President George W. Bush, the neoconservative
war lobby, and Sen. John McCain all have one overriding goal for U.S. policy
towards Iraq: a permanent occupation. Of course, they all prefer that the American
regency be peaceful, but Sen. McCain captured the mood when he called for U.S.
troops to garrison Iraq for 100 or 1000 or even 10,000 years. The timing of
their homecoming just is "not too important."
Such a policy would be in America's interest only if the U.S. would benefit
from years of war and potential war in the Middle East. For those who believe
in perpetual social engineering abroad – coercively remaking the globe in America's
image – the answer is obviously yes. The only failure of Washington's Iraq policy
so far has been to invade too few countries, bomb too few targets, and kill
too few people.
For the rest of us the answer is obviously no. Surprising as it might seem
to would-be empire-builders, people the world over prefer to run their own affairs.
You'd think Americans would understand. After all, a couple centuries ago a
few disgruntled colonists kicked the British, representing the world's greatest
and most enlightened colonial power, out of the 13 middle-North American colonies.
A century later the U.S. became a formal imperial power, ousting Spain from
the Philippines and stepping into Madrid's shoes as colonial overlords. Strangely,
many locals didn't take kindly to this attempted swap in foreign control. The
Filipinos fought bravely, and it took the U.S. three years – killing an estimated
200,000 Filipinos along the way – for Washington to gain control of most of
Manuel Quezon, the first elected president of the Philippines, observed: "I
prefer a country run like hell by Filipinos to a country run like heaven by
Americans. Because, however bad a Filipino government might be, we can always
change it." He's been proved right on both scores: the country has been
run like hell by Filipinos and they have changed their government again and
The experience in Asia, Africa, and South America is the same. People don't
like being ruled from outside, even if ostensibly for their own good. When denied
the opportunity to rule themselves, they usually start shooting at their occupiers.
That happened in Iraq. A lot of people started shooting, for various reasons.
But even the forces of genuine peace and order, such as Grand Ayatollah Ali
al-Sistani, opposed Washington's attempt to establish a typical colonial satrapy
under Paul Bremer. The Iraqis feel incredible ambivalence at the U.S. invasion:
happy to be rid of the monster Saddam Hussein and his vampire Sunni elite, horrified
by the tsunami of violence that overwhelmed their nation, angered by hard-line
U.S. occupation tactics, worried that increased violence could follow America's
departure, and nevertheless desiring that the U.S. leave. While virtually every
segment of Iraq society turned against al-Qaeda – a key factor in the terrorist
group's reduced effectiveness – there is no similar unity in favor of America.
Thus, it only makes sense for both sides to draw the occupation to a close.
The invasion was a mistake, since Iraq posed no threat to the U.S. Saddam Hussein
was an ugly actor, but he was contained and was not going to last forever. The
belief that all would be sweetness and light after his ouster demonstrated equal
parts arrogance and incompetence on the part of the administration. Thousands
of Americans and tens or hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died as a result. Iraqi
civil society essentially ceased to exist, and is only slowly recovering.
Washington would gain little but headaches – in addition to the $400 million
being spent daily – from sticking around, even with force levels below the 142,000
post-surge total. Although casualties are down, the U.S. will continue to be
a lightening rod for disaffected Iraqis. The Iraqi state remains largely non-functioning,
and the liberal political order imagined by neocon fantasists is unlikely to
quickly arise, with or without America's help. And if the country dissolves
into violence again – Washington has in effect been arming both sides, training
the Shia-dominated security forces and arming the Sunni militias – it would
be best if American troops were far, far away.
Nor is it obvious that America is currently a force for stability. It is easier
to posture and put forth maximal demands so long as the U.S. can be counted
on to attempt to keep a lid on violence. Real compromise and cooperation are
unlikely to occur until forced by necessity. That necessity will occur when
America is gone.
Alas, the ongoing negotiations over a continuing U.S. presence have turned
into both a torturous and tortuous affair. The Bush administration's original
position was clear: permanent, er, "enduring" bases. As of last year
the U.S. maintained 136 bases and supply/ammunition/fuel depots. Washington
requested to keep 58 military facilities, including five mega-bases, along with
a large, safe "zone of influence" around the new $1 billion embassy,
the largest American diplomatic outpost in the world.
Nor was that all. The administration's hope to reduce Baghdad to puppet status
– demanding autonomy for U.S. military operations, authority to detain and imprison
Iraqi citizens, continued extraterritorial status for military contractors,
supervisory rights over Iraqi security ministries and arms purchases, control
over Iraqi air space, and assistance in war against Iran or any other enemy
du jour of America – ran into a little thing called nationalism. Ali al-Adeeb
of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa party observed simply: "It would
impair Iraqi sovereignty." Sami al-Askari, a Shiite parliamentarian close
to al-Maliki, said "The Americans are making demands that would lead to
the colonization of Iraq."
More heated was lawmaker Jalal al-Din al-Saghir, of the Islamic Supreme Council
of Iraq: "The points that were put forth by the Americans were more abominable
than the occupation." The original occupation was ordained by the UN Security
Council, "But now we are being asked to sign for our own occupation."
Indeed, "If it is left to them, they would ask for immunity even for the
It was bad enough when populist outsider Muqtada al-Sadr campaigned against
the agreement. One of his clerical allies said the accord would lead to "eternal
slavery." Then last month Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki declared: "we
did not realize that the US demands would so deeply affect Iraqi sovereignty
and this is something we can never accept." He even threatened to ask Washington
to leave after the negotiations "reached an impasse." A few days ago
he said there must be a timetable for America's withdrawal: "The goal is
to end the presence" of foreign troops. His national security adviser,
Mouwaffak al-Rubaie, said the same thing after briefing Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani:
"We will not accept any memorandum of understanding that doesn't have specific
dates to withdraw foreign forces from Iraq."
