Biking Out of Iraq

In imagistic terms, the Bush administration biked into Iraq. Now how are we going to bike out?

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This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

The Bush administration invaded Iraq in March 2003 with a force of approximately 130,000 troops. Top White House and Pentagon officials like Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz were convinced that, by August, those troops, welcomed with open arms by the oppressed Iraqis, would be drawn down to 30,000-40,000 and housed in newly built, permanent military bases largely away from the country’s urban areas. This was to be part of what now is called a “strategic partnership” in the Middle East.

Almost five and a half years later, the United States still has approximately 130,000 troops in Iraq. Top administration officials are now talking about “modestly accelerated” rates of troop withdrawal, if all goes well. By August 2010, the Obama administration expects to have only 30,000-50,000 troops housed mainly on American mega-bases largely away from urban areas, part of a special American/Iraqi strategic partnership in the region.

This passes for progress in Iraq.

A History of the Bicycle in Iraq

In imagistic terms, the Bush administration biked into Iraq. Back in its salad days, when all was green and upbeat, its top officials loved the idea that they were training the eager Iraqi kid in how to ride the bike of democracy. President George W. Bush liked to talk about the moment when we might take the “training wheels” off the Iraqi bike and let the little fella ride into the democratic sunset on his own. His Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, ran with an allied image—the difficult moment when a parent has to decide whether to take that steadying hand off the bike seat and let the tyke pedal on his own. “[Y]ou’re running down the street,” as he put it in 2004, “holding onto the back of the seat. You know that if you take your hand off they could fall, so you take a finger off and then two fingers, and pretty soon you’re just barely touching it.”

Some years later, after kid and parent had made it around one of those “corners” they were always turning—on the way to various “tipping points” in the Iraq War—and found themselves instead at the “precipice,” after Rumsfeld had, in fact, been asked to resign by his president, he wrote a final memo, the last of his famed “snowflakes,” to the White House, on “new options” in Iraq. In it, he suggested: “Begin modest withdrawals of U.S. and Coalition forces (start ‘taking our hand off the bicycle seat’), so Iraqis know they have to pull up their socks, step up and take responsibility for their country.”

His tenure could qualify as the longest biking lesson in history and still, it seemed, the Iraqis couldn’t do without that hand on the seat. Even when his president followed him two years later, their imagery of choice remained behind. This March, for instance, the chief American military spokesman in Iraq, Major General David G. Perkins, discussing a possible draw-down of American forces, said: “We need to take our hands off the handlebars, or the training wheels, at some point.”

And then, two weeks ago, Colonel Timothy R. Reese, an American adviser to the Iraqi military’s Baghdad command, created a front-page New York Times stir when a memorandum he had written was leaked. In a distinctly imagistic mode, he began: “As the old saying goes, ‘Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days.’ Since the signing of the 2009 Security Agreement, we are guests in Iraq, and after six years in Iraq, we now smell bad to the Iraqi nose.”

While the official Obama-era target for an American withdrawal remains (as it was in the last months of the Bush era) the end of 2011, Reese urged that all U.S. forces be pulled out on an expedited schedule by August 2010—the moment by which, according to present plans, only American “combat brigades” are to be removed. Resurrecting a Vietnam-era suggestion of Vermont Republican Senator George Aiken (ignored then, as it will be now), he headlined his memo: “It’s Time for the US to Declare Victory and Go Home.”

And there, in the midst of a generally scathing assessment of the deficiencies of the Iraqi military (and the Iraqi government), was that bicycle again:

“The SA [Bush-era Security Agreement between the U.S. and Iraq] outlines a series of gradual steps towards military withdrawal, analogous to a father teaching his kid to ride a bike without training wheels… We now have an Iraqi government that has gained its balance and thinks it knows how to ride the bike in the race. And in fact they probably do know how to ride, at least well enough for the road they are on against their current competitors. Our hand on the back of the seat is holding them back and causing resentment. We need to let go before we both tumble to the ground.”

It just goes to show. Under the pressure of war, images that won’t go away, like people, have the capacity to change. The Iraqi child with the training wheels is now, according to Reese, old enough to enter an actual bike race.

