Start with the simplest, most basic fudge. Newspapers
and the TV news constantly report on various plans for the "withdrawal of American
troops" from Iraq, when what's being proposed is the withdrawal of American
"combat troops" or "combat brigades." This isn't a matter of splitting hairs;
it's the difference between a plan for full-scale withdrawal and a plan to remain
in Iraq in a different military form for the long term. American combat brigades
only add up to perhaps
half of the
troops we presently have in that country.
There is, in fact, quite a gap between withdrawal from that embattled land
and the withdrawal of some American troops, while many of the rest hunker
down on the enormous, all-but-permanent
military bases the Pentagon has built there over the last four years – while
defending the largest
embassy on the planet, now nearing completion (amid the normal woes
that seem to go with American construction and "reconstruction") in Baghdad's
heavily fortified but distinctly insecure Green Zone. And yet, thanks to the
carefully worded statements of leading Democratic (and Republican) politicians
now criticizing the Bush administration, as well as generally terrible reporting
in the mainstream media, most Americans who don't make it to the fine print
or who don't wander widely on the political Internet would have no way of knowing
that withdrawal isn't withdrawal at all.
Ira Chernus, TomDispatch regular and author of Monsters
To Destroy, takes a careful look at the leading Democratic candidates
for president and raises a few crucial, if largely unasked, questions about
the nature of the positions they are taking on the Iraq War. Tom
The Democrats' Iraqi Dilemma
Questions unasked, answers never volunteered
by Ira Chernus
Pity the poor Democratic candidates for president,
caught between Iraq and a hard place. Every day, more and more voters decide
that we must end the war and set a date to start withdrawing our troops from
Iraq. Most who will vote in the Democratic primaries concluded long ago that
we must leave Iraq, and they are unlikely to let anyone who disagrees with them
have the party's nomination in 2008.
But what does it mean to "leave Iraq"? Here's where most of the Democratic
candidates come smack up against that hard place. There is a long-standing bipartisan
consensus in the foreign-policy establishment that the U.S. must control every
strategically valuable region of the world – and none more so than the oil heartlands
of the planet. That's been a hard-and-fast rule of the elite for some six decades
now. No matter how hard the task may be, they demand that presidents be rock-hard
enough to get the job done.
So whatever "leave Iraq" might mean, no candidate of either party likely to
enter the White House on Jan. 20, 2009, can think it means letting Iraqis determine
their own national policies or fate. The powers that be just wouldn't stand
for that. They see themselves as the guardians of world "order." They feel a
sacred obligation to maintain "stability" throughout the imperial domains, which
now means most of planet Earth – regardless of what voters may think. The Democratic
front-runners know that "order" and "stability" are code words for American
hegemony. They also know that voters, especially Democratic ones, see the price
of hegemony in Iraq and just don't want to pay it anymore.
So the Democratic front-runners must promise voters that they will end the
war – with not too many ideologically laden ifs, ands, or buts – while they
assure the foreign-policy establishment that they will never abandon the drive
for hegemony in the Middle East (or anywhere else). In other words, the candidates
have to be able to talk out of both sides of their mouths at the same time.
No worries, it turns out. Fluency in doublespeak is a prime qualification for
high political office. On Iraq, candidates Dennis
Kucinich and Bill
Richardson don't meet that test. They tell anyone and everyone that they
want "all" U.S. troops out of Iraq, but they register only 1-4 percent in
the polls and are generally ignored in the media. The Democrats currently
topping the polls, on the other hand, are proving themselves eminently qualified
Clinton: "We Got It Right, Mostly, During the Cold War"
Hillary Clinton declares
forthrightly: "It is time to begin ending this war. … Start bringing home
America's troops … within 90 days." Troops home: It sounds clear enough. But
she is always careful to avoid the crucial word all. A few months ago
told an interviewer: "We have remaining vital national security interests
in Iraq. … What we can do is to almost take a line sort of north of, between
Baghdad and Kirkuk, and basically put our troops into that region." A senior
Pentagon officer who has briefed Clinton told NPR
commentator Ted Koppel that Clinton expects U.S. troops to be in Iraq when
she ends her second term in 2017.
Why all these troops? We have "very real strategic national interests in this
region," Clinton explains. "I will order specialized units to engage in narrow
and targeted operations against al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations in
the region. They will also provide security for U.S. troops and personnel and
train and equip Iraqi security services to keep order and promote stability."
