Think of the top officials of the Bush administration
as magicians when it comes to Iraq. Their top hats and tails may be worn and
their act fraying, but it doesn't seem to matter. Their latest "abracadabra,"
the president's "surge strategy" of 2007, has still worked like a charm. They
waved their magic wands, paid
off and armed a bunch of former Sunni insurgents and al-Qaeda terrorists
(about 80,000 "concerned citizens," as the president likes to call them), and
magically lowered "violence" in Iraq. Even more miraculously, they made a country
that they had already turned into a cesspool and a slag heap – its capital now
has a "lake" of sewage so
large that it can be viewed "as a big black spot on Google Earth" – almost
entirely disappear from view in the U.S.
Of course, what they needed to be effective was that classic adjunct to any
magician's act, the perfect assistant. This has been a role long held, and still
played with mysterious willingness, by the mainstream media. There are certainly
many reporters in Iraq doing their jobs as best they can in difficult circumstances.
When it comes to those who make the media decisions at home, however, they have
practically clamored for the Bush administration to put them in a coffin-like
box and saw it in half. Thanks to their news choices, Iraq has for months been
whisked deep inside most papers and into the softest sections of network and
cable news programs. Only one Iraq subject has gotten significant front-page
attention: How much "success" has the president's surge strategy had?
Before confirmatory polls even arrived, the media had waved its own magic wand
and declared that Americans had lost interest in Iraq. Certainly the media people
had. The economy – with its subprime Hadithas and its market Abu Ghraibs – moved
to center stage, yet links between the Bush administration's $2
trillion war and a swooning economy were seldom considered. It mattered
little that a recent Associated
Press/Ipsos poll revealed a majority of Americans to be convinced that the
most reasonable "stimulus" for the U.S. economy would be withdrawal from Iraq.
A total of 68 percent of those polled believed such a move would help the economy.
Anyone tuning in to the nightly network news can now regularly go through a
typical half-hour focused on Obamania, the faltering of the Clinton "machine,"
the Huckabee/McCain face-off on Republican Main Street, the latest nose-diving
market, and the latest campus shooting without running across Iraq at all. Cable
TV, radio news, newspapers – it makes little difference.
The News Coverage Index of the Project for Excellence in Journalism illustrates
that point clearly. For the week of Feb.
4-10, the category of "Iraq Homefront" barely squeaked into tenth place
on its chart of the top-ten most heavily covered stories with 1 percent of the
"newshole." First place went to "2008 Campaign" at 55 percent. "Events in Iraq"
– that is, actual coverage of and from Iraq – didn't make it onto the list.
(The week before, "Events
in Iraq" managed to reach #6 with 2 percent of the newshole.)
True, you can go to Juan Cole's Informed
Comment Web site, perhaps the best daily roundup of Iraqi mayhem and disaster
on the Web, and you'll feel as if, like Alice, you had fallen down a rabbit
hole into another universe. ("Two bombings shook Iraq Sunday morning. In the
Misbah commercial center in the upscale Shi'ite Karrada district, a female suicide
bomber detonated a belt bomb, killing 3 persons and wounding 10. … About 100
members of the Awakening Council of Hilla Province have gone on strike to protest
the killing of three of them by the U.S. military at Jurf al-Sakhr last Sunday,
in what the Pentagon says was an accident. … Al-Hayat reports in Arabic
that officials in Baquba are warning that as families are returning to the city,
they could be forced right back out again, owing to sectarian tensions….") But
how many Americans read Juan Cole every day… or any day?
On that media homefront, the Bush administration has been Houdini-esque. Left
repeatedly locked in chains inside a booth full of water, George W. Bush continues
to emerge to declare that things are
going swimmingly in Iraq:
"80,000 local citizens stepped up and said, we want to help patrol our own
neighborhoods; we're sick and tired of violence and extremists. I'm not surprised
that that happens. I believe Iraqi moms want the same thing that American moms
want, and that is for their children to grow up in peace. … The surge is working.
I know some don't want to admit that, and I understand. But the terrorists understand
the surge is working. Al-Qaeda knows the surge is working…."
Having pulled the "surge" rabbit out of his hat – even stealing the very word
out of the middle of "insurgent" – Bush then topped that trick by making Iraq
go away for weeks, if not months, on end. Talk about success!
