Remember Saddam's "killing fields"? By now, the
Bush administration has turned whole swathes of Iraq into a charnel house. Last
Jaber, a fine British reporter, returned to Baghdad and visited one of today's
killing fields – that city's morgue into which, from what she calls "the nightly
slaughter," approximately 6,000 corpses have been delivered since the first
of the year. "Each corpse," she writes, "tells a different story about the terrors
of Iraq. Some bodies are pocked with holes inflicted by torturers with power
drills. Some show signs of strangulation; others, with hands tied behind the
back, bear bullet wounds. Many are charred and dismembered."
Baghdad, she relates, is a city in which the "main topic of conversation in
most households is death – who is the latest to have been killed, what depraved
technique was used, and whether it is safe to go out."
It was into that city of death – or rather its American death-lite version
– that our president flew last week, just over three years after he famously
declared "mission accomplished" on the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln.
He landed at Baghdad's airport, helicoptered into the Green Zone, that heavily
fortified American citadel, in 25
pounds of body armor, surprised the new prime minister, looked him "in the
eyes," and declared himself "inspired." It was, as
Sidney Blumenthal put it, "'mission accomplished' in a business suit."
The last time he was there, he hoisted a
giant fake turkey for Thanksgiving. This time, he returned home and, visibly
recharged like some Energizer Bunny, gave a thumbs-up press conference in which
he hoisted a whole fake Iraq. He also made his intentions clear for the remainder
of his second term – and it was nothing short of more of the same until victory.
you hear from me, no matter what these polls and all the business look like,
is that it's worth it, it is necessary, and we will succeed.")
If you're measuring by original administration dreams and plans for Iraq after
the invasion (as well as for reordering the Middle East along neocon lines),
what's happened since has been a catastrophe, but does that make "victory" of
some sort inconceivable? Robert Dreyfuss, author of Devil's
Game, a striking history of how successive American administrations
bedded down with right-wing Islamic movements, thinks not and offers some clear-eyed,
provocative thoughts below on the Sunni insurgency and the antiwar movement
as well as mainstream "opposition" in the U.S.
It's worth remembering that the last time Iraqis rose up against an imperial
occupier – Britain in the 1920s – they were, in the end, defeated; and, unlike
then, the present insurgency remains a minority one. On the final fate of the
Bush project in Iraq, as Dreyfuss makes clear, the jury remains out. No one
should assume an end that may never come and so turn to other issues prematurely.
On the ability of the United States – not just this administration but future
ones – to maintain an Iraqi occupation force of perhaps 100,000 thousand (or
even 50,000) troops under charnel-house conditions or worse, I have my doubts,
possibly more of them than Dreyfuss. For one thing, Iraq is not a contained
situation. Its chaos is spreading
in the region. How far and how dangerously we don't yet fully know, but
these are, after all, the oil heartlands of the planet. In addition, the U.S.
position as the globe's sole "hyperpower" continues
to deteriorate as, I suspect, does its global economic situation. More than
Iraq (and even Washington) will help determine how the situation in that country
Our present ambassador in Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad, is now being hailed by
the likes of New York Times conservative columnist David Brooks for his
brilliance in helping, as he wrote in a column this Sunday, "pull off a political
miracle" in Baghdad in recent months. But, as with so much else, we've heard
such descriptions before. It's worth keeping in mind that the man now maneuvering
so "brilliantly" in Baghdad did the same in Kabul, where he played viceroy to
another Bush failing state. It looks increasingly like he slipped out of Hamid
Karzai's town just
in the nick of time. Whether or not the Bush administration, or some future
administration, will have to slip out of Baghdad, possibly not in the nick of
time, remains to be seen. Tom
Dealing with realities in Iraq and Washington
by Robert Dreyfuss
One of the most unfortunate myths pervading American
culture, the American psyche, and the whole American weltanschauung –
and it's one for which we might as well go ahead and blame movie director Frank
Capra – is that in most situations the good guys win. Morality triumphs.
The greedy and self-interested, the cruel and mean-spirited are defeated. Ultimately,
or so the myth goes, the bad guys win some of the battles, but in the end the
good guys win the wars.
