The Palmer Plan

Tom Palmer of the Cato Institute has a plan for withdrawing from Iraq, one that is loaded down with so many conditions that it amounts to support for continuing and even escalating U.S. military operations. For a while Palmer has been fulminating against, declaring that anyone who supports us isn’t “a decent human being”: but aside from over-the-top ad hominem name-calling, his critique hasn’t been all that clear. Furthermore, he hasn’t come up with any clear explication of his own views on the war, aside from claiming to have been against it — although he has been much too busy attacking and other advocates of a U.S. withdrawal to bother much with criticizing the murderous policies of the Bush administration. Now, at last, we have the Palmer Plan, or, at least, the outlines of one. Let us examine it point by point:

“If 99% of the people were to vote, that would be a very strong step toward creating an Iraqi government that could take on the insurgents.”

Short of holding a gun to every Iraqi’s head and marching them to the polls, this is impossible. But then again, not even 100% is enough:

“That is a step toward withdrawal (although precise numerical ratios between election turnout and likelihood or speed of withdrawal are impossible to specify). “

Translation: The Iraqis, most of whom want us out of their country, don’t have any say in the matter — nor should they. Instead of holding a referendum on the U.S. military presence, we’re going to hold an election — but please don’t let the Iraqis think this is the end of their tribulations. They are still on probation, and there is yet more they will have to endure before they pass the Palmer Test …

“There are both objective and subjective conditions for a U.S. withdrawal. Certain policy constraints are fixed, or so close to such that they should be taken as given. One is that ‘Americans don’t like to run.’ Whether rational or not, some justification for a retreat other than ‘we were beaten’ is a necessary part of promoting withdrawal to the American people.”

Who has “fixed” these constraints? Palmer? George W. Bush? Oh, well, never mind where they come from: let’s just take them as “given,” even though there is no reason to do so. But then the question arises: Why should the Iraqi people care about this supposedly immutable law of American macho? Why should the Iraqis sit still while their country is ravaged, civilians are bombed, and thousands are rounded up and tortured at the hands of their “liberators” and Iraqi collaborators — just because “Americans don’t like to run”?

The truth is that the Americans will run now, or they will run later — at a much greater cost in lives and resources — because the war against the insurgency cannot be won. That is why the staunchly Republican Lieutenant General William Odom, former head of the National Security Agency under Reagan, calls for immediate withdrawal:

“It is delusional, asserts the Army veteran, college professor and longtime Washington hand, to believe that ‘staying the course’ can achieve President Bush’s goal of reordering the Middle East by building a friendly democracy in Iraq. For the sake of American security and economic power alike, he argues, the U.S. should remove its forces from that shattered country as rapidly as possible.

“‘We have failed,’ Mr. Odom declares bluntly. ‘The issue is how high a price we’re going to pay. … Less, by getting out sooner, or more, by getting out later?'”

Christopher Layne, Palmer’s colleague at the Cato Institute, agrees:

“The United States has no good options in Iraq but the least bad is this: Washington should transfer real sovereignty to the Iraqis on June 30. It should tell the Iraqis to work out their own political future among themselves and turn over full responsibility for Iraq’s external and internal security to the new regime in Baghdad. Simultaneously, the United States also should suspend all offensive military operations in Iraq, pull its forces back to defensive enclaves well away from Iraq’s cities, and commence a withdrawal of American forces from Iraq that will be completed on December 31 (or on January 20, 2005).

“There is no point in being Pollyannaish. In the long run, the U.S. will be better off leaving Iraq. In the short-term, however, there will be consequences — not all of which are foreseeable — if the U.S. withdraws. But that misses the point. Sooner or later the U.S. is going to end up leaving Iraq without having attained its goals. Washington’s real choice is akin to that posed in an old oil-filter commercial that used to run on television: America can pay now, or it can pay later when the costs will be even higher.”

But according to Palmer, these two guys — one of whom works in the same building as him — are being unrealistic, if not downright extremist. They just don’t get that we have to ask the Bush administration’s permission before we even begin to think about withdrawing:

“Another (constraint) is that the current government (and any likely successor) in the U.S. is not going to pull out and leave Iraq as a merely failed state that would be host to terrorist training camps. Rational or not (and I think that there are good reasons to fear such an outcome), that’s a fixed constraint.”

This question of “terrorist training camps” as a criteria for invading a country certainly empowers Al Qaeda and its allies. All they have to do to provoke a U.S. military strike in a given location is pitch their tents (or appear to do so), and — presto! — U.S. troops are patroling the streets, providing budding young terrorists with plenty of opportunities for target practice. This particular aspect of the Palmer Plan alone would soon have U.S. troops occupying a territory stretching from Lebanon all the way to Pakistan, including portions of Southeast Asia.

The world is full of “fixed” constraints, avers Palmer, and who are we to try to push the envelope? We have to accept the fanatical determination of the War Party and this President to “stay the course” — and the cowardice of a great many Democrats — as immutable. There’s no appealing to the people, no need to mobilize popular sentiment against the war: the conventional Washington wisdom is the only reality — and who cares if we bankrupt the country, drive millions of Muslims into the ranks of our terrorist enemies, and thousands more Americans and Iraqis die in the process?

