One of the most unfortunate myths pervading American culture, the American psyche, and the whole American weltanschauung — and it’s one for which we might as well go ahead and blame movie director Frank Capra — is that in most situations the good guys win. Morality triumphs. The greedy and self-interested, the cruel and mean-spirited are defeated. Ultimately, or so the myth goes, the bad guys win some of the battles, but in the end the good guys win the wars.
Sadly, in the real world, good doesn’t always win. Sometimes, good isn’t even there. When it comes to Iraq, the left, the liberals, the progressives (for the sake of argument, the good guys) sometimes seem to have their heads in the clouds. That’s true in regard to the crucial question of whether President Bush’s stay-the-course strategy can succeed. The answer, unfortunately, is: Yes, it can.
The Bush administration’s strategy in Iraq today, as in the invasion of 2003, is: Use military force to destroy the political infrastructure of the Iraqi state; shatter the old Iraqi armed forces; eliminate Iraq as a determined foe of U.S. hegemony in the oil-rich Persian Gulf; build on the wreckage of the old Iraq a new state beholden to the U.S.; create a new political class willing to be subservient to our interests in the region; and use that new Iraq as a base for further expansion.
To achieve all that, the President is determined to keep as much military power as he can in Iraq for as long as it takes, while recruiting, training, funding, and supervising a ruthless Iraqi police and security force that will gradually allow the American military to reduce their “footprint” in the country without entirely leaving. The endgame, as he and his advisors imagine it, would result in a permanent U.S. military presence in the country, including permanent bases and basing rights, and a predominant position for U.S. business and oil interests.
Marshaling the Bad News
Many progressives scoff at such a scenario. They argue, with persuasiveness, that the American project in Iraq is doomed. To prove their point, they cite (what else?) the bad news. And there certainly is a lot of it.
First of all, the Sunni-led insurgency, metastasizing continually, is a hydra-headed army of armies representing former Baathist military, security, and intelligence officers, assorted nationalists and Islamists, tribal and clan leaders, and city and neighborhood militias. It has shown remarkable resilience. The elimination of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is not likely to put much of a dent in the Sunni resistance and may only strengthen it.
Second, Iraq’s Shiites are restive, at best, and bitterly divided among themselves. The two most powerful blocs, with the two most important militias — the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq with its Badr Brigade and Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army — are to varying degrees unhappy with the American presence. The up-and-coming Fadhila bloc, one of whose leaders was just arrested in Najaf (allegedly for planning IED attacks against U.S. forces), is brooding. Throughout Iraq’s mostly Shiite southern regions, Shiite parties and armies are battling among themselves for the control of important cities, including Basra, and of Iraq’s Southern Oil Company, which produces the vast bulk of Iraqi oil and has provided a valuable stream of corrupt cash for Shiite party leaders. Some of them — possibly all of them — are turning to various factions in Iran for support.
Third, the Kurds, ensconced in the Alamo-like Kurdish region in the north, are happily waxing pro-American even as they quietly prepare for a unilateral grab of the key oil city of Kirkuk, of Iraq’s Northern Oil Company, and of other territory contiguous to the Kurdish region — thus threatening to set in motion an almost unavoidable clash with Iraq’s Arabs, both Sunni and Shiite, and possibly nearby states as well.
Fourth, the American project to create an Iraqi army and police force is going badly. So far, at least, the main army and police units have been reconstituted from the Badr Brigade and Kurdish pesh merga militiamen, none of whom are loyal to the concept of a unitary, nonsectarian Iraq, nor have they been unable to grasp basic notions of human rights. The Shiites, in particular, are engaged in a bloody campaign of death-squad killings and kidnappings, along with targeted assassinations aimed at Baathists. It will be difficult, if not impossible, for the United States to use war-hardened, embittered, and power-hungry Shiite and Kurdish forces to keep peace in Sunni areas, including western Baghdad.
Fifth, of course, the economic reconstruction of Iraq is, shall we say, not going swimmingly.