Sadly, in the real world, good doesn't always win. Sometimes, good
isn't even there. When it comes to Iraq, the left, the liberals, the progressives
(for the sake of argument, the good guys) sometimes seem to have their heads
in the clouds. That's true in regard to the crucial question of whether President
Bush's stay-the-course strategy can succeed. The answer, unfortunately, is:
Yes, it can.
The Bush administration's strategy in Iraq today, as in the invasion
of 2003, is: Use military force to destroy the political infrastructure of
the Iraqi state; shatter the old Iraqi armed forces; eliminate Iraq as a determined
foe of U.S. hegemony in the oil-rich Persian Gulf; build on the wreckage of
the old Iraq a new state beholden to the U.S.; create a new political class
willing to be subservient to our interests in the region; and use that new
Iraq as a base for further expansion.
To achieve all that, the president is determined to keep as much military power
as he can in Iraq for as long as it takes, while recruiting, training, funding,
and supervising a ruthless Iraqi police and security force that will gradually
allow the American military to reduce their "footprint" in the country without
entirely leaving. The endgame, as he and his advisers imagine it, would result
in a permanent U.S. military presence in the country, including permanent bases
and basing rights, and a predominant position for U.S. business and oil interests.
Marshaling the Bad News
Many progressives scoff at such a scenario. They argue, with persuasiveness,
that the American project in Iraq is doomed. To prove their point, they cite
(what else?) the bad news. And there certainly is a lot of it.
First of all, the Sunni-led insurgency, metastasizing continually, is a hydra-headed
army of armies representing former Ba'athist military, security, and intelligence
officers, assorted nationalists and Islamists, tribal and clan leaders, and
city and neighborhood militias. It has shown remarkable resilience. The elimination
of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is not likely to put much of a dent in the Sunni resistance
and may only strengthen it.
Second, Iraq's Shi'ites are restive, at best, and bitterly divided among themselves.
The two most powerful blocs, with the two most important militias – the Supreme
Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq with its Badr Brigade and Moqtada
al-Sadr's Mahdi Army – are to varying degrees unhappy with the American presence.
The up-and-coming Fadhila bloc, one of whose leaders was just arrested in Najaf
(allegedly for planning IED attacks against U.S. forces), is brooding. Throughout
Iraq's mostly Shi'ite southern regions, Shi'ite parties and armies are battling
among themselves for the control of important cities, including Basra, and of
Iraq's Southern Oil Company, which produces the vast bulk of Iraqi oil and has
provided a valuable stream of corrupt cash for Shi'ite party leaders. Some of
them – possibly all of them – are turning to various factions in Iran for support.
Third, the Kurds, ensconced in the Alamo-like Kurdish region in
the north, are happily waxing pro-American even as they quietly prepare for
a unilateral grab of the key oil city of Kirkuk, of Iraq's Northern Oil Company,
and of other territory contiguous to the Kurdish region – thus threatening
to set in motion an almost unavoidable clash with Iraq's Arabs, both Sunni
and Shi'ite, and possibly nearby states as well.
Fourth, the American project to create an Iraqi army and police force is going
badly. So far, at least, the main army and police units have been reconstituted
from the Badr Brigade and Kurdish peshmerga militiamen, none of whom
are loyal to the concept of a unitary, nonsectarian Iraq, nor have they been
unable to grasp basic notions of human rights. The Shi'ites, in particular,
are engaged in a bloody campaign of death-squad killings and kidnappings, along
with targeted assassinations aimed at Ba'athists. It will be difficult, if not
impossible, for the United States to use war-hardened, embittered, and power-hungry
Shi'ite and Kurdish forces to keep peace in Sunni areas, including western Baghdad.
Fifth, of course, the economic reconstruction of Iraq is, shall
we say, not going swimmingly.
Not surprisingly, many politicians and generals and most progressives have
adopted a worst-case outlook. With bad news mounting, they argue that the American
project in Iraq is lost. In truth, I've made the same argument, at various points
over the past three years. Last November, in an article entitled "Getting
Out of Iraq" for Rolling Stone, I wrote: "George Bush is just about
the only person in Washington these days who doesn't know that the United States
has lost the war in Iraq." I quoted former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland, who told
a congressional hearing organized by House progressives that the United States
had better get out of Iraq before the resistance overruns the Green Zone. "We
need an exit strategy that we choose – or it will certainly be chosen for us,"
said the grievously wounded Vietnam veteran. "I've seen this movie before. I
know how it ends."
