.

Words to eat, of course.

As readers never hesitate to remind me, Iraq is not Vietnam — or as Daniel Ellsberg put it sardonically, “In Iraq, it’s a dry heat. And the language that none of our troops or diplomats speak is Arabic rather than Vietnamese.” But the Vietnam experience is fused into American consciousness in such a way that, the minute things start to go wrong, our leaders find themselves, almost helplessly, following that Vietnam playbook. So, as we enter the terrain of withdrawal, we should be thinking about Vietnam as well. The withdrawal resolution Jones and his co-sponsors put forward was, on the face of it, Vietnam-ish in the sense that it had relatively little to do with actual withdrawal. (In the Vietnam years, almost every “withdrawal” plan or strategy that came out of Washington had a great deal to do with keeping us in Vietnam, not getting us out.) This particular resolution evidently proposes that, by the fall of 2005, the administration create a “timetable” for a withdrawal to be begun the following fall of 2006 (with no designated end in sight, nor total withdrawal, it seems, even mentioned). This is, on the face of it, a non-withdrawal withdrawal proposal.

But the details may make little difference. The Bush administration, which could essentially have accepted the proposal and had endless “withdrawal” time to spare, attacked it strongly because what they can see — as well they should — is the first cracks appearing in Republican Party support. You know something’s happening when Nebraska Republican Senator Chuck Hagel says “Things aren’t getting better; they’re getting worse. The White House is completely disconnected from reality. It’s like they’re just making it up as they go along. The reality is that we’re losing in Iraq”; or Republican Senator from Florida Mel Martinez pronounces himself “discouraged” by the “lack of progress” in Iraq. This is no small thing. This is not a party that is eager to be pulled into a Vietnam-like hell and then swept out of Congress in 2006 or 2008. As University of North Carolina professor (and former U.S. Air Force historian) Richard Kohn puts it: “You’ve got Republican grandees in the Senate who probably aren’t willing to put up with this much longer.”

Paralyzing Fantasies

So here we are on Vietnam-like withdrawal turf, and one sure sign of that is the sudden foregrounding of a series of predictions about the horrors that would occur if the United States were to withdraw from Iraq. These are well summed up in a recent piece by Richard Whittle of the Dallas Morning News (Experts: Iraq withdrawal now would be bad idea). According to the “foreign policy experts” Whittle interviewed, these nightmare scenarios could “at worst” include:

“A civil war in Iraq resulting in far greater bloodshed than the current conflict, though presumably without further U.S. losses.

“The transformation of western Iraq, which is dominated by Sunni Muslims, into a haven for international terrorists from al-Qaida and other groups.

“A collapse of U.S. credibility among nations of the Middle East, whose leaders would probably distance themselves from Washington.

“A collapse of the Bush administration’s push for democracy in the region.

“Instability in the Persian Gulf that could lead to steep increases in oil prices, driving the cost of gasoline beyond current record levels.”

Now, here’s the fascinating thing when you look over a list like this: All these predicted nightmares-to-come constitute a collective warning not to act in a certain way; but each of the specific potential nightmares also represents a phenomenon intensifying at this very moment exactly because we are in Iraq. Each is in operation now largely because we have almost 140,000 troops on the ground in that country; a vast intelligence and diplomatic network, a shadow government, embedded in a kind of Forbidden City in Baghdad’s Green Zone; humungous military bases all over the land, some of which have the look of permanency; an Air Force that is periodically loosed to bomb heavily populated urban areas of Iraq — all of this, in a very foreign land which, under any circumstances, would be hostile to such an alien presence.

Between the moment in late 2003 when I wrote “The Time of Withdrawal” and today, Iraq has, in fact, crept ever closer to some kind of civil war — it may already have begun; Western Iraq has been transformed into a “haven” for terrorists and jihadis; American “credibility” has collapsed not just in the Middle East but globally; the Bush push for “democracy” does look embattled; and oil prices, which in 2003 were surely hovering around $30 a barrel, are now up at double that price, while Iraq is almost incapable of exporting significant amounts of oil and “instability” in the Gulf has risen significantly.