Who exactly will bike out of Iraq under the Obama withdrawal plan, however, still remains to be defined. After all, at the end of his memo, the most urgent call for withdrawal from Iraq yet to emerge from the higher levels of the U.S. military, Colonel Reese offers his version of a full-scale American withdrawal. “During the withdrawal period,” he writes, “the USG [United States government] and GOI [government of Iraq] should develop a new strategic framework agreement that would include some lasting military presence at 1-3 large training bases, airbases, or key headquarters locations. But it should not include the presence of any combat forces save those for force protection needs or the occasional exercise.”

And keep in mind: his proposal has, with rare exceptions, been rejected out of hand by all and sundry, in and out of the military high command and in Washington.

In other words, even the most Xtreme American biker of this moment still imagines us in Iraq forever and a day.

A History of Experts on Iraq

Once upon a time, the playing field, the stadium, and sports events were regularly compared to war, even considered suitable preparation for actual battle. Ever since the First Gulf War, this has been reversed. Now, war—or at least its coverage—is based on sports.

Just as, sooner or later, the smoothest players and savviest coaches depart the “field of battle” for the press box and the TV spotlight, for pre-game, game, and post-game commentary, so the commanders of the last war now leave the battlefield for the TV booth and offer us their expertise on the next war. As former Houston Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy has had to discuss the decisions of his brother Stan, coach of the Orlando Magic, in ESPN playoff commentary, so the commanders of our previous wars cover next wars and their commanders, possibly even officers once under their own command.

We now live with the ESPN version of war, including slo-mo replays, and the logos, interactive charts, and fabulous graphics of the sports world. And once anointed as experts, our John Maddens of war, like their sports counterparts, never go away. Back in April 2008, for instance, New York Times journalist David Barstow wrote a front-page exposé focused on the many retired military officers who had been hired as media consultants for the Iraq War. As a group, they made up, he suggested, a “kind of media Trojan horse,” because most of them were marching to a carefully organized Pentagon campaign of disinformation on the war. In addition, most of them had ties, not acknowledged on the air, “to military contractors vested in the very war policies they are asked to assess.”

Barstow’s piece concluded:

“To the public, these men are members of a familiar fraternity, presented tens of thousands of times on television and radio as ‘military analysts’ whose long service has equipped them to give authoritative and unfettered judgments about the most pressing issues of the post-Sept. 11 world. Hidden behind that appearance of objectivity, though, is a Pentagon information apparatus that has used those analysts in a campaign to generate favorable news coverage of the administration’s wartime performance.”

Barstow named names and made connections. Those names included, for example, retired Air Force general and Fox News senior military analyst Thomas G. McInerney, retired Army general and NBC/MSNBC military analyst Montgomery Meigs, retired Army general and NBC/MSNBC military analyst Barry R. McCaffrey, and retired Marine Colonel and Fox News military analyst William V. Cowan. After the exposé appeared, they seem to have just carried right on with their media duties.

Some of the print media has similarly adhered to the principle of once-an-expert-always-an-expert. For instance, on the fifth anniversary of Bush’s disastrous invasion of Iraq, the New York Times decided to ask a range of “experts on military and foreign affairs” to look back on that fiasco—and then rounded up the usual suspects. Of the nine experts it came up with, six were intimately involved in that catastrophe either as drumbeaters for the invasion, instigators of it, or facilitators of the occupation that followed—Kenneth Pollack, Danielle Pletka, and Frederick Kagan (enthusiasts all), Richard Perle (aka “the prince of darkness”), L. Paul Bremer (the administration’s first viceroy in Baghdad), and General Paul D. Eaton (who trained Iraqi troops in the early years of the occupation).

Notably absent was anyone who had seriously opposed the invasion. The closest was Anne-Marie Slaughter, a “liberal hawk” who wrote a supportive New York Times op-ed on March 18, 2003, two days before the invasion began, headlined, “Good Reasons for Going Around the U.N.”

