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."
explanations for his unexpected change of mind (and heart) have been offered.
In the last lines of a June 13 piece, "Sunni-Shi'ite
Quarrel Edges Closer to Political Stalemate" (scroll down), New York Times
reporter Sabrina Tavernise made the following connection:
"[Jones'] 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 Oct. 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 anymore). 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,
figures indicating fast-sinking support for the war and the president tell
us, as edgy monthly casualty
figures tell us, as Walter Jones' changed position tells us, as the latest
nose-dive in military recruitment figures tells us, as
the fact that 35 percent of Americans, according to a Pew poll, think we
are now back in Vietnam tells us, things in Iraq are just getting worse and
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
that 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
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
"History, long term and more recent, is not on our side.
"We are a war-making and an occupying force, not a peacekeeping
"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
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.)
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
Perhaps more importantly, 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
– are 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."
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-Qaeda 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;
humongous 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
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
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
Shi'ite, 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 Web site 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 e-mail 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.
"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
birthright 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 e-mail 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 handbasket (pardon the
"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 eight 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. Tom
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, Oct.
"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," Washington Post, Oct. 24, 2003)
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 overhyped.
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 percent 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 Ba'ath 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 that only lasted a few weeks but again killed
many thousands of soldiers and civilians. The killings of civilians have yet
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 re-creation
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 10 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
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
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
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.
- Oct. 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
Copyright 2003 Tom Engelhardt