This namby-pamby “Mother, may I?” strategy to effect a withdrawal from Iraq is, in effect, support for the administration’s policy, which is to defeat the growing insurgency. And, as Palmer makes clear, this is precisely his view:

“Given that, what is the best possible (not logically possible, but likely) outcome? We are likely to see less loss of life and an earlier withdrawal if the elections produce a government with the (sociological, at least) legitimacy to combat the insurgents effectively.”

But why is the only solution the military defeat of the insurgency? Why not negotiate and try to bring them into the political process — which will not end with the Jan. 30 elections? Palmer never even considers this option. Elsewhere he describes the rebels with the blanket term “terrorists,” using the same “either you’re with us or against us” terminology as Bush and his neocon cheering section: in every ideological narrative, there must be “bad guys,’ and “good guys.” Because life rarely fits into neatly defined ideological categories, however, I take a somewhat more nuanced view. NPR reporter Emily Harris put it quite well:

“I think the notion that news from Iraq is either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is silly. What’s going on is complex. Iraqis’ lives have been turned upside down over the past year and a half. Now some people are looking at an unprecedented opportunity to get power. Some are trying to help create a representative form of government. Some are just trying to survive. Others, including some non-Iraqis, are fighting—some what they see as a foreign army that doesn’t intend to leave, some what they see as an illegitimate government, some what they apparently see as Islam’s enemy. “

Although we aren’t totally in the dark, there is little concrete first-hand information about the insurgency — and that is precisely the great problem in combatting it. It isn’t for nothing that this administration is now trying to legitimize torture. Abu Ghraib, as we are beginning to learn, wasn’t just an aberration, but part of a systematic attempt to squeeze more information about the insurgency from captured Iraqis. A report by the Red Cross cites coalition military intelligence officers wo estimated that “between 70 percent and 90 percent of the persons deprived of their liberty in Iraq had been arrested by mistake” — a pool of many thousands of potential insurgents. For Palmer to pontificate about the “evil” nature of all insurgents from his perch in the glass-and-steel tower of the Cato Institute is a pathetic joke — he’s living in the same bubble as George W. Bush.

The insurgency is not one single organization or ideological tendency, as Harris points out, but a diverse array of individuals with various and often conflicting motives. Oblivious to nuance, and even disdainful of it, the ideologue Palmer continues his tirade:

“Further, people who glorify those insurgents as ‘the resistance’ and who denounce Iraqi soldiers as ‘quislings’ and who ‘toast’ the deaths of American soldiers make it harder to promote withdrawal among Americans, not easier. They play the same role as the Spartacist Leagues [sic] and their ilk did during the anti-draft debates, by discrediting other voices for withdrawal.”

Aside from the absurdity of pointing to the insurgency as a single entity, it is clear that the Iraqis themselves consider Allawi’s “police” and the Iraqi National Guards as “quislings,” which is why they are being killed at such an alarming rate. Palmer has a real bug up his butt about the “quisling” characterization, and I won’t belabor this point beyond referring readers to my previous comments on this issue here. The point is not to “glorify” the insurgents, but to understand them: and to separate out the Al Qaeda-sympathizers from the nationalists who simply will not reconcile themselves to an “election” held under the conditions of occupation.

Palmer is glorifying an election in which the names of the candidates are not even known: in which every third name on the various party lists must be a woman, and which is confusing in many other ways, as pointed out by Harris:

“There are many confusing elements to this campaign. One is that it’s not a vote for individual candidates, but slates of up to 275 candidates (that’s the number of seats there will be in this new, transitional parliament). Many of the slates have very similar names, and if they have platforms at all they are very general—such as security, basic services, etc. And very few of the names of the people running on a slate are public. So voters don’t know exactly who they are choosing to be in Parliament, even as they support a particular slate. The electoral commission has not yet released the names. Although I have understood this was for security reasons, I am told by an advisor to the electoral commission that this is largely because of logistics—they only managed to enter some of the names of people running. This advisor was uncertain whether the names of the actual people who would be sitting in Parliament will be available to voters, even at polling stations, by election day. Only one party I know has published the names of its candidates on campaign materials. Others do cite security—this was the reaction of the agriculture minister when asked what number she is on Allawi’s slate: She said No. 3, then giggled, and said she wasn’t sure she was supposed to say because of security.”

The exact meaning of this election, no matter how many turn out, is going to be dubious at best. Yet Palmer glorifies it — as it were — as the end-all and be-all of a realistic withdrawal strategy. What balderdash!

The last time I looked, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Brent Scowcroft, and Christopher Layne had yet to join the Spartacist League. has been calling for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq since Day One, but we are glad to see that many others, including some respected mandarins of the Washington establishment, are now following suit. That Palmer is being left in the dust with his namby-pamby “realistic” scenario is yet more proof that his opportunistic instincts are way off the mark.

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