Last week, writing for the
Nation, Nicholas von Hoffman echoed this theme, suggesting that it's
too late to worry about exit strategies:
"We could be moving toward an American Dunkirk. In 1940 the defeated British
Army in Belgium was driven back by the Germans to the French seacoast city of
Dunkirk, where it had to abandon its equipment and escape across the English
Channel on a fleet of civilian vessels, fishing smacks, yachts, small boats,
anything and everything that could float and carry the defeated and wounded
army to safety. … [In Iraq,] there is no seaport troops could get to, so the
only way out of Iraq would be that same desert highway to Kuwait where fifteen
years ago the American Air Force destroyed Saddam Hussein's army."
What Staying the Course Means
Let me now admit to having second thoughts on this matter. I no
longer am convinced that the U.S. adventure in Iraq is lost. There is no guarantee
that the Bush administration cannot succeed in its goals there. The only certain
thing is that success – what the president calls "victory in Iraq" – will
come at the expense of thousands more American deaths, tens of thousands more
Iraqi deaths, and hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars.
Indeed, this war would have to be sustained not only by this administration,
but by the next one and probably the one after that as well. For over three
years, the United States has supported a massive military presence on the
ground in Iraq, while taking steady casualties. It may be no less capable
of doing so for the next two-and-a-half years, until the end of Bush's second
term – and during the next administration's reign, too, whether the president
is named John McCain or Hillary Clinton. At least theoretically, a force of
more than 100,000 U.S. soldiers could wage a brutal war of attrition against
the resistance in Iraq for years to come. Last week, in a leak to the New
York Times, the White House announced its intention to leave at least
50,000 troops in Iraq for many years to come. Last week, too, the son of the
president of Iraq (a Kurd) revealed that representatives of the Kurdish region
in negotiations with the United States to create a permanent U.S. military
presence in Iraq's north.
Meanwhile, President Bush and his Rasputin, Karl
Rove, took the occasion of the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to reiterate
commitment to victory in Iraq, whatever the cost. There is no reason
not to take Bush at his word. And there is no reason not to believe that Rove
will orchestrate a withering offensive against Democrats who question the
president's goal of victory.
The frightening thing about last week's House and Senate debates
over Iraq was that the mainstream opposition to the Bush administration –
ranging from moderate Democrats to realist, if pro-military, moderate Republicans
– never challenges the goal of victory in Iraq. Yes, a hardy band of antiwar
members of Congress (including Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, Lynn Woolsey and Barbara
Lee of California, and others, joined by John Murtha of Pennsylvania) support
the unconditional withdrawal of American troops. But the bulk of the Democrats,
including the 42 Democrats who last week voted in favor of the bloodthirsty
Republican war resolution, don't question the importance of victory in Iraq.
They just question the Bush administration's tactics.
There are only two ways to thwart Bush's war. The first is for the Iraqi resistance
to defeat the U.S. occupation. The second is for domestic public opinion to
coalesce around a demand for unilateral withdrawal. So far, neither the Iraqi
resistance nor the antiwar movement have the upper hand; and sadly, so far they
are loathe to make common cause with each other.
Where the Vietnamese resistance had a state, North Vietnam, and
the support of the other superpower, the Soviet Union, as well as Mao's China,
the resistance in Iraq is nothing but a grassroots insurgency. It neither
controls a state, nor has the support of any state. (Contrary to the idiotic
assertions of the neoconservatives and the Bush administration, Iran is not
assisting the Sunni Iraqi resistance, and that fractured, fractious movement
is getting only the most minuscule support from its Sunni Arab neighbors.)