A similar situation played itself out in Vietnam back when nightmarish visions of what might happen if we withdrew (“the bloodbath”) became so much a part of public debate that the bloodbath actually taking place in Vietnam was sometimes overshadowed by it. Prediction is a risky business. Terrible things might indeed happen if we withdrew totally from Iraq, or they might not; or they might — but not turn out to be the ones we’ve been dreaming about; or perhaps if we committed to departure in a serious way, the situation would actually ease. We don’t know. That’s the nature of the future. All we know at the moment, based on the last two years, is what is likely to happen if we stay — which is more and worse of the very nightmares we fear if we leave.

The most essential problem in such thinking is the belief that, if we just hang in there long enough, the United States will be capable of solving the Iraqi crisis. That is inconceivable, since the U.S. presence is now planted firmly at the heart of the crisis to be solved.

One guarantee: the Bush administration won’t hesitate to deploy such fantasies of future disaster to paralyze present thinking and planning. Expect it. And it will be all too easy to take our eyes off this disastrous moment and enter their world of grim future dreams. After all, they already live in a kind of ruling fantasy world. They step to the podium regularly, their hands dipped in blood, call it wine or nectar, and insist that the rest of the world drink. They will be eager to trade in their best future nightmares so that the present nightmare can continue. (They argue, by the way, for the use of torture, under whatever name, in quite a similar fashion, proposing future nightmares — let’s say we held a terrorist who had knowledge of an impending nuclear explosion in a major American city and you only had two hours to get that information from him, what would you do? — in order to justify the ongoing horrors at Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, Bagram Air Base and other places.)

Returning to what I wrote in October 2003, on only one point was I wrong, I believe. I wrote then:

“What is bad now for us ? and for the Iraqis ? will only be worse later. The resistance will be greater, more organized, and more determined. Our allies, both within and without Iraq, ever more distant; American troops more isolated, angry, and embattled; money in shorter supply; military morale lower; and the antiwar movement here stronger.”

Generally on the money, except when it came to the antiwar movement. I was, of course, projecting from the huge antiwar marches of the prewar moment. But so far, at least, Iraq has not proved to be Vietnam when it comes to an antiwar movement; or rather, it’s as if we had arrived at the end of the Vietnam-era antiwar movement first. In 1972, when the non-military part of that movement more or less collapsed, the antiwar soldiers remained. Vietnam Veterans Against the War was the official name of the main organization they formed, but the military in Vietnam itself was in near-revolt — rising desertions and AWOLs, fraggings, “search and avoid” missions (where patrols just left perimeters and then sat out their assigned duties), escalating drug use, demonstrations by veterans in the U.S., and so on.

In the Iraq War, though in a far more modest way so far, the antiwar movement has been emerging in large part from the world of the military itself — from worried parents of soldiers and would-be soldiers, angry spouses of soldiers in danger or killed in Iraq, and (slowly and quietly) from within the military itself. This is what has moved Rep. Walter B. Jones. Along with growing cracks in the Republican Party, the alienation of the military (including many officers who clearly believe that Iraq=madness) is a real threat — perhaps the only real withdrawal threat at present. Predicting the future is a chancy thing to attempt. We humans are notoriously lousy at it. This I was incapable of fully imagining.

Otherwise, read my October 2003 piece. Withdrawal is now on the agenda, not just ours but the Iraqi one as well. Just the other day in a letter, “82 Shiite, Kurdish, Sunni Arab, Christian and communist legislators,” just under a third of the newly elected Iraqi parliament, called for the withdrawal of American occupation forces. Given this administration, withdrawal is likely to be on the agenda for a long time to come. But that shouldn’t stop us. Let the thoughts pour out. Let the plans pour in. (Note that Juan Cole at his always invaluable Informed Comment website has recently taken a first stab at offering a reasonable withdrawal plan, one involving the UN. Don’t hold your breath, of course, if John Bolton arrives at UN headquarters after being rejected by the Senate.

