Fiddling While Baghdad Burns

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How to Stay in Iraq
The Iraq Study Group Rides to the Rescue
By Tom Engelhardt

Finally, the President and the New York Times agree. In a news conference with the Iraqi Prime Minister last week, George W. Bush insisted that there would be no “graceful exit” or withdrawal from Iraq; that this was not “realism.” The next day the Times, in a front page piece (as well as “analysis” inside the paper) pointed out that, “despite a Democratic election victory this month that was strongly based on antiwar sentiment, the idea of a major and rapid withdrawal seems to be fading as a viable option.”

In fact, in the media, as in the counsels of James A. Baker’s Iraq Study Group, withdrawal without an adjective or qualifying descriptor never arrived as a “viable option.” In fact, withdrawal, aka “cut and run,” has never been more than a passing foil, one useful “extreme” guaranteed to make the consensus-to-come more comforting.

On Wednesday, at the end of a gestation period nearly long enough to produce a human baby, the Baker committee — by now, according to the Washington Post’s Robin Wright, practically “a parallel policy establishment” — will hand over to the President its eagerly anticipated “consensus” report, its “compromise” plan that takes the “middle road,” that occupies a piece of inside-the-Beltway “middle ground,” and that will almost certainly be the policy equivalent of a still birth.

Whatever satisfaction it briefly offers, it might as well be sent directly to the Baghdad morgue. At a length of perhaps 100 pages, evidently calling for an “aggressive” diplomatic engagement with neighboring Iran and Syria — even unofficial American officials advocating diplomacy just can’t seem to avoid some form of “aggression” — it will also, Washington Post reporters Wright and Thomas Ricks assure us, call for “a major withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq” (no timetables, naturally).

It will evidently suggest the following: Talk to those hostile neighbors; “embed” swarms of still-to-be-trained military advisors with Iraqi troops where, so far, they have had little luck except in generating scads of complaints; pull out (or back into our massive Iraqi bases) American “combat forces,” except for those slated to be part of an in-country “rapid reaction force,” not to speak of all those American trainers and logistics experts; and accomplish this by perhaps early 2008.

All of this will be termed a “short” period of time to change U.S. policy and the path to be headed down will be labeled “phased withdrawal” or the beginning of an “exit strategy.” Oh, and while we’re at it, make sure to suggest that we embed many of those “redeployed” troops just “over the horizon,” probably in Kuwait and some set of small Gulf states, where they can theoretically strike at will in Iraq if the government and military we plan to “stabilize” there turns out to be endangered (as, of course, it will be).

Put in a nutshell, the Iraq Study Group plan — should it ever be put into effect — might accomplish the following: As a start, it would in no way affect our essential network of monumental permanent bases in Iraq (where, many billions of dollars later, concrete is still being poured); it would leave many less “combat” troops but many more “advisors” in-country to “stand up” the Iraqi Army (tactics already tried, at the cost of many billions of dollars, and just about sure to fail); many more American troops will find themselves either imprisoned on those vast bases of ours in Iraq or on similar installations in the “neighborhood” where they are likely to bring so many of our problems with them. And those aggressive chats with the neighbors, whose influence in Iraq is overestimated in any case, are unlikely to proceed terribly well because the Bush administration will arrive at the bargaining table, if at all, with so little to offer (except lectures).

All of this should ensure that, well into 2008, at least 70,000 American military personnel will still be in Iraq, after which, in the midst of a presidential election season, will actual withdrawal finally appear on some horizon? In other words, the Baker Commission plan guarantees us at least another 3-5 years in Iraq.

And, oh yes, here’s something else no one is likely mention. Those Americans left behind after the phased withdrawers head for the horizon will surely be more vulnerable, which means, as in Vietnam during the Vietnamization years, the ratcheting up of American air power and far more sentences in news reports that read like this: “Two Apache helicopters firing anti-missile flares swooped over Fadhil neighborhood, a Sunni insurgent stronghold in one of the oldest parts of the capital, amid the slow thump of heavy machinegun fire, witnesses said.”