Forever and a Day
If you're wondering why in the world this matters
– after all, won't the Democrats get us out of Iraq in 2009? – then you haven't
come to grips with Bush's greatest magic trick of all. Though a lame-duck president
sporting dismally low job-approval
ratings, he continues to embed the U.S. in Iraq, while framing the issue
of what to do there in such a way that any thought of a quick withdrawal has…
Poof!… fled the scene.
Admittedly, somewhere between 57 percent and 64 percent of Americans, according to Rasmussen
Reports, want all U.S. troops out of Iraq within a year. We're
not talking here about just the "combat troops" which both Hillary Clinton and
Barack Obama seem prepared to withdraw at a relatively stately pace. (Obama
has suggested a 16-month schedule
for removing them; Clinton has only indicated that she would start withdrawing
some of them within 60
days of coming into office.) Combat troops, however, represent perhaps half
of all U.S. military personnel in Iraq – and Republicans are already attacking
even their withdrawal as cut-and-run-ism, if not outright treason.
Americans may not have noticed, but the policy that a large majority of them
want is no longer part of polite discussion in Washington or on the campaign
trail. The spectrum of opinion in the capital, among presidential candidates,
and in the mainstream media ranges from Sen. McCain's claim that even setting
a date for withdrawal would be a sure recipe for "genocide"
– and that's the responsible Right – to those who want to depart, but not completely
and not very quickly either. The party of "withdrawal" would still leave American
troops behind for various activities. These would include the "training" of
the Iraqi military. (No one ever asks why one side in Iraq needs endless years
of "training" and "advice," while the other sides simply fight on fiercely.)
In addition, troops might be left to guard our monstrous
new embassy in Baghdad, or as an al-Qaeda-oriented strike force, or even
to protect American security contractors like Blackwater.
Hard as it is for the audience to separate the mechanics of a magician's trickery
from the illusion he creates, it's worth a try. Before the surge began in February
2007, as five combat brigades were dispatched mainly to Baghdad, there were
perhaps 130,000 American forces in Iraq (as well as a large contingent of private
security contractors – hired guns – running into the tens of thousands). The
surge raised that military figure to more than 160,000.
The Bush administration's latest plans are to send home the five combat brigades,
but not all the support troops
that arrived with them, by the end of July. This will still leave troop levels
above those of February 2007. At that point, as Secretary of Defense Robert
Gates suggested only
last week, the administration is likely to "pause"
for at least one to three months to assess the situation. In other words, when
Americans enter their polling places this Nov. 4, there will probably
still be more troops in Iraq than at the beginning of 2007.
Time magazine typically put the matter this
"The pause, which could last up to several months, would be designed
to ensure that the smaller U.S. footprint in Iraq doesn't embolden insurgents
to reignite the civil war that ripped the country apart in 2006 and the first
half of 2007."
That smaller footprint, however, will be marginally larger than the one that
preceded the surge. So consider this a year-long draw-up, not a drawdown. In
the meantime, though the mainstream media has hardly noticed, the Pentagon has
been digging in. In the last year, it has continued to upgrade
its massive bases in Iraq to the tune of billions of dollars. It has also brought
in extra air power for an "air surge" that has barely been reported on here
– and nobody in Washington or on the campaign trail, in the Oval Office or the
Democratic Party, has been talking about drawing down that air surge, even though
there has recently been a spate of incidents in which Iraqi
civilians, and some of those
"concerned citizens" backing American forces have died from U.S. air strikes.
The Bush administration is also quietly negotiating a Status of Forces Agreement
with the weak Iraqi government inside Baghdad's Green Zone. It will legally
entrench American forces on those mega-bases for years to come. In a recent
in the Washington Post, Secretary of Defense Gates and Secretary of State
Condoleezza Rice denied that the administration was trying to bind a future
president to Bush's Iraq policies. ("In short, nothing to be negotiated in the
coming months will tie the hands of the next commander in chief, whomever he
or she may be.") This, however, is obviously not the case. The agreement is
also being carefully constructed to skirt the status of a "treaty," so that
it will not have to be submitted to the Senate for ratification. All of this,
in the grand tradition of Vice President Cheney, might be thought of as the
Bush administration's embunkerment policy in Iraq.
In the surge year, when administration officials and top commanders speculated
about withdrawal, they increasingly emphasized the Herculean task involved and
the need to take the necessary time to carefully remove every last piece of
military equipment in-country. "You're talking about not just U.S. soldiers,
but millions of tons of contractor equipment that belongs to the United States
government, and a variety of other things," Secretary of Defense Gates told
Pentagon reporters last July. "This is a massive logistical undertaking whenever
it takes place."