Not surprisingly, many politicians and generals and most progressives have adopted a worst-case outlook. With bad news mounting, they argue that the American project in Iraq is lost. In truth, I’ve made the same argument, at various points over the past three years. Last November, in an article entitled Getting Out of Iraq for Rolling Stone, I wrote: “George Bush is just about the only person in Washington these days who doesn’t know that the United States has lost the war in Iraq.” I quoted former Georgia Senator Max Cleland, who told a congressional hearing organized by House progressives that the United States had better get out of Iraq before the resistance overruns the Green Zone. “We need an exit strategy that we choose — or it will certainly be chosen for us,” said the grievously wounded Vietnam veteran. “I’ve seen this movie before. I know how it ends.”
Last week, writing for the Nation, Nicholas von Hoffman echoed this theme, suggesting that it’s too late to worry about exit strategies:
“We could be moving toward an American Dunkirk. In 1940 the defeated British Army in Belgium was driven back by the Germans to the French seacoast city of Dunkirk, where it had to abandon its equipment and escape across the English Channel on a fleet of civilian vessels, fishing smacks, yachts, small boats, anything and everything that could float and carry the defeated and wounded army to safety? [In Iraq,] there is no seaport troops could get to, so the only way out of Iraq would be that same desert highway to Kuwait where fifteen years ago the American Air Force destroyed Saddam Hussein’s army.”
What Staying the Course Means
Let me now admit to having second thoughts on this matter. I no longer am convinced that the U.S. adventure in Iraq is lost. There is no guarantee that the Bush administration cannot succeed in its goals there. The only certain thing is that success — what the president calls “victory in Iraq” — will come at the expense of thousands more American deaths, tens of thousands more Iraqi deaths, and hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars.
Indeed, this war would have to be sustained not only by this administration, but by the next one and probably the one after that as well. For over three years, the United States has supported a massive military presence on the ground in Iraq, while taking steady casualties. It may be no less capable of doing so for the next two-and-a-half years, until the end of Bush’s second term — and during the next administration’s reign, too, whether the president is named John McCain or Hillary Clinton. At least theoretically, a force of more than 100,000 U.S. soldiers could wage a brutal war of attrition against the resistance in Iraq for years to come. Last week, in a leak to the New York Times, the White House announced its intention to leave at least 50,000 troops in Iraq for many years to come. Last week, too, the son of the president of Iraq (a Kurd) revealed that representatives of the Kurdish region are in negotiations with the United States to create a permanent U.S. military presence in Iraq’s north.
Meanwhile, President Bush and his Rasputin, Karl Rove, took the occasion of the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to reiterate their unalterable commitment to victory in Iraq, whatever the cost. There is no reason not to take Bush at his word. And there is no reason not to believe that Rove will orchestrate a withering offensive against Democrats who question the president’s goal of victory.
The frightening thing about last week’s House and Senate debates over Iraq was that the mainstream opposition to the Bush administration — ranging from moderate Democrats to realist, if pro-military, moderate Republicans — never challenges the goal of victory in Iraq. Yes, a hardy band of antiwar members of Congress (including Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, Lynn Woolsey and Barbara Lee of California, and others, joined by John Murtha of Pennsylvania) support the unconditional withdrawal of American troops. But the bulk of the Democrats, including the 42 Democrats who last week voted in favor of the bloodthirsty Republican war resolution, don’t question the importance of victory in Iraq. They just question the Bush administration’s tactics.
There are only two ways to thwart Bush’s war. The first is for the Iraqi resistance to defeat the U.S. occupation. The second is for domestic public opinion to coalesce around a demand for unilateral withdrawal. So far, neither the Iraqi resistance, nor the antiwar movement have the upper hand; and sadly, so far they are loathe to make common cause with each other.
Where the Vietnamese resistance had a state, North Vietnam, and the support of the other superpower, the Soviet Union, as well as Mao’s China, the resistance in Iraq is nothing but a grassroots insurgency. It neither controls a state, nor has the support of any state. (Contrary to the idiotic assertions of the neoconservatives and the Bush administration, Iran is not assisting the Sunni Iraqi resistance, and that fractured, fractious movement is getting only the most minuscule support from its Sunni Arab neighbors.)