I hope to return to the issue of such plans next week. In the meantime, let me just end on another letter that came into the Tomdispatch email box recently. It’s a reminder — the sort that Rep. Jones evidently got in his district — that there is a complex constituency out there, people connected to soldiers, sailors, and airmen and women deployed in or around Iraq, who are also considering what we really should be doing and how our world actually works in fascinating and sometimes inspiring ways.

“Dear Tom,

“My grandson’s father came home from Iraq two weeks ago. He is one of the lucky ones as the Air Force appears (I have no documentation either way) to not be in harms way over there, but time will tell.

“I am happy for my grandson and his father. My only concern now is the 1,700 men and women who have died needlessly in this unholy war — my version as a devout Catholic, but I believe all Christian people regardless of their religious beliefs, not the religious right, but the true Christians who believe in and pray for peace are against this war. Let us not forget that Muslims also pray to the same God we do, and believe we are doing them harm by occupying their country, so naturally, they feel God is on their side. There is too much labeling going on in the media right now and it is difficult to watch. We all have a birth-right to follow our conscience, without judgment or bias from the media.

“What concerns me is most Americans are just like me, trying to squeak out a living, pay their mortgage, pay their bills and take care of their children, and grandchildren. Example, I hit the ground running each day, fire up the laptop, answer the endless email requests I receive at work, spend long hours at work due to the volume and corporate greed which keeps our VPs from hiring enough staff, so all of us carry the jobs of two or more people. I grew up here and now that I’m 53, I think my state is going to hell in a hand-basket (pardon the expression).

“I have an interesting parallel going on in my life. My son has a Vietnamese girlfriend who is as cute as a button (she came here when she was a year old) and her dad has returned to Vietnam to live, and my son and his girlfriend are considering visiting there in the next year.

“When our boys were in Vietnam, it never for a moment crossed my mind that in my wildest dreams any of my descendents, let alone my only son, would even think of going to visit Vietnam. It was unthinkable because of the war, which we thought would never end.

“Next slide: can you picture your grandchildren visiting Iraq on vacation? No, I can’t imagine it either. But it brings me back to the fact that war is momentary, even if it lasts for 20 years, and then life changes, making things we never thought possible, possible.

“I hope and pray we can get out of Iraq sooner, not later, or another 20 years of conflict and another 58,000 of our men and women will have lost their lives for nothing. There was absolutely no reason to start this war and it’s brought pain and suffering to many parents in America and many citizens of Iraq.

“Don’t get me wrong, I pray every day for the men and women who are over there; I know they are following orders and went into the military with open and true hearts. As a country, we have let them down. I said when George W. became president in January 2001, I’d be lucky if my job was still there by the end of his presidency, never dreaming he would be in office for 8 years.

“Well, off to get ready for another Monday. Please keep our soldiers and their parents in your prayers. I came so close to losing my daughter in the hospital in ?99, and still can’t imagine what it’s like to lose a child; I’m grateful I didn’t and pray for those who have.

“We can’t give up on ending this war, but we have to find a better way to mobilize America. We can’t give up. I pray every, every day for an end to this. Take care and Godspeed…”

It’s up to all of us to consider the timing and the time of withdrawal.

The Time of Withdrawal

By Tom Engelhardt

[Yaroslav Trofimov of the Wall Street Journal visited the U.S. Army’s 21st Combat Support Hospital in Balad, Iraq. It handles American casualties from the Sunni Triangle. Few of the doctors and nurses, he writes, “expected to deal with such a steady stream of casualties more than six months after the fall of Baghdad.” At the hospital he interviewed Lt. Col. Kim Keslung, an orthopedic surgeon, who summed up the situation this way:]

‘It was a mistake to discount the Iraqi resistance,’ Col. Keslung said, adding, ?If someone invaded Texas, we’d do the same thing.‘” (“In a Tent Hospital, A close-Up View Of Attacks in Iraq,” Wall Street Journal, October 29, 2003)