The Times anniversary spread appeared in March 2008. Jump ahead a year-plus and the Times once again launched what undoubtedly was a mighty search for experts who might consider Colonel Reese’s suggestion that we take our hand off that Iraqi bike—and came up with a typical crew of seven:

One, retired Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl, is president of the Center for a New American Security, and was an advisor to General David Petraeus, former top U.S. commander in Iraq, now Centcom commander overseeing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A second, Stephen Biddle, senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, was also an advisor to Petraeus and most recently on the “team” that advised General Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan under Petraeus, in his recent review of Afghan War strategy. A third, Anthony Cordesman, Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, was on the same McChrystal team. A fourth, Thomas Ricks, former Washington Post military reporter and now senior fellow at Nagl’s Center, is the author of the bestselling book The Gamble, a highly complimentary account of Petraeus’s role in Iraq in which Nagl is, of course, a figure. (Ricks, by the way, has long made it clear that he believes we will be in that country for years to come.) A fifth, Kori Schake, now at the Hoover Institution, was a former national security adviser on defense issues to President George W. Bush. A sixth, Jonathan Morgenstein, is a senior national security policy fellow at Third Way, another Washington think tank, and just recently returned from Iraq where “he was a military transition team adviser to the Iraqi Army.”

Not surprisingly, all six of these experts, with the most modest of caveats, dismissed Reese’s suggestion out of hand (“The pace of progress in Iraq will be slow, but we can’t throw up our hands and walk away…”), agreeing that it was in no one’s interest to expedite an American departure. Only a seventh expert, author and retired Colonel Douglas Macgregor, agreed with Reese.

Consider that a little history of expertise about our recent wars. There’s a corollary. If you’re not anointed an expert, you’re never likely to be. Among those automatically disqualified for expertise on Iraq: just about anyone who bluntly rejected the idea of invading Iraq or predicted any version of the catastrophe that ensued before it happened. Disqualified above all are any of those antiwar types who actually took to the streets of American cities by the hundreds of thousands before the invasion to raise homemade placards to its un-wisdom. They obviously knew nothing. Their very stance indicated a bias that evidently disqualified them on the spot.

Someone—I can’t claim to remember who—once made the point that within any administration you could afford to be a hawk and be wrong, just not a dove and right. When it comes to TV war commentators, that seems to hold true as well.

It would, of course, be possible to imagine the antiwar equivalent of those generals-as-analysts. From the ranks of the last antiwar movement (all still active anti-warriors), you could, for example, choose Tom Hayden, Daniel Ellsberg, and Howard Zinn to offer commentary on our ongoing wars. Only you know as well as I do that that fantasy will never turn into media reality. In our world of expertise, it’s unthinkable.

A History of the Iraqi Air Force

Recently, while Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was visiting Iraq, the top American commander in that country, General Ray Odierno, indicated that the Iraqis would not be able to defend their own airspace for the foreseeable future. Essentially, they have no air force—or rather, at this point they have helicopters, C-130 transports, and some smaller Cesna trainers and the like, but no jet fighters. Despite the fact that a U.S. Air Force “assessment team” is being rushed to Baghdad to look for “some creative solutions” to the problem, it’s clear that the Iraqi air force will remain the U.S. Air Force for some time to come (which undoubtedly means manning the giant U.S. airbase built at Balad as well).

The Iraqis now want American F-16s. Unfortunately, according to New York Times reporter Elisabeth Bumiller, General Odierno pointed out a sad truth: “it would be impossible to build and deliver them by the end of 2011, even if the Iraqis were able to afford them.” And don’t forget this: Iraq has no trained pilots to fly them either! Sigh… much work remains on the horizon for the U.S.A.F.

Fortunately, Aviation Week reported in April that the Iraqis have a plan to overcome their problem. It’s a “three-phase, 11-year improvement plan” that will move their air force from T-6 trainers to a few dozen F-16s by “the middle of the next decade” (in case you were wondering just how long the U.S.A.F. is likely to be filling in).

Here, then, is the true tragedy of our moment. We want to leave Iraq. Maybe not as quickly as Colonel Reese would like, but really we do. President Obama has made that clear. Unfortunately, the Iraqis just won’t let us. Imagine! They weren’t even thinking about an air force until recently—and what would a country in the Middle East be if, as Bumiller points out, it had “no way to intercept another jet that invades the country’s airspace.”