Needless to say, there is no love lost between Iraq’s Baathists and the kings of Saudi Arabia and Jordan. The resistance in Iraq would benefit mightily if elements of the Shiite bloc hived off to join the insurgency; if, say, Muqtada Sadr’s ragtag forces abandoned the government to join the resistance, as they toyed with doing during the destruction of Fallujah in 2004. That’s unlikely, though.
So who believes that the Iraqi resistance can fight on indefinitely against the combined might of the U.S. armed forces and American-supported Shiite and Kurdish armies as well as militias, especially with ongoing American divide-and-conquer efforts that involve blandishments offered to the less militant wings of the insurgency? Still, it’s not impossible that the resistance can hold on long enough to effect at least a stalemate. But their ability to do so might depend, in part, on the ability of the American antiwar movement to undermine the administration’s commitment to staying the course in Iraq.
Was Iraq a “Mistake”?
Until now, truly antiwar Democrats have represented a minority force within the party. In opposition, they have largely been eclipsed by moderate Democrats and realist Republicans, both seemingly content to argue that the war in Iraq was merely a “mistake” and an inefficiently prosecuted “failure” without confronting the war itself. In fact, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic minority leader who (half-heartedly) supports Rep. Murtha’s get-out-now position, used both of those words over and over during last week’s debate. Both words are deadly — and probably wrong as well.
The war in Iraq was not a “mistake.” It was a deliberately calculated exercise of U.S. power with a specific end in mind — namely, control of Iraq and the Persian Gulf region. It was illegal and remains so. It was a war crime and remains so. Its perpetrators were war criminals and remain so. Its goals were unworthy and remain so.
Few Democrats, and almost no Republicans, have been willing to challenge Bush’s war on these terms, however. Neither have most of the Bush administration’s so-called mistakes truly been errors: the brutal dismantling of the Baath party and the dissolution of the Iraqi armed forces, widely castigated now as “mistakes” by many Bush critics, were meant. They were thought out. They were planned with purpose. They, too, were deliberate actions aiming at U.S. hegemony in Iraq.
Nor is the war simply, or even largely, a “failure.” As cruel and brutish as it is, it is grinding its way toward its goal. Victory for the United States in Iraq, as evidenced by the recitation of bad news I cited earlier, is by no means certain. But it is far too early to call it a failure either. To do so at this stage is Capra-esque. It assumes that bad guys don’t win. But sometimes they do. And on Iraq, the jury remains out.
The danger of emphasizing the supposed “mistakes” and “failures” of the Bush administration’s Iraq policy is that it plays into a notion held by an increasingly large component of centrists in both parties — that, although the war itself was a “mistake,” the only rational option for the United States now is to win it anyway. There are countless variations on this theme emanating from both Democratic and Republican centrists.
You hear it in the argument that, although the war was wrong, we now have a moral obligation to stay and prevent civil war. You hear it in the argument that the United States must be strong against the threat of global “Islamofascism,” and that by leaving Iraq we will hand Al Qaeda and its allies a victory. There are other variations of the same, but all of those who make such arguments (while criticizing Bush for his alleged incompetence and mismanagement) end up arguing that the United States has no choice other than to stay.
In my discussions with them in recent weeks, several have brought up Colin Powell’s absurd argument about the Pottery Barn rule: if you break it, you own it. Well, yes, we broke Iraq, but we don’t own it. (In fact, the Pottery Barn itself has no such rule. If you mistakenly break a piece of pottery in one of its stores, you aren’t actually liable.) We have absolutely no moral imperative to stay in Iraq. We have a moral imperative to leave — and to apologize.
Just as the antiwar movement in the United States can strengthen the resistance in Iraq, the Iraqi resistance can aid the antiwar movement. The cold reality of the war in Iraq is that, had it not been for the Iraqi resistance, there would be no U.S. antiwar movement. Had Iraq’s Sunnis collapsed in disarray and meekly ceded power to the Shiite-Kurdish coalition empowered by the U.S. invasion, President Bush’s illegal war in Iraq might have succeeded far more effortlessly. But here’s the truth of the matter: Led by Iraq’s Baath party and by Iraqi military officers and their tribal and clan allies, a thriving insurgency did develop within months of the March 2003 invasion. Some of the resistance is, of course, still made up of Iraqis passionately loyal to the person of Saddam Hussein. But studies of the insurgency show that most of its fighters are loyal to the Baath party, whose origins were among left-leaning Arab nationalists, or they are loyal to a more specific version of Iraqi nationalism, or they simply oppose the foreign occupation of their country.