The U.S.-run government in Iraq has vowed to seek no congressional funding in 2005 to reconstruct that nation if it receives the Bush administration’s full $20.3 billion request this fall, raising questions about how it will meet its total spending needs.” (Jonathan Weisman,
Iraq Aid Needs, Pledge At Odds, the Washington Post. )

Two passages from an ongoing travesty. Let’s start with the second of them, which looks to me for all the world like “Read my lips, no new aid.” In 2005, if we’re still in Iraq and George Bush is still in the White House, Congress will be asked to pony up more money as surely as the sun rises in the east. But the more striking part of that passage is simply the date: 2005. Two years hence, according to L. Paul Bremer’s men in Baghdad, we Americans are still going to be “reconstructing” the country. In the Pentagon, according to the latest reports, generals are discussing what our troop levels there will be in 2006.
Imagine such time-scapes and you know a great deal not about what’s going to happen, but about the Bush administration’s vision of our occupation of Iraq — which is never to depart.

Lt. Col. Kim Keslung, who won’t even leave the base where she works because she knows full well what kinds of things happen to Americans “out there,” is a far better historian than our president, our viceroy in Baghdad, our secretary or undersecretary of defense, or the various neocons in the administration and inhabiting the souks of Washington.
She’s right. Invade Texas, invade Iran, invade China, invade Albania, invade Lebanon, invade Iraq — name your place, in fact — and you better not assume there won’t be resistance. Someone always resists. That single sentence sums up the last two centuries of global history.

Empires invariably think that it’s they who are bringing civilization and progress in their train and that only the barbarians, the terrorists, the bitter-enders resist for fear of being thrown onto that dust heap of history. But history is, as it turns out, filled to the brim with barbarians, terrorists, and bitter-enders, not to speak of enraged ordinary people who have seen their friends and relatives die, who feel the discomfort — which has only grown more psychologically unbearable over the last century — of watching well-armed, well-paid foreigners walk with impunity across their lands. They do resist, exactly as Texans would. Afterwards perhaps they fall on each other’s throats. Such things are unpredictable.

But in recent centuries, if empire — the Great Powers, the Great Game, Global Domination, the Great Rivalry, the Great Arms Race -? has been the Great Theme of history, the less publicized but perhaps more powerful one has been resistance. Resistance everywhere to occupation of any sort. Resistance by forgotten millions (not all of them wonderful human beings). If you need to be convinced of this, just read Jonathan Schell’s new book The Unconquerable World.

Sooner or later, regimes of occupation withdraw or collapse. Or both. In our times, it seems, ever sooner. Even the Soviet Union didn’t make it past one long human lifetime. Of course, we’ve never been in a single hyperpower version of an imperial world before. But I think it might be possible to start into the subject of withdrawal from Iraq by saying one thing: There’s a great deal of “hype” in that “hyperpower.” American power has been distinctly over-hyped. The leaders of other countries have perhaps taken us too much at the Bush administration’s overheated estimate of ourselves. Yes, our military can destroy much, quickly and from afar. Yes, we have the economic power to punish in various ways. Yes, you wouldn’t want to find yourself in a dark alley or even a cul de sac with this administration in a bad mood. But being powerful and being all-powerful are two quite different things which the utopian dreamers of Bush’s Washington have confused utterly ? to their ultimate detriment I believe.
Yes, militarily, our power is awesome and no other country can come close to matching it in conventional war settings. But it is most powerful withheld. As Iraq shows, once we commit ourselves to action, we are likely to find ourselves strangely overmatched. The irony here is that what an Iraqi military of 400,000 couldn’t hope to do, relatively small groups of ill-armed men and women are doing.

Having taken Iraq, eager to nail down its resources, to establish an imperial “democracy” as well as a string of permanent military bases there, and then drive a policy dreamt up inside Washington’s Beltway directly through the Middle East, the sole Great Power on this planet, issuing documents on Global Domination till the end of time, without a Great Rival, playing a Great Game with no one, and in an Arms Race of one (but still developing plans for ever higher-tech weaponry for future decades), nonetheless finds itself driven by a modest if growing resistance movement in Iraq. The president of the greatest power on Earth is being forced by events in “5% of Iraq” to call in his advisers for endless meetings, shake up the structure of his administration, hold sudden news conferences, offer new and ever more farfetched explanations of American actions, and backtrack on claims — all because of Iraqi resistance.