Needless to say, there is no love lost between Iraq's Ba'athists and the kings
of Saudi Arabia and Jordan. The resistance in Iraq would benefit mightily if
elements of the Shi'ite bloc hived off to join the insurgency; if, say, Moqtada
Sadr's ragtag forces abandoned the government to join the resistance, as they
toyed with doing during the destruction of Fallujah in 2004. That's unlikely,
So who believes that the Iraqi resistance can fight on indefinitely
against the combined might of the U.S. armed forces and American-supported
Shi'ite and Kurdish armies as well as militias, especially with ongoing American
divide-and-conquer efforts that involve blandishments offered to the less
militant wings of the insurgency? Still, it's not impossible that the resistance
can hold on long enough to effect at least a stalemate. But their ability
to do so might depend, in part, on the ability of the American antiwar movement
to undermine the administration's commitment to staying the course in Iraq.
Was Iraq a "Mistake"?
Until now, truly antiwar Democrats have represented a minority force within
the party. In opposition, they have largely been eclipsed by moderate Democrats
and realist Republicans, both seemingly content to argue that the war in Iraq
was merely a "mistake" and an inefficiently prosecuted "failure" without confronting
the war itself. In fact, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic minority leader
who (halfheartedly) supports Rep. Murtha's get-out-now position, used both of
those words over and over during last week's debate. Both words are deadly –
and probably wrong as well.
The war in Iraq was not a "mistake." It was a deliberately calculated
exercise of U.S. power with a specific end in mind – namely, control of Iraq
and the Persian Gulf region. It was illegal and remains so. It was a war crime
and remains so. Its perpetrators were war criminals and remain so. Its goals
were unworthy and remain so.
Few Democrats, and almost no Republicans, have been willing to challenge Bush's
war on these terms, however. Neither have most of the Bush administration's
so-called mistakes truly been errors: the brutal dismantling of the Ba'ath Party
and the dissolution of the Iraqi armed forces, widely castigated now as "mistakes"
by many Bush critics, were meant. They were thought out. They were planned with
purpose. They, too, were deliberate actions aiming at U.S. hegemony in Iraq.
Nor is the war simply, or even largely, a "failure." As cruel and
brutish as it is, it is grinding its way toward its goal. Victory for the
United States in Iraq, as evidenced by the recitation of bad news I cited
earlier, is by no means certain. But it is far too early to call it a failure
either. To do so at this stage is Capra-esque. It assumes that bad guys don't
win. But sometimes they do. And on Iraq, the jury remains out.
The danger of emphasizing the supposed "mistakes" and "failures"
of the Bush administration's Iraq policy is that it plays into a notion held
by an increasingly large component of centrists in both parties – that, although
the war itself was a "mistake," the only rational option for the United States
now is to win it anyway. There are countless variations on this theme emanating
from both Democratic and Republican centrists.
You hear it in the argument that, although the war was wrong, we now have a
moral obligation to stay and prevent civil war. You hear it in the argument
that the United States must be strong against the threat of global "Islamofascism,"
and that by leaving Iraq we will hand al-Qaeda and its allies a victory. There
are other variations of the same, but all of those who make such arguments (while
criticizing Bush for his alleged incompetence and mismanagement) end up arguing
that the United States has no choice other than to stay.
In my discussions with them in recent weeks, several have brought
up Colin Powell's absurd argument about the Pottery Barn rule: if you break
it, you own it. Well, yes, we broke Iraq, but we don't own it. (In fact, the
Pottery Barn itself has no such rule. If you mistakenly break a piece of pottery
in one of its stores, you aren't actually liable.) We have absolutely no moral
imperative to stay in Iraq. We have a moral imperative to leave – and to
Just as the antiwar movement in the United States can strengthen the resistance
in Iraq, the Iraqi resistance can aid the antiwar movement. The cold reality
of the war in Iraq is that, had it not been for the Iraqi resistance, there
would be no U.S. antiwar movement. Had Iraq's Sunnis collapsed in disarray and
meekly ceded power to the Shi'ite-Kurdish coalition empowered by the U.S. invasion,
President Bush's illegal war in Iraq might have succeeded far more effortlessly.
But here's the truth of the matter: Led by Iraq's Ba'ath Party and by Iraqi
military officers and their tribal and clan allies, a thriving insurgency did
develop within months of the March 2003 invasion. Some of the resistance is,
of course, still made up of Iraqis passionately loyal to the person of Saddam
Hussein. But studies of the insurgency show that most of its fighters are loyal
to the Ba'ath Party, whose origins were among left-leaning Arab nationalists,
or they are loyal to a more specific version of Iraqi nationalism, or they simply
oppose the foreign occupation of their country.