There would be U.S. forces to protect the Kurds and "our efforts must also involve
a regional recommitment to success in Afghanistan." Perhaps that's why Clinton
has proposed "that we expand the Army by 80,000 troops, that we move faster
to expand the Special Forces."
Says her deputy campaign manager Bob Nash, "She'll be as tough as any Republican
on our enemies." And on our friends, he might have added, if they don't shape
up. At the Take Back
America conference in June the candidate drew boos when she declared that
"the American military has done its job. … They gave the Iraqi government the
chance to begin to demonstrate that it understood its responsibilities. … It
is the Iraqi government which has failed." It's the old innocent-Americans-blame-the-foreigners
More importantly, it's the old tough-Americans-reward-friends-who-help-America
ploy. We should start withdrawing some troops, Clinton says, "to make
it clear to the Iraqis that … we're going to look out for American interests,
for the region's interests." If the Iraqi government is not "striving for sustainable
stability … we'll consider providing aid to provincial governments and reliable
non-governmental organizations that are making progress."
Clinton's message to the Iraqi leaders is clear: You had your chance to join
"the international community," to get with the U.S. program, and to reap the
same benefits as the leaders of other oil-rich nations – but you blew it. So,
now you can fend for yourselves while we look for new, more capable allies in
Iraq and keep who-knows-how-many troops there to "protect our interests" – and
increase our global clout. The draw-down in Iraq, our signal that we've given
up on the Maliki government, "will be a first step towards restoring Americans
moral and strategic leadership in the world," Clinton swears.
"America must be the world's leader," she declared
last month. "We must widen the scope of our strength by leading strong alliances
which can apply military force when required." And, when necessary, cut off
useless puppet governments that won't let their strings be pulled often enough.
Hillary is speaking to at least three audiences: the voters at home, the foreign-policy
elite, and a global elite she would have to deal with as president. Her recent
fierce criticism of the way President Bush has handled Iraq, like her somewhat
muddled antiwar rhetoric, is meant as a message of reassurance to voters, but
also to our elite – and as a warning to foreigners: The next President Clinton
will be tough on allies as well as foes, as tough as the old cold warriors.
"We got it right, mostly, during the Cold War. … Nothing is more urgent than
for us to begin again to rebuild a bipartisan consensus," she said
last year in a speech that cut right to the bottom line: "American foreign policy
exists to maintain our security and serve our national interests." That's what
the bipartisan consensus has always believed.
Obama and Edwards: Don't Tread on Us
That seems to be what Barack Obama, another loyal member of the foreign-policy
establishment, believes too. "The single most important job of any president
is to protect the American people," he affirmed in a major
foreign-policy statement last April. But "the threats we face … can no longer
be contained by borders and boundaries. … The security of the American people
is inextricably linked to the security of all people." That's why the U.S. must
be the "leader of the free world." It's hard to find much difference on foreign
policy between Clinton and Obama, except that Barack is more likely to dress
up the imperial march of U.S. interests in such old-fashioned Cold War flourishes.
That delights neoconservative guru Robert Kagan, who summed
up Obama's message succinctly: "His critique is not that we've meddled too
much but that we haven't meddled enough. … To Obama, everything and everyone
everywhere is of strategic concern to the United States." To control everything
and everyone, he wants "the strongest, best-equipped military in the world.
… A 21st century military to stay on the offense." That, he says, will take
at least 92,000 more soldiers and Marines – precisely the number Secretary
of Defense Robert Gates has recommended to President Bush.
Like Hillary, Barack
would remove all "combat brigades" from Iraq, but keep U.S. troops there
"for a more extended period of time" – even "redeploy additional troops to Northern
Iraq" – to support the Kurds, train Iraqi forces, fight al-Qaeda, "reassure
allies in the Gulf," "send a clear message to hostile countries like Iran and
Syria," and "prevent chaos in the wider region." "Most importantly, some of
these troops could be redeployed to Afghanistan … to stop Afghanistan from backsliding
Barack also agrees with Hillary that the Iraqi government needs a good scolding
"to pressure the Iraqi leadership to finally come to a political agreement between
the warring factions that can create some sense of stability. … Only through
this phased redeployment can we send a clear message to the Iraqi factions that
the U.S. is not going to hold together this country indefinitely. … No more
coddling, no more equivocation."