Some advocates of a continued U.S. regency say not to worry. For instance,
the Wall Street Journal editorialized that al-Maliki's position was "designed
for domestic Iraqi political consumption." Perhaps so, but the fact that
he believes he must demand a withdrawal timetable to satisfy the Iraqi public
Urged on by al-Sadr, tens of thousands rallied against the negotiations back
in May. Members of parliament are demanding a vote on any agreement, and there
is even talk about holding a referendum. Protests are increasing against the
casualties generated by U.S. military raids.
But al-Maliki must worry about more than his domestic constituencies. Iran
might be Washington's enemy number one in the region, and perhaps on the planet,
but earlier this year al-Maliki welcomed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
on a state visit far more open to the Iraqi people than any of President Bush's
trips. In June al-Maliki scurried off to Tehran to assure Iranian officials
that they had nothing to fear from a continuing U.S. presence: "We will
not allow Iraq to become a platform for harming the security of Iran and its
neighbors." Translation: Iraq ain't going to help the U.S. unleash another
crazed neocon militaristic adventure.
This is hardly a case of "cut-and-run," or whatever the latest neocon
expletive is for damning their opponents. Reports suggest that the Iraqis are
thinking of a complete U.S. withdrawal within three to five years. That seems
like a long time to anyone other than a member of the Bush administration.
Officials in Washington have been left sputtering. President Bush naturally
opposes a timetable, and said he doesn't believe the prime minister was proposing
a "rigid" schedule. State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos was
more direct: "We want to withdraw. We will withdraw. However, that decision
will be conditions-based. We're looking at conditions, not calendars here."
Apparently the Iraqi people have a different vision. And they are looking at
a calendar. It is their country, isn't it?
In fact, the withdrawal should be far faster. If the Iraqis ask America to
leave, then America must leave. Unless the U.S. intends to treat Nouri al-Maliki
like Saddam Hussein, it has no choice but to accept whatever Iraq's democratically-elected
But even if Baghdad asked America to stay, Washington should say no. For it
isn't in America's interest to stay. And that should be the test for U.S. military
invasion, occupation, or other action.
The American people understand. A record 68 percent believe the war was a mistake.
In June 42 percent proclaimed themselves in favor of bringing the troops home
within a year. Another 21 percent said one to two years. Nine percent said two
to five years, one percent favored five to ten years, and 20 percent opined
"as long as it takes" – presumably backing Sen. McCain's 10,000 year
occupation, if necessary.
Sen. McCain demonstrated his lack of understanding when he compared Iraq to
South Korea. The U.S. actually intervened on behalf of the South to save
it from invasion. The Republic of Korea always wanted American forces to stay,
even after it was well able to defend itself. It's nice to have a superpower
offer a little defense welfare, allowing one to concentrate on economic development
and becoming a global trading state. But the defense guarantee makes no sense
from America's standpoint. Many South Koreans don't even view North Korea as
a serious threat.
Unfortunately, perpetual occupations, even if relatively friendly, are costly.
There's the expense not only of the deployment, but of creating the units necessary
to patrol the rest of the world. Cut the military commitments and you can cut
Moreover, extended occupations discourage client states from defending themselves.
Most of the Europeans have militaries in name only. Even when they send forces
into combat, as in Afghanistan, it usually is with the proviso that the soldiers
not actually end up under fire. Armed social work is a better description of
their activities. The Japanese are essentially the same. They sent "soldiers"
to Iraq who could not even defend themselves – the Dutch and then Australians
successively had to protect the Japanese "military" forces from attack.
Occupations inevitably create local antagonism and stoke nationalism. South
Korea is a case in point. A status of forces agreement that made sense a half
century 60 years ago when the ROK was an underdeveloped national wreck looks
unseemly and overbearing today. The recent demonstrations in Seoul are directed
more against perceived American domination than U.S. beef imports.
A permanent occupation in the Mideast will raise additional red flags, given
the political sensitivities of backing numerous authoritarian regimes and supporting
Israel and its rule over millions of antagonistic Palestinians. Even former
Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz acknowledged that the presence of U.S. forces
in Saudi Arabia spurred terrorism. America's Iraq invasion and occupation created
al-Qaeda in Iraq. Attempting to maintain a permanent occupation of Iraq, and
even more so using that garrison to intervene in neighboring states, would lead
to more blowback.
Finally, security guarantees encourage governments to behave irresponsibly.
If you possess a superpower guarantee, you can afford to be more confrontational,
churlish, and foolish when dealing with neighbors and potential antagonists.
Examples include Austria-Hungary in advance of World War I and Taiwan in its
recent dealings with China.
It's time to bring home the U.S. forces. The withdrawal should be speedy and
complete – no "residual" force, as now suggested by Colin Kahl, a
Barack Obama aide. And the pull-out should place an emphatic explanation point
on lessons learned. No more unnecessary wars of choice. No more attempts at
coercive social engineering, in the belief that the denizens of Washington can
transcend geography, history, religion, tradition, ethnicity, and culture in
recreating America abroad. Washington's job is to protect the American people
– their territory, liberty, and constitutional system. Not to try to remake
the world, whether in the Middle East or elsewhere around the globe.