Please don't write in with a correction. I know
just as well as you do that we're approaching the fifth, not the sixth, anniversary
of the moment when, on March 19, 2003, George W. Bush told
the American people:
"My fellow citizens, at this hour, American and coalition forces are in
the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and
to defend the world from grave danger. My fellow citizens, the dangers to our
country and the world will be overcome. We will pass through this time of peril
and carry on the work of peace. We will defend our freedom. We will bring freedom
to others and we will prevail."
At that moment, of course, the cruise missiles meant to "decapitate" Saddam
Hussein's regime, but that killed only
Iraqi civilians, were on their way to Baghdad. I'm perfectly aware that
articles galore will be looking back on the five years since that day. This
is not one of them.
Think of this piece as in the spirit of Senator John McCain's recent request
that Americans not obsess about the origins of the Iraq War, but look
forward. "On the issue of my differences with Senator Obama on Iraq," he typically
"I want to make it very clear: This is not about decisions that were made in
the past. This is about decisions that a president will have to make about the
future in Iraq. And a decision to unilaterally withdraw from Iraq will lead
The future, not the past, is the mantra, which is why I'm skipping next week's
fifth anniversary of the Iraq War entirely. Now, let me ask you a future-oriented
What's wrong with these sentences?
On March 19, 2009, the date of the sixth anniversary of President Bush's
invasion of Iraq, as surely as the sun rises in the East I'll be sitting here
and we will still have many tens of thousands of troops, a string of major bases,
and massive air power in that country. In the intervening year, more Americans
will have been wounded or killed; many more Iraqis will have been wounded or
killed; more chaos and conflict will have ensued; many more bombs will have
been dropped and missiles launched; many more suicide bombs will have gone off.
Iraq will still be a hell on Earth.
Prediction is, of course, a risky business. Otherwise I'd now be commuting
via jet pack through spire cities (as the futuristic articles of my youth so
regularly predicted). If you were to punch holes in the above sentences, you
would certainly have to note that it's risky for a man of 63 years, or of any
age, to suggest that he'll be sitting anywhere in a year; riskier yet if you
happen to live in those lands extending from North Africa to Central Asia that
Bush administration officials used to call the "arc
of instability" – essentially the oil heartlands of the planet – before
they turned them into one. It's always possible that I won't be sitting here
(or anywhere else, for that matter) on March 19, 2009. Unfortunately, when it
comes to the American position in Iraq, short of an act of God, the sixth anniversary
of George Bush's war of choice is going to dawn much like the fifth one.
As a start, you can write off the next 10 months of our lives, right up to
January 20, 2009, inauguration day for the next president. We know that, last
fall, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was considering bringing American troop
strength in Iraq down to
100,000 by the end of George Bush's second term. However, that was, as they
evidently love to say in Washington, just a "best case scenario." Since then,
the administration has signaled
an end-of-July drawdown "pause" of unknown duration after American troop strength
in Iraq, now at 157,000,
hits about 142,000.
The President is clearly dragging
his feet on removing even modest numbers of American troops. As he leaves
office, it seems likely that there will be at least 130,000 U.S. troops in the
country, about the same number as there were before, in February 2007, the President's
surge strategy kicked in. In addition, in the past year, U.S.
air power has "surged"
in Iraq – and continues to do so – while U.S. mega-bases in that country continue
to be built
up. As far as we know, there are no plans to reverse either of these developments
by January 20, 2009. No presidential candidate is even discussing them.
Any official "best case" scenario for drawdowns or withdrawals assumes, by
the way, that the version of Iraq created during the surge months – at best,
an unstable combination of Sunni, Shia, Kurdish, and American plans and desires
– remains in place and that Iraqi carnage stays off the front pages of American
papers. This is anything but a given, as British journalist Patrick Cockburn
reported recently in a piece headlined,
"Why Iraq Could Blow Up in John McCain's Face." Indeed it could.
Best Case Scenarios
If Senator McCain were elected president, the
American position in Iraq on March 19, 2009 will certainly be as described above
– and, if he has anything to say about it, for many anniversaries thereafter.
But, when it comes to the sixth anniversary of the Iraq War, the truth is that
it probably doesn't matter much who is elected president in November.
Take Hillary Clinton, she's said that she'll task
the Joint Chiefs, the new Secretary of Defense, and her National Security Council
with having a plan for (partial) withdrawal in place within 60 days of coming
into office. Since inauguration day is January 20th, that means? March 21st
or two days after the sixth anniversary; by which time, of course, nothing would
have changed substantially.
Barack Obama has promised
to remove U.S. "combat" troops at a one-to-two-brigades-a-month pace over a
16 month period. So it's possible that troop levels could drop marginally before
March 19, 2009 in an Obama presidency, but again there is no reason to believe
that anything essential would have happened to change that "anniversary."
In addition, the stated plans of both Democratic candidates, vague and limited
as they may be, might not turn out to be their actual plans. Note the recent
comments of Obama foreign policy advisor Samantha Powers, who resigned after
calling Clinton a "monster" in an interview with the
Scotsman during a book tour. Since name-calling will always trump
substantive policy matters in American politics, less noted were her comments
interview with the BBC on her candidate's Iraq withdrawal policy. "He will,
of course, not rely on some plan that he's crafted as a presidential candidate
or a U.S. Senator," Powers said and then she referred to Obama's plan as nothing
more than a – you guessed it – "best-case scenario."