As Time magazine's Michael Duffy described
it, included would be "a good portion of the entire U.S. inventory of tanks,
helicopters, armored personnel carriers, trucks, and humvees. … They are spread
across 15 bases, 38 supply depots, 18 fuel-supply centers and 10 ammo dumps,"
not to speak of "dining halls, office buildings, vending machines, furniture,
mobile latrines, computers, paper clips, and acres of living quarters." Some
top military commanders claimed that it would take up to 20
months just to get part of the American force out. More recently, it has
been suggested that it would take "as many as 75
days" for each combat brigade and all its equipment to depart – and this
would, of course, be done one brigade at a time.
When it comes to withdrawal, the highest priority now seems to be frugality
in saving all U.S. property. In other words, as the Bush administration continues
to dig in, each of its acts makes leaving ever more complicated.
If the subject at hand weren't so grim, this would be hilarious. An analogy
might lie in an old joke: A boy murders his father and mother and then, arrested
and brought to court, throws himself on the mercy of the judge as an orphan.
The administration that rashly invaded Iraq, used it as a laboratory for any
cockamamie scheme that came to mind, and threw money away profligately in one
of the more flagrantly corrupt
enterprises in recent history, now wants us to believe that future planning
for drawdowns or withdrawals must be based on the need to preserve whatever
we brought – and are still bringing – into the country.
In the land the Bush administration "liberated," violence remains at a staggering
daily level; electricity is a luxury;
the national medical-care system has been largely destroyed;
perhaps 4.5 million Iraqis have either
fled the country or become internally displaced persons; approximately
70 percent lack access to clean water; and 4 million, according
to the UN, don't know where their next meal is coming from. Yet, even with
such a record before us, the logic of the moment in Washington and in the media
remains clear: The last thing we should be doing is getting out of the country
with any alacrity. After all, if we do, a disaster, a bloodbath, even
genocide might happen.
Put another way, the most self-interested party in the "withdrawal" debate
continues to set the terms of that debate. Imagine if, in football, the quarterback
calling plays for his team also had the power to assess penalties, declare first
downs, and decide whether a ball was caught in or out of bounds.
In the meantime, since the antiwar movement remains relatively moribund, there
are no "out now" or "bring the troops home" chants ringing in the streets of
our country. You have to look to the fringes for perfectly reasonable suggestions
on getting out. Take Professor Immanuel Wallerstein, who wrote
an essay, "Walking Away: The Least Bad Option," which you won't find in
your local paper. To him, "walking away" would mean "a statement by the U.S.
government that it will withdraw all troops without exception and shut down
all bases in Iraq within say six months of the date of announcement." He adds:
"U.S. withdrawal would mark the first step on the long and difficult path to
healing the United States of the sicknesses brought on by its imperial addiction,
the first step in a painful effort to restore the good name of the United States
in the world community."
Right now, however, any form of "walking away," itself a polite euphemism for
retreat from a desperate stalemate or even a lost war, is off that "table" on
which this administration has so often placed "all options." As a result, if
either Clinton or Obama were to win the next election, enter office in January
2009, and follow his or her present plan – a relatively long period of drawdown
not leading to full withdrawal – he or she would, within months, simply inherit
the president's war. At that point, the present war supporters would turn on
the new president with a ferocity the Democrats are incapable of mustering against
the present one, attacking her or him as a cut-and-runner of the first order,
even possibly even a traitor.
We Don't Do Permanent
Sen. John McCain made a small stir recently by
saying that he doesn't care if American troops stay in Iraq "100 years" as long
as "Americans are not being injured, harmed, or killed." In fact, as Mother
Jones' David Corn reported,
the senator later elaborated on that statement, adding "a thousand years," "a
million years." The president and various top administration officials have
offered similar, if more restrained formulas, speaking vaguely of "years" in
Iraq, or a "decade" or more in that country, or simply of the "Korea model,"
a reference to our garrisoning
of the southern part of the Korean peninsula for well over half a century with
no end yet in sight.
Of course, this administration has already built its state-of-the-art mega-bases
in Iraq as well as a mega-embassy, the largest on the planet, to suit such dreams.