But Obama offers a carrot as well as a stick to the Iraqis: "The redeployment
could be temporarily suspended if the parties in Iraq reach an effective political
arrangement that stabilizes the situation and they offer us a clear and compelling
rationale for maintaining certain troop levels. … The United States would not
be maintaining permanent military bases in Iraq." What, however, does "permanent"
mean when language is being used so subtly? It's a question that needs an answer,
but no one asks it – and no answer is volunteered.
John Edwards offers variations
on the same themes. He wants a continuing U.S. troop presence "to prevent a
genocide, deter a regional spillover of the civil war, and prevent an al-Qaeda
safe haven." But he goes further than either Obama or Clinton in spelling out
that we "will also need some presence in Baghdad, inside the Green Zone, to
protect the American embassy and other personnel."
Around the world, Edwards would
use military force for "deterring and responding to aggressors, making sure
that weak and failing states do not threaten our interests, and … maintaining
our strategic advantage against major competitor states that could do us harm
and otherwise threaten our interests." His distinctive touch is to stress coordinated
military and civilian efforts for "stabilizing states with weak governments.
… I would put stabilization first." "Stabilization" is yet another establishment
code word for insuring U.S. control, as Edwards certainly knows. His ultimate
aim, he says, is to ensure that the U.S. will "lead and shape the world."
Running for the Imperial Presidency
The top Democrats agree that we must leave significant numbers of U.S. troops
in Iraq, not only for selfish reasons, but because we Americans are so
altruistic. We want to prevent chaos and bring order and stabilization to that
country – as if U.S. troops were not already creating chaos and instability
there every day. But among the foreign policy elite, the U.S. is always a force
for order, "helping" naturally chaotic foreigners achieve "stability." For the
elite, it's axiomatic that the global "stability" that keeps us secure and prosperous
is also a boon for the people we "stabilize." For this to happen in Iraq, time
must be bought with partial "withdrawal" plans. (It matters little how many
foreigners we kill in the process, as long as U.S. casualties are reduced enough
to appease public opinion at home.) This is not open to question; most of the
time, it's not something that even crosses anyone's mind to question.
Well, perhaps it's time we started asking such questions. A lost war should
be the occasion for a great public debate on the policies and the geopolitical
assumptions that led to the war. Americans blew that opportunity after the Vietnam
War. Instead of a genuine debate, we had a few years of apathy, verging on amnesia,
toward foreign affairs followed by the Reagan revolution, whose disastrous effects
in matters foreign (and domestic) still plague us. Now, we have another precious
– and preciously bought – opportunity to raise fundamental issues about foreign
policy. But in the mainstream, all we are getting is a false substitute for
real public debate.
With an election looming, the Democrats portray themselves as the polar opposite
of the Republicans. They blame the Iraq fiasco entirely on Bush and the neocons,
conveniently overlooking all the support Bush got from the Democratic elite
before his military venture went sour. They talk as if the only issue that matters
is whether or not we begin to withdraw some troops from Iraq sometime
next year. The media report this debate in excruciating detail, with no larger
context at all. So most Americans think this is the only debate there is, or
The other debate about Iraq – the one that may matter more in the long run
– is the one going on in the private chambers of the policymakers about what
messages they should send, not so much to enemies as to allies. Bush, Cheney,
and their supporters say the most important message is a reassuring one: "When
the U.S. starts a fight, it stays in until it wins. You can count on us." For
key Democrats, including congressional leaders and major candidates for the
imperial presidency, the primary message is a warning: "U.S. support for friendly
governments and factions is not an open-ended blank check. If you are not producing,
we'll find someone else who can."
The two sides are hashing this one out in a sometimes strident, sometimes relatively
chummy manner. The outcome will undoubtedly make a real difference, especially
to the people of Iraq, but it's still only a dispute about tactics, never about
goals, which have been agreed upon in advance.
Yet it's those long-range goals of the bipartisan consensus that add up to
the seven-decade-old drive for imperial hegemony, which got us into Vietnam,
Iraq, and wherever we fight the next large, disastrous war. It's those goals
that should be addressed. Someone has to question that drive. And what better
moment to do it than now, in the midst of another failed war? Unfortunately,
the leading Democratic candidates aren't about to take up the task. I guess
it must be up to us.
Ira Chernus is professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado
at Boulder and author of Monsters
To Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin. He can be contacted
Copyright 2007 Ira Chernus