Similarly, a Clinton sometime-advisor on military matters, retired General
Jack Keane, also one of the authors of President Bush's surge strategy, told
the New York Sun that, in the Oval Office, "he is convinced [Hillary
Clinton] would hold off on authorizing a large-scale immediate withdrawal of
American soldiers from Iraq." And Clinton herself, though less directly, has
certainly hinted at a similar willingness to reconsider her policy promises
in the light of an Oval Office morning.
So let's face it, barring an Iraqi surprise, the next year in that country
may be nothing but a wash (and the lubricant, as in past years, is likely to
be blood). It will be – best case scenario – a holding action on the road
to nowhere, another woefully lost year in what has now become something like
a ghost country.
The Children of War
To put this in more human terms: Imagine that
a child born on March 19, 2003, just as Baghdad was being shock-and-awed, will
be of an age to enter first grade when the sixth anniversary of George Bush's
war hits. He or she will have gone from babbling to talking, crawling to walking,
and will by then possibly be beginning to read and write. Of course, an Iraqi
child born on that day, who managed to live to see his or her sixth birthday,
might be among the two million-plus
Iraqis in exile in Syria or elsewhere in the Middle East, or among the millions
of internal refugees driven from their homes in recent years and not in school
at all. (Similarly, a child born on October 7, 2001, when the President first
dispatched American bombers to strike Afghanistan, will be in second grade in
March 2009; of course, seven-and-a-half years after being "liberated," an Afghan
child, especially one now living in the southern part of that failed narco-state,
is unlikely to be in school at all. As with Iraq, we could take some educated
guesses about the situation in Afghanistan a year from now and they would be
grim beyond words.)
For those children, the real inheritors of the Bush war era that is not yet
faintly over, the Iraq War has essentially been the equivalent of an open-ended
prison sentence with little hope of parole; for some Americans and many Iraqis,
including children, it is a death sentence without hope of pardon. All this
for a country which, even by the standards of the Bush administration, never
presented the slightest national security threat to the United States of America.
Only this week, an "exhaustive," Pentagon-sponsored
study of 600,000 captured Iraqi documents confirmed, yet again, that
there were no operational links whatsoever between Saddam Hussein's regime and
With those children in mind, here's what's so depressing: In mainstream Washington,
hardly anyone has taken a step outside the box of conventional, inside-the-Beltway
thinking about Iraq, which is why it's possible to imagine March 19, 2009 with
some confidence. For them, the Washington consensus, such as it is, is the only
acceptable one and the disagreements within it, the only ones worth having.
And here are its eight fundamentals:
*A belief that effective U.S. power must invariably be based on the threat
of, or use of, dominant force, and so must centrally involve the U.S. military.
*A belief that all answers of any value are to be found in Washington among
the serried ranks of officials, advisors, former officials, pundits, think-tank
operators, and other inside-the-Beltway movers and shakers, who have been tested
over the years and found never to have a surprise in them. Most of them are
notable mainly for having been wrong so often. This is called "experience."
*A belief that the critics of Washington policy outside Washington and its
consensus are, at best, gadflies, never worth seriously consulting on anything.
*A belief that the American people, though endlessly praised in political
campaigns, are know-nothings who couldn't think their way out of a proverbial
paper bag when it comes to the supposedly arcane science of foreign policy,
and so would certainly not be worth consulting on "national security" matters
or issues involving the sacred "national interest," which is, in any case, the
property of Washington. Like Iraqis and Afghans, the American people need good
(or even not so good) shepherds in the national capital to answer that middle-of-the-night
ringing phone and rescue them from impending harm. (The very foolishness of
Americans can be measured by opinion polls which indicated that a majority of
them had decided by 2005 that all American troops should be brought home
from Iraq at a reasonable speed and that the U.S. should not have permanent
military bases in that country.)
*A belief that no other countries (or individuals elsewhere) have anything
significant or original to offer when it comes to solving problems like the
situation in Iraq (unless, of course, they agree with us). They are to be ignored,
insists the Bush administration, or, say leading Democrats, "talked to" and
essentially corralled into signing onto, and carrying out, the solutions we
*A belief that local peoples are incapable of solving their own problems without
the intercession of, or the guiding hand (or Hellfire missile) of, Washington,
which means, of course, of the U.S. military.
*A belief that the United States – whatever the problem – must be an essential
part of the solution, not part of the problem itself.
*And finally, a belief (though no one would ever say this) that the lives
of those children of George Bush's wars of choice, already of an age to be given
their first lessons in global "realism," don't truly matter, not when the Great
Game of geopolitics and energy is at stake.
Of course, the most recent Washington solution, involving the endless military
occupation (by whatever name) of alien lands, can "solve" nothing. The possibilities
of genuine improvement in Iraq or Afghanistan under the ministrations of the
U.S. military are probably nil. And yet, because the only solutions entertained
are variations of the above, little better lurks in our future at this moment.
Who would want to speculate on just how old those children of March 19, 2003
will actually be before the Iraq War is ended? So here's my next question: What's
wrong with this sentence?
On March 19, 2010, the date of the seventh anniversary of President Bush's
invasion of Iraq, as surely as the sun rises in the East I'll be sitting here
and we will still have...
Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com, is the
co-founder of the American Empire
Project. His book, The
End of Victory Culture (University of Massachusetts Press), has been thoroughly
updated in a newly issued edition that deals with victory culture's crash-and-burn
sequel in Iraq.
Copyright 2008 Tom Engelhardt