Last week, a media advisory from "The NewsHour
with Jim Lehrer" announced a new series of interviews on the PBS show that
will address "what Iraq might look like when the U.S. military leaves."
A few days later, Time magazine published a cover story titled "Iraq:
What will happen when we leave."
But it turns out, what will happen when we leave is that we won't leave.
Urging a course of action that's now supported by "the best strategic
minds in both parties," the Time story calls for "an orderly
withdrawal of about half the 160,000 troops currently in Iraq by the middle
of 2008." And: "A force of 50,000 to 100,000 troops would dig in for
a longer stay to protect America's most vital interests..."
On Iraq policy, in Washington, the differences between Republicans and Democrats
and between the media's war boosters and opponents are often significant.
Yet they're apt to mask the emergence of a general formula that could gain wide
support from the political and media establishment.
The formula's details and timelines are up for grabs. But there's not a single
"major" candidate for president willing to call for withdrawal of
all U.S. forces not just "combat" troops from Iraq, or willing
to call for a complete halt to U.S. bombing of that country.
Those candidates know that powerful elites in this country just don't want
to give up the leverage of an ongoing U.S. military presence in Iraq, with its
enormous reserves of oil and geopolitical value. It's a good bet that American
media and political powerhouses would fix the wagon of any presidential campaign
that truly advocated an end to the U.S. war in and on Iraq.
The disconnect between public opinion and elite opinion has led to reverse
perceptions of a crisis of democracy. As war continues, some are appalled at
the absence of democracy while others are frightened by the potential of it.
From the grassroots, the scarcity of democracy is transparent and outrageous.
For elites, unleashed democracy could jeopardize the priorities of the military-industrial-media
Converging powerful forces in Washington eager to at least superficially
bridge the gap between grassroots and elite priorities are likely to come
up with a game plan for withdrawing from Iraq without withdrawing from Iraq.
Scratch the surface of current media scenarios for a U.S. pullout from Iraq,
and you're left with little more than speculation fueled by giant dollops
of political manipulation. In fact, strategic leaks and un-attributed claims
about U.S. plans for withdrawal have emerged periodically to release some steam
from domestic antiwar pressures.
Nearly three years ago with discontent over the war threatening to undermine
President Bush's prospects for a second term the White House ally Robert
Novak floated a rosy scenario in his nationally syndicated column that appeared
on Sept. 20, 2004. "Inside the Bush administration policy-making apparatus,
there is strong feeling that U.S. troops must leave Iraq next year," he
wrote. "This determination is not predicated on success in implanting Iraqi
democracy and internal stability. Rather, the officials are saying: Ready or
not, here we go."
Novak's column went on to tell readers: "Well-placed sources in the administration
are confident Bush's decision will be to get out." Those well-placed sources
were, of course, unnamed. And for good measure, Novak followed up a month before
the November 2004 election with a piece that recycled the gist of his Sept.
20 column and chortled: "Nobody from the administration has officially
rejected my column."
This is all relevant history today as news media are spinning out umpteen
scenarios for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. The game involves dangling illusionary
references to "withdrawal" in front of the public.
But realities on the ground and in the air are quite different. A recent
news dispatch from an air base in Iraq, by Charles J. Hanley of the Associated
Press, provided a rare look at the high-tech escalation underway. "Away
from the headlines and debate over the 'surge' in U.S. ground troops,"
AP reported on July 14, "the Air Force has quietly built up its hardware
inside Iraq, sharply stepped up bombing and laid a foundation for a sustained
air campaign in support of American and Iraqi forces."
In contrast to the spun speculation so popular with U.S. media outlets like
Time and the PBS "NewsHour," the AP article cited key information:
"Squadrons of attack planes have been added to the in-country fleet. The
air reconnaissance arm has almost doubled since last year. The powerful B1-B
bomber has been recalled to action over Iraq."
This kind of development fits a historic pattern one that had horrific
consequences during the war in Vietnam and, unless stopped, will persist for
many years to come in Iraq.
Assessing the distant mirror of the Vietnam War, the narration of the new
documentary "War Made Easy" (based on my book of the same name) spells
out a classic White House maneuver: "Even when calls for withdrawal have
eventually become too loud to ignore, officials have put forward strategies
for ending war that have had the effect of prolonging it in some cases, as
with the Nixon administration's strategy of Vietnamization, actually escalating
war in the name of ending it."
Between mid-1969 and mid-1972, American troop levels dropped sharply in Vietnam
while the deadly ferocity of American bombing spiked upward.
The presence of large numbers of U.S. troops in Iraq during the next years
is a likelihood fogged up by fanciful media stories asserting without tangible
evidence that American troops will "pull out" and the U.S. military
will "leave" Iraq. The spin routinely glides past such matters as
the hugely militarized U.S. embassy in Baghdad, the numerous permanent-mode
U.S. bases in Iraq, and the vast array of private-and-often-paramilitary contractors
at work there courtesy of U.S. taxpayers. And there's the rarely mentioned prize
of massive oil reserves that top officials in Washington keep their eyes on.
The matter of U.S. bases in Iraq is a prime example of how events on Capitol
Hill have scant effects on war machinery in the context of out-of-control presidential
power. "The House voted overwhelmingly on Wednesday to bar permanent United
States military bases in Iraq," the New York Times reports. But
the war makers in the nation's capital still hold the whip that keeps lashing
the dogs of war.
As the insightful analyst Phyllis Bennis points out: "The bill states
an important principle opposing the 'establishment' of new bases in Iraq and
'not to exercise United States control of the oil resources of Iraq.' But it
is limited in several ways. It prohibits only those bases which are acknowledged
to be for the purpose of permanently stationing U.S. troops in Iraq; therefore
any base constructed for temporarily stationing troops, or rotating troops,
or anything less than an officially permanent deployment, would still be accepted.
Further, the bill says nothing about the need to decommission the existing U.S.
bases already built in Iraq; it only prohibits 'establishing' military installations,
implying only new ones would be prohibited."
Despite all the talk about how members of Congress have been turning against
the war, few are clearly advocating a genuine end to U.S. military intervention
in Iraq. Media outlets will keep telling us that the U.S. government is developing
serious plans to "leave" Iraq. But we would be foolish to believe
those tall tales. The antiwar movement has an enormous amount of grassroots
work to do changing the political terrain of the United States from the bottom
up before the calculus of political opportunism in Washington determines
that it would be more expedient to end the U.S. occupation of Iraq than to keep
it going under one guise or another.