I think one thing is predictable in a world where predicting anything accurately is a low-percentage bet: Sooner or later, the time of withdrawal will be upon us. Some of us would like it to be sooner, not later.

An antiwar movement shut down for months -? but still emotionally in place -? is now reconstituting itself and one of its demands is already for withdrawal, for an “end to the occupation,” for “bringing our troops home.” But this demand still has the feel of a slogan without particular resonance or content. Part of the reason for this is quite logical. Everyone knows to the point of despair that we -? the antiwar movement, the anti-imperialists — are not in control. They are and they don’t want to leave. “We” will not withdraw from Iraq. They will, or they will feint at it anyway, but only under the pressure of impending catastrophe, literal or electoral. Withdrawal will not be directed by us or according to any plans the experts among us might draw up. Yes, we want this over. Except among military families, however, “bring our troops home” or “end the occupation” are at the moment just feeble slogans, raised to put a little pressure on the administration.

Still, a demand is being made in the face of all those people who claim that we can’t “cut and run,” that we must “stay the course,” that, whatever our thoughts about the war once were, we are all now somehow committed to an Iraqi occupation lest American “credibility” suffer grievous harm — all statements that would have sounded no less credible, or incredible, nearly four decades ago when they were indeed part of the Vietnam playbook and the language of that era. Right now in the mainstream, with the exception of a few columnists like James Carroll of the Boston Globe and Bob Herbert of the New York Times, and the odd intellectual figure like the economist Jeffrey Sachs, withdrawal is not yet on anyone’s agenda. The Democratic candidates, Kucinich aside, are criticizing how we got into the war without suggesting ways to get out any time soon.

But, given ongoing events in Iraq, the idea of withdrawal is already on an inexorable course into the mainstream world. One sign: The administration has begun floating stories about withdrawing some troops next year. As withdrawal comes to seem like an actual alternative, we’re going to be challenged on it. And by then, it better be something more than a vague slogan for us. By then, we should have explored the subject as carefully, honestly, and fully as we can.

Just the other day, a friend challenged me to stop ducking the subject. He claimed that in my dispatches I was taking the easy way out. And I think maybe he was right. It’s time for us to do our best not just to put withdrawal on the American agenda as a slogan but to give it some thought and content.

Here, then, is my modest attempt to begin to think this out and get a discussion started.

Why we must leave Iraq

The Path of History: It’s not only that history -? in its last centuries -? speaks eloquently against the imperial occupation of any country; a far more circumscribed, recent, and specific history speaks against this occupation as well. So let me start with that:

The United States has long been involved with Iraq and the record doesn’t make for pleasant reading. The CIA had a hand in Saddam Hussein’s rise and the success of the Baath Party. The Reagan administration supported Saddam during the years of some of his worst crimes because he seemed a reasonable, if somewhat shaky bulwark against the evil Shi’ite regime in Iran. The first Bush administration, having decided not to march on Baghdad at the end of the Gulf War (during which we slaughtered possibly tens of thousands of Iraqis), despite full command of the skies over Iraq, proceeded to look the other way while Saddam crushed a Shi’ite uprising (itself filled with bloody revenge killings). We let him use his helicopters and other weaponry against the Shi’ite rebels for fear of an Islamic Republic in Baghdad. This resulted in the killing fields whose graves Paul Wolfowitz and others now visit regularly and use as the very explanation for our invasion of Iraq. The first Bush and Clinton administrations then enforced a fierce and unrelenting version of UN-sanctions supposedly against Saddam but crushing to ordinary Iraqis and, though it’s seldom mentioned, so destructive to the various Iraqi support systems (electricity, water purification, oil fields etc.) that, under the pressure of war, looting, occupation and resistance these more or less collapsed. The second Bush administration then launched a savage war against Saddam’s regime which only lasted a few weeks but again killed many thousands of soldiers and civilians. The killings of civilians have yet to end.