Back to Capra Country
The antiwar movement in the United States developed not out of intellectual
and moral opposition to the war itself, although that is at its core. It grew
because mainstream Americans became increasingly disturbed by the prolonged
war that followed the 2003 invasion. Many Americans grew outraged over U.S.
casualties. But the fact that a prolonged insurgency followed the invasion
and that U.S. casualties mounted is the result of the Iraqi people's unwillingness
to submit to an American diktat.
Viewed from that standpoint, it's at least worth asking: Who are
the good guys and who are the bad guys in Iraq? Are the good guys the U.S.
troops fighting to impose American hegemony in the Gulf? Are the good guys
the American forces who have installed a murderous Shi'ite theocracy in Baghdad?
Are the good guys the Marines who murdered children and babies in Haditha
in cold blood? Are the good guys the U.S. officers who brought us Abu Ghraib,
or the generals who signed off on their methods, or the administration that
set them on such a path in the first place? Who was it, after all, who pulverized
the institutions of the Iraqi state and society?
So if the U.S. "cavalry" aren't the good guys, who then can we cast in that
role? If Frank Capra went to Iraq, how would he divide the place neatly into
good guys and bad guys and assemble his feel-good morality play? Certainly,
most Americans still believe that the Americans are the good guys, even if 62
to one recent poll) no longer believe that the war in Iraq was "worth fighting."
But my argument here is: Capra could make a plausible argument that, in the
hell that Iraq has become in 2006, with resistance fighters killing U.S. soldiers
and vice versa, there's at least as much good on their side as on ours, if not
That raises, once again, the question of a dialogue with the Iraqi insurgents.
For the past year, off and on, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has conducted secret
talks with the resistance and has openly made a distinction between Zarqawi-style
jihadists and former Ba'athists and military men. Since the creation of the
new, allegedly permanent government under Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, Iraqi
government officials once again have raised the idea of talking to the resistance.
aide to Maliki even suggested an amnesty for armed fighters who have killed
U.S. troops. That's a good idea, and it's been raised more than once since 2003.
In this case, though, an ignorant Sen. Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat and Senate
minority leader, expressed outrage at the idea of an amnesty. According to the
Washington Post, which first reported the amnesty idea, the Maliki aide
who suggested it was
Personally I'm suspicious of Khalilzad's dialogue offers. By dangling
the idea, Khalilzad is more than likely using a divide-and-conquer tactic,
enticing some insurgent leaders to join the new Iraqi regime. How else to
interpret the offer at a moment when President Bush is insisting on an unconditional
U.S. victory in Iraq? People knowledgeable about the resistance know that
the only basis for serious talks with the insurgents is the offer of an American
withdrawal from Iraq in exchange for an accord.
Still, whether one thinks the resistance fighters are good guys, or bad guys
that we need to talk to, the left, the antiwar movement, and progressives don't
have to wait for Zal Khalilzad. The time for talking to Iraq's Ba'ath, former
military leaders, and Sunni resistance forces is here. And now that Abu Musab
al-Zarqawi is dead, the nature of the Iraqi insurgency is partly clarified.
It's a lot harder for supporters of the war to argue that extremist, head-severing
Islamist extremists are its dominant face. In fact, of course, they never were.
Some of the antiwar movement's more perceptive leaders have already
started the dialogue. Tom Hayden, the former California state senator and
activist, has been talking to the Iraqi resistance in London, Amman, and elsewhere.
Some members of Congress, such as Rep. Jim McDermott, have traveled to Amman,
Jordan to do the same thing. The Bush administration might not be ready to
do it openly – yet. But wars end either with the utter defeat of one side
or the other, or with a negotiated settlement. I'll take that settlement.
Robert Dreyfuss is the author of Devil's
Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam. He covers
national security for Rolling Stone and writes frequently for The
American Prospect, Mother Jones, and the Nation. He is also
a regular contributor to TomPaine.com, the Huffington Post, and other sites,
and writes the blog, The Dreyfuss
Copyright 2006 Robert Dreyfuss