Yet in April 2003, the month Baghdad fell to American forces, Secretary of Defense
Donald Rumsfeld first
denied that the U.S. was seeking "permanent" bases in Iraq. Ever since then,
administration officials have consistently denied that those increasingly permanent-looking
mega-bases were "permanent."
Just the other day, the president again told
Fox News, "We won't have permanent bases … [but] I do believe it is in our interests
and the interests of the Iraqi people that we do enter into an agreement on
how we are going to conduct ourselves over the next years." Dana Perino, White
House press spokesperson, offered
further clarification by indicating that we do not actually have
permanent bases on Planet Earth, even in Korea more than half a century later.
"I'm not aware," she said, "of any place in the world – where we have a base
– that they are asking us to leave. And if they did, we would probably leave."
(She made a singular exception for Guantanamo.)
Consider this a philosophic position. Evidently, we don't do permanent because
all things are evanescent; everything must end. Where, after all, are the Seven
Wonders of the World? Mostly gone, of course.
Such a position might be applied to far more than the permanency of bases.
Let me offer two linked predictions based on impermanency:
As a start, the surge-followed-by-pause solution the Bush administration whipped
up is a highly unstable, distinctly impermanent strategy. It was never meant
to do much more than give Iraq enough of the
look of quiescence that the president's war could be declared a modest "success"
and passed on to the next president. It relies on a tenuous balancing of unstable,
largely hostile forces in Iraq – of Sunni former insurgents and the Shi'ite
followers of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, among others. It is unlikely to last even
until the November presidential election.
And let's remember that those on the other side(s) are just as capable of
reading drawdown – and election – schedules, of gauging weakness and strength,
as we are. It's likely that by the fall the surge effect will have worn off
– signs of this
are already in the air – and Iraq will be creeping back onto front pages and
to the top of the TV news.
Given that Sen. McCain is so tightly linked to the surge's "success," as well
as the war itself, he is likely to prove a far weaker Republican candidate than
now generally imagined. Similarly, it may be far harder to Swift Boat the Democrats
over Iraq by this fall – if, that is, the Democratic presidential candidate
doesn't move so
close to McCain on the war as to take the sting out of his situation. Already,
as Gary Kamiya has written at Salon.com,
the Democrats' "timid, Republican-lite approach to Iraq and the 'war on terror'
has put the country to sleep … Indeed, polls show that the main reason the public
has such a low opinion of Congress is that it failed to force Bush to change
course in Iraq."
Iraq is a deeply alien land whose people were never going to accept being garrisoned
by the military of a Western imperial power. It was always delusional to think
that our situation there could be "enduring," no matter how many permanent-looking
structures we built. It is no less delusional for Sen. McCain to imagine a 100-year
garrisoning – in fact, one of any length – in which Americans will not be "injured,
harmed, or killed."
for withdrawal from Iraq has long passed. In those endless years in which
withdrawal didn't happen, the Bush administration definitively proved one thing:
We are incapable of "solving" Iraq's problems, "building" a nation there, or
preventing an endless string of horrific things from occurring. After all, it
was under U.S. occupation and in the face of the overwhelming presence
of American forces that Iraq devolved and massive ethnic cleansing occurred.
It was during
the months of the president's surge in 2007, with U.S. troops flooding the
streets of the capital, that many of Baghdad's mixed
neighborhoods were most definitively "cleansed."
It is a delusion to believe that the U.S. military is a force that stands between
Iraqis and catastrophe. It is a significant part of the catastrophe and, as
long as Washington is committed to any form of permanency (however euphemistically
described), it cannot help but remain so.
Every day that passes, the Bush administration is digging us in further, even
though surge commander Gen. David Petraeus recently
observed that "there is no light at the end of the tunnel that we're seeing."
Every day that passes makes withdrawal that much harder and yet brings it ineradicably
Getting out, when it comes, won't be elegant. That's a sure thing by now; but,
honestly, you don't have to be a military specialist to know that, if we were
determined to leave, it wouldn't take us forever and a day to do so. It isn't
actually that hard to drive a combat brigade's equipment south to Kuwait. (And
there's no reason to expect serious opposition from our Iraqis opponents, who
overwhelmingly want us to depart.)
When withdrawal finally comes, the Iraqis will be the greatest losers. They
will be left in a dismantled country. They deserve better. Perhaps an American
administration determined to withdraw in all due haste could still muster the
energy to offer better. But leave we must. All of us.
Copyright 2008 Tom Engelhardt