Though we arrived in Iraq speaking the language of liberation (in English only) and most Iraqis were relieved initially to have the sanctions regime and the war ended as well as a horrendously abusive regime gone, we did not arrive as liberators. Though almost all of the above had largely been forgotten by Americans and could barely be found in our media, it was certainly in the minds of many Iraqis, who had to assume, on the basis of the historical record, a distinct self-interestedness on our part. We arrived in Iraq thinking utterly beneficently about ourselves, but undoubtedly from the Iraqi point of view (dangerous as it is to assume that there is only one such) we had much to prove (or perhaps disprove) -? and fast. The proof in the last six months has been painfully in line with the previous historical record cited above.

No exit: When thinking of withdrawal, it’s important to remember that it was never a concept in the Bush administration’s vocabulary. Despite all those years of Vietnam “lessons” and Colin Powell’s “doctrine” which said that no military action should be undertaken without an “exit strategy” in place, Bush’s boys had no exit strategy in mind because they never imagined leaving. Of course, they expected to quickly draw down American forces in the face of a jubilant and grateful population. But there was no greater signal of our long-term intentions than our dismantling of the Iraqi military, and their planned recreation as a lightly armed border-patrolling force of perhaps 40,000 with no air force. Put that together with the four permanent bases we began building almost immediately and you know that we were expecting to be Iraq’s on-site military protector into the distant future.

Iraq itself was to be the lynchpin of an American empire of bases that was to extend from the former Yugoslavia to Uzbekistan, right across the “arc of instability” which just happened to coincide with the major oil lands of this Earth. Occupying Iraq would also ? of this the neocons were quite confident — tame Syria and Iran, settle the Palestinian question on grounds favorable to the Sharon government, and solve the awkward problem of basing our troops in Saudi Arabia about which Osama bin Laden had so long been bitter. This is what “liberation” truly meant.
So when considering withdrawal, you can’t think only of Iraq. When occupying it, the Bush administration had far larger fish to fry. They had a global no-exit strategy of domination they wanted to put fully in place.

It has often been said -? and on this score there has been much complaint in the military -? that our troops were never trained to be policemen or peacekeepers (and that we didn’t bother to bring into Iraq any significant number of military police) -? but that’s the narrowest way to look at a very large problem. We arrived in Baghdad as a victorious, or more bluntly, a conquering army, not as peacekeepers. And we have continued in that vein.

In the weeks before, during and after the war, the administration itself often compared the occupation of Iraq to the Japanese and German occupations at the end of World War II. But we did allow actual Japanese and Germans to rebuild their countries economically, more or less to Japanese and German specifications. Iraq has been another matter. At every level, the Iraqis themselves have been sidelined. Reconstruction has been a kind of economic pillage, booty offered to huge American corporations linked to the Bush administration -? and the future economy of Iraq has been declared a free-fire zone for international finance. This is not what the Americans did to Japan, but what the Huns did to Europe, even if dressed up in modern capitalist garb. When mobs of Iraqis began to loot museums, ministries, stores, homes, oil refineries, electric plants, anything in sight, we were all shocked. When the power occupying Iraq opens the country to foreign (read American) corporations for the wholesale looting of its wealth and economic well-being, no one so much as blinks.

Again, history tells us that the Iraqis -? and not just thugs, terrorists, and “bitter-enders” -? will not live long on the sidelines of such a situation. Soon, they will challenge us about withdrawal, something never previously part of the Bush agenda. It must be part of ours.