Just who might invade Iraqi airspace remains a subject for speculation: The Israelis on their way to bomb Iran? (Not likely the U.S.A.F. would start shooting those planes down.) The Iranians on their way to bomb…? Well, who? After all, the present government in Iraq is essentially an ally of Iran. The Turks? Not really an issue when you think about it. Their planes have been invading Iraqi airspace for a while to attack Kurdish rebels and the U.S.A.F. hasn’t exactly been shooting them down either.

Since it’s so easy to obliterate the past, just for a moment let’s recall the history of the Iraqi air force. Now that Iraq essentially has no air force, who remembers that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq once had a very large and active one—up to 950 planes in the 1980s. In 1990, according to the website, it still had the sixth largest air force in the world, and plenty of trained pilots to go with it. During the First Gulf War, nearly half of that air force fled to neighboring Iran (on which Iraqi planes had dropped more than their share of bombs and even poison gas in the 1980s). Those planes were never returned. Of the relatively small force that remained, many were destroyed in the First Gulf War and some of the rest, at Saddam’s orders, were buried in the desert as the invasion of 2003 began.

The history that’s really been forgotten, though, is even more recent. Put in a nutshell, the Iraqis don’t have an air force because Washington didn’t want them to. Much attention has been paid to the Bush administration’s lack of planning for the occupation of Iraq, but relatively little to what it did plan. Let’s start with the fact that, in May 2003, L. Paul Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority in a burst of blind pride disbanded the Iraqi Army. Pentagon plans for rebuilding it called for a future, border-patrolling Iraqi military (lite) of perhaps 40,000 men with minimal armaments and no air force to speak of.

In the Middle East, this had only one meaning: from a series of newly built mega-bases already on Pentagon drawing boards as American troops crossed the Kuwaiti border in 2003, the U.S. Army and Air Force would fill in as the real Iraqi military for eons to come. Under the pressure of a fierce Sunni insurgency, the army part of that plan was soon jettisoned. But “standing up” the Iraqi military—”As Iraqis stand up, we will stand down,” was long President Bush’s mantra—has meant just that: two feet on the ground.

Until relatively recently, the Iraqis were functionally not permitted to take to the skies. Now, the lack of that air force will surely come to the fore as an excuse for why any American “withdrawal” will have to have caveats and qualifications—and why, if ours proves to be a non-withdrawal withdrawal, it will be their fault.

A History of Devastation in Iraq

Until the U.S. arrived in Baghdad, things seemed bad enough. There was Saddam Hussein, the megalomanic dictator—he of the endless Disney-esque palaces and giant sculpted hands—with his secret prisons, torture chambers, and helicopter gunships. There were the international sanctions strangling the country. There were the mass graves in the north and the south. There was an oil industry held together by scotch tape and ingenuity. It was a gruesome enough mess.

That was before the invasion to “liberate” the country. Since then hundreds of thousands, possibly a million or more Iraqis have died (depending on whose figures and studies you believe). Saddam’s killing fields have been dwarfed by a fierce set of destructive American military operations as well as insurgencies-cum-civil-wars-cum-terrorist-acts; major cities have been largely or partially destroyed, or ethnically cleansed; millions of Iraqis have been forced from their homes, becoming internal refugees or going into exile; untold numbers of Iraqis have been imprisoned, assassinated, tortured or abused; and the country’s cultural heritage has been ransacked. Basic services—electricity, water, food—were terribly impaired and the economy, in the process of being privatized by the neocon overseers of the occupation, was simply wrecked. Health services were crippled. Oil production, upon which Iraq now depends for up to 90% of its government funds, has only relatively recently surpassed the worst levels of the Saddam era.

Iraq, in other words, has been devastated. The American invasion and the occupation that followed acted like whirlwinds of destruction, unraveling a land already bursting with problems and potential animosities.

What men begin, the gods end. If such a saying doesn’t exist, it should, since the American catastrophe now seems to be morphing into an unparalleled natural disaster as well. In what once was the breadbasket of civilization, Iraqi agriculture, ignored by the occupiers, is withering and the country is desertifying at a frightening pace under the pressure of a several-year-old drought.