Back to Capra Country
The antiwar movement in the United States developed not out of intellectual and moral opposition to the war itself, although that is at its core. It grew because mainstream Americans became increasingly disturbed by the prolonged war that followed the 2003 invasion. Many Americans grew outraged over U.S. casualties. But the fact that a prolonged insurgency followed the invasion and that U.S. casualties mounted is the result of the Iraqi people’s unwillingness to submit to an American diktat.
Viewed from that standpoint, it’s at least worth asking: Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys in Iraq? Are the good guys the U.S. troops fighting to impose American hegemony in the Gulf? Are the good guys the American forces who have installed a murderous Shiite theocracy in Baghdad? Are the good guys the Marines who murdered children and babies in Haditha in cold blood? Are the good guys the U.S. officers who brought us Abu Ghraib, or the generals who signed off on their methods, or the administration that set them on such a path in the first place? Who was it, after all, who pulverized the institutions of the Iraqi state and society?
So if the U.S. “cavalry” aren’t the good guys, who then can we cast in that role? If Frank Capra went to Iraq, how would he divide the place neatly into good guys and bad guys and assemble his feel-good morality play? Certainly, most Americans still believe that the Americans are the good guys, even if 62% (according to one recent poll) no longer believe that the war in Iraq was “worth fighting.” But my argument here is: Capra could make a plausible argument that, in the hell that Iraq has become in 2006, with resistance fighters killing U.S. soldiers and vice versa, there’s at least as much good on their side as on ours, if not more.
That raises, once again, the question of a dialogue with the Iraqi insurgents. For the past year, off and on, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has conducted secret talks with the resistance and has openly made a distinction between Zarqawi-style jihadists and former Baathists and military men. Since the creation of the new, allegedly permanent government under Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, Iraqi government officials once again have raised the idea of talking to the resistance. An aide to Maliki even suggested an amnesty for armed fighters who have killed U.S. troops. That’s a good idea, and it’s been raised more than once since 2003. In this case, though, an ignorant Sen. Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat and Senate minority leader, expressed outrage at the idea of an amnesty. According to the Washington Post, which first reported the amnesty idea, the Maliki aide who suggested it was fired.
Personally I’m suspicious of Khalilzad’s dialogue offers. By dangling the idea, Khalilzad is more than likely using a divide-and-conquer tactic, enticing some insurgent leaders to join the new Iraqi regime. How else to interpret the offer at a moment when President Bush is insisting on an unconditional U.S. victory in Iraq? People knowledgeable about the resistance know that the only basis for serious talks with the insurgents is the offer of an American withdrawal from Iraq in exchange for an accord.
Still, whether one thinks the resistance fighters are good guys, or bad guys that we need to talk to, the left, the antiwar movement, and progressives don’t have to wait for Zal Khalilzad. The time for talking to Iraq’s Baath, former military leaders, and Sunni resistance forces is here. And now that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is dead, the nature of the Iraqi insurgency is partly clarified. It’s a lot harder for supporters of the war to argue that extremist, head-severing Islamist extremists are its dominant face. In fact, of course, they never were.
Some of the antiwar movement’s more perceptive leaders have already started the dialogue. Tom Hayden, the former California state senator and activist, has been talking to the Iraqi resistance in London, Amman, and elsewhere. Some members of Congress, such as Rep. Jim McDermott, have traveled to Amman, Jordan to do the same thing. The Bush administration might not be ready to do it openly — yet. But wars end either with the utter defeat of one side or the other, or with a negotiated settlement. I’ll take that settlement.
Robert Dreyfuss is the author of Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam. He covers national security for Rolling Stone and writes frequently for The American Prospect, Mother Jones, and The Nation. He is also a regular contributor to TomPaine.com, the Huffington Post, and other sites, and writes the blog, The Dreyfuss Report.
Copyright 2006 Robert Dreyfuss
This piece appeared first, with a short introduction by Tom Engelhardt, at Tomdispatch.com.