The time of withdrawal: When considering the issue of ending the occupation quickly and bringing our troops home, perhaps the most important matter to think about is time itself. As we hear endlessly, we must not “cut and run,” but instead “stay the course.” The implication in all such statements is that, if only the United States toughs it out, on the other side of this rough patch of resistance lies another far less chaotic world in which a new and more peaceful Iraq will play at least something like the role the Bush administration imagined for it. Perhaps it was once true, when news traveled slowly and the colonial world was in more or less another universe, that an imperial power indeed did have five or ten years in which to pacify, at least for a time, a conquered and occupied land. Time like that is no longer available to the United States or to the Bush administration.

It is far more reasonable -? given what we know of history and of the present situation -? to assume that time is not on our side. What is bad now for us -? and for the Iraqis -? will only be worse later. The resistance will be greater, more organized, and more determined. Our allies, both within and without Iraq, ever more distant; American troops more isolated, angry, and embattled; money in shorter supply; military morale lower; and the antiwar movement here stronger. This is a prediction, of course, but a far more reasonable one, I think, than those that we hear every day. And if “staying the course,” toughing it out, only makes a bad situation worse, then withdrawal when it comes, as it will, will only be that much harder and the results only that much more catastrophic for all parties concerned.

Let me sum up in four sentences:

History, long term and more recent, is not on our side.

We are a war-making and an occupying force, not a peacekeeping force.

We never planned to leave Iraq.

Time is against us.

Or to boil all this down to a sentence: We are not and never have been the solution to the problem of Iraq, but a significant part of the problem.

If this is true, then that’s what we’ll remain as long as our troops are there, all of which speaks to the need for a quick withdrawal from Iraq. I don’t claim to have a plan for doing so. Withdrawal plans must come, but probably not from the likes of me. A look at history (by those more expert than I) might be of use. There are endless imperial withdrawals from various occupied lands to consider — some more embattled and horrific, some more peaceful, some braver, some more cowardly, some showing foresight, some barely ahead of collapse itself. And sometimes, of course, there was no withdrawal at all. The occupying forces were simply driven out. Examples obviously range from the French in Algeria and the Portuguese in Africa to the Israelis in Lebanon and the Russians in Eastern Europe. How this might be done and whom Iraq would be handed off to must be considered as well. Would the UN take some responsibility for Iraq or, for that matter, the Arab League? I don’t know. All I know is that if the will to withdraw, and withdraw quickly, is there, withdrawal is what will happen.

I’m no expert on Iraq. I can hardly keep the Shi’ite groups straight even with the help of the writings of Juan Cole. I do think it would be a mistake for any of us to claim that we know what would happen during a genuine withdrawal. It could indeed be a terrible mess or simply a true horror. Iraq could split in three ? an embattled Kurdish semi-democracy in the north (under the ominous shadow of Turkey), a Sunni dictatorship in the center, and a harsh Islamic Republic in the South. There could be bloodshed or civil war. Or not. The future has a way of surprising ? and since the American occupiers have chosen not to trust Iraqis with either responsibility or power, we have no idea what they might have done with it, or might someday do with it.
All of that is speculation. But what we can see is what a long-term horror an American occupation and reconstruction of Iraq is likely to turn out to be. We can see the rising death toll; we can read about the civilians slain; we can note the mini-gulag set up there. We can mull over the greed and corruption in what passes for “reconstruction.” All this we know. The rest is possibility. This we should not want to continue in our names. This “course” we should not want to “stay.” Alternatives should not be considered “cutting and running.”

For me at least, the imperial occupation of the lands of this earth -? whatever the empire -? is unacceptable. Any armed occupation will always be part of the problem not the solution on this planet. In our present world, such acts can only lead to hell. We need to pressure this administration hard to step outside the box it has created for us, our troops, and the Iraqi people who truly did deserve a liberation and not the occupation and looting that they are living through. They are not the spoils of war.

Let us offer Iraq genuine help, reconstruction aid, and support of all sorts afterwards, possibly indirectly through groups whose interests can’t be mistaken for ours. But our troops are an occupying army. They can’t keep the peace. They are the war.

— October 31, 2003

Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s Tomdispatch.com (“a regular antidote to the mainstream media”), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War.

Copyright 2003 Tom Engelhardt

This piece first appeared at Tomdispatch.com.


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