So fierce is the process that, according to Liz Sly of the Los Angeles Times, who has written an apocalyptic account of all this, the country received only 20% of its normal rainfall in 2008, and so far in 2009 but half the usual amount. Rivers are drying up, wells are disappearing, and desperate Iraqi farmers are deserting the land for the city (where unemployment rates remain high). Everywhere dust gathers, awaiting the winds which create the monstrous duststorms that carry the precious land of Iraq into the fragile lungs of urban Iraqis. “Now,” writes Sly, “the Agriculture Ministry estimates that 90% of [Iraq’s] land is either desert or suffering from severe desertification, and that the remaining arable land is being eroded at the rate of 5% a year.”

Expecting the worst harvest in a decade and with the wheat crop at 40% of normal, the government has been forced to buy enormous amounts of grain abroad at a time when oil prices, dropping precipitously from 2008 highs, left it with far less money available. However overused the image may be, the Bush administration created the perfect storm in Iraq, a “mission accomplished” version of hell on Earth. And it’s because Iraq is in such desperate shape that, of course, we, as the protectors of its fragile “stability,” can’t leave.

A History of Justifications

When we invaded Iraq, serial justifications were offered. There was the grim dictator to rid the world of. There were his killing fields. (Never again!) There was 9/11 and his “support for terrorism.” (Top Bush administration officials long claimed a link between Saddam and al-Qaeda, despite convincing evidence to the contrary.) There was liberation for the Shiites and the ending of what Wolfowitz called “criminal treatment of the Iraqi people.” There was the reestablishment of an American version of order in the region. There were those heavily emphasized, if nonexistent, weapons of mass destruction the dictator supposedly had squirreled away, as well as his (also nonexistent) program to get his hands on a nuclear weapon. (As Wolfowitz put it in May 2003: “The truth is that for reasons that have a lot to do with the U.S. government bureaucracy we settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on which was weapons of mass destruction as the core reason…”)

Later, when things began to take a turn for the worse and another reason was needed, there was the propagation of democracy (a great guiding principle to which the Bush administration arrived rather late in Iraq and only under pressure from Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani). Even later, when things were going far worse, there was the idea that it was far better to fight the terrorists over there than here. And, of course, as the president liked to confide to foreign leaders, there was God Himself commanding him to strike Saddam and so thwart Gog and Magog.

Among the cognoscenti, of course, there were other expectations and justifications, caught best perhaps in the neoconservative quip of 2003, “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran.” After all, the neocons in and around the Bush administration truly did believe that a Pax Americana in what they liked to call “the Greater Middle East” was within their shock-and-awe grasp, and possibly even a global version of the same. As for oil—or what President Bush referred to, on the rare occasion when he mentioned it, as Iraq’s “patrimony”—mum was the word, even though that country had the world’s third largest proven petroleum reserves and sat strategically at the heart of the energy heartlands of the planet.

Now, with those 130,000 troops still there, not to speak of the scads of rent-a-guns and private contractors, with that overstuffed, overstaffed embassy the size of the Vatican built for 1,000 “diplomats,” with that series of major bases (which the Pentagon used to call, charmingly enough, “enduring camps”) still well occupied, with significant numbers of Iraqis and small numbers of Americans dying each month, with millions of Iraqis still internal or external refugees, with the land devastated, and basic services hardly restored, with ethnic tensions still running high, and a government quietly allied to Iran in place in Baghdad backed by a 250,000-man military, with an American withdrawal still officially years off, and “withdrawal” itself a matter of definition, no one even bothers to offer the slightest justification for being in Iraq. After all, why would explanations be necessary when we’re getting ready to leave?

If you don’t believe me, go hunting for an official explanation today. Why are we in Iraq? Because we’re there. Because the Iraqis need us. Because something terrible would happen if we left precipitously. So we still occupy Iraq and no one even asks why.

A History of Withdrawal from Iraq

There is no history of withdrawal from Iraq.

[A History of Imitation, or a Note on Further Reading: They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, whoever they may be. Consider this piece, then, a form of flattery, if not exactly an imitation of the style of that journalist/historian/storyteller par excellence Eduardo Galeano. No one, after all, could really imitate his distinctive style, least of all me. But the form of this post is at least inspired by a recent reading of Galeano’s latest masterpiece, Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone. A history of the world in a mere 365 pages and hundreds of little, breath-catching vignettes, I consider it a must-read for the universe.]


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