And, oh yes, during this “short” period of perhaps 12-14 months when we are supposed to be phasing away, based on present casualty rates, perhaps another 40,000 to 60,000 Iraqi civilians will die horrific deaths as will at least modest numbers of young Americans, reminding us that the definitions of “short,” “remarkable consensus,” and “horizon” — after all, your horizon may be someone else’s home — are in the eye of the beholder. And just one more thing: all this will be directed out of the largest embassy in the world, a vast, nearly complete, nearly billion dollar complex set in the heart of Baghdad’s Green Zone and armed with its own anti-missile system, which no “exit” strategy on any table in any foreseeable future is likely to mention.

Talk about a plan being DOA, when it comes to changing policy, even before an adamant president has the chance to consider how to reject some of its essential parts! After all those endless months, this, it seems, is the best the present generation of Washington “wise men” (and one woman) can actually deliver. I think I can guarantee that, with eight months and a giant staff of experts at your beck and call, you and a small group of your neighbors — with no ties to Washington, a cursory knowledge of our 1,347-plus days already embedded in Iraq, and… no, let’s say with just eight days, or maybe eight minutes — could have come up with a plan at least this hopeless.

While the Iraqis were experiencing an actual civil war, combined with an actual insurgency, combined with actual American attacks from the air and the ground on actual city neighborhoods, combined with actual terrorist attacks, combined with actual widespread criminal activity, combined with the actual collapse of their economy, combined with the actual non-delivery of essential social services, combined with the actual flight of whole populations from ethnically cleansed or simply half-destroyed neighborhoods, combined with actual staggering death tolls, the American media and White House officialdom have passed through their own maelstrom over whether or not to apply the term “civil war” to the Iraqi situation. NBC and the Los Angeles Times have finally voted “yes”; others are waffling; the administration continues to deny that the “sectarian violence” in Iraq could possibly be a “civil war,” which is evidently imagined inside the Oval Office as nothing short of Armageddon itself.

While the media, politicians, and administration spokesmen fight over how exactly to characterize the mountains of dead Iraqis, the urban killing fields where militias now deposit tortured and murdered former human beings, and the stuffed morgues of Iraq’s cities, there are perhaps a few other words and phrases passing around Washington that might be reconsidered.

Let’s start with “phased withdrawal.” Withdrawal (“the act or process of withdrawing, a retreat or retirement”) usually means sayonara, arrivederci, so long. And a “phase,” of course, is a “stage.” But put them together and, at least in the present collective Washingtonian imagination, we’re still somehow embedded in Iraq the year after next with no actual plan for leaving in sight and none of our basic structures — 5 or 6 bases the size of American towns and a goliath of an embassy — in that country touched. Perhaps it’s time to relabel this “option,” something like “phased staying” or “phased permanency.”

In turn, the Iraq Study Group’s findings, which, as James Fallows recently noted, have been layered into our world these last weeks via “obviously authoritative leaks,” might be relabeled “phased recommendations.” They may not, however, faze George W. Bush, who has already responded (or perhaps presponded) by ordering two other sets of reviews to be conducted, ensuring that Washington will be flooded with recommendations. We face a veritable war of the recommendations. All of this is a classic case of Washington fiddling while Baghdad burns.

“Redeploy,” according to my dictionary means to “move (military forces) from one combat zone to another.” That may turn out to be all too correct, if redeployment, or “a responsible redeployment outside of Iraq,” or even (gulp) “phased redeployment” turns out to be the order of the day. Redeploying to, say, various Gulf statelets and Kuwait, we may indeed take our combat zones with us, as we did in the early 1990s when, in the wake of Gulf War I, American troops were plunked down in sizeable numbers in Saudi Arabia. (Does the missing-in-action name Osama bin Laden come to anyone’s mind?)

Don’t confuse any of this, as often happens in the press, with an “exit strategy.” An exit, my dictionary tells me, is “the act of going away or out; a passage or way out.” Classically, critics have wondered whatever happened to Colin Powell’s famed post-Vietnam dictum that no American war should be launched without its exit strategy in place. The answer was always that the Bush administration simply never imagined leaving Iraq. To a large extent, despite all the ado, this remains true even in Donald Rumsfeld’s final, secret memo of options to the President.

So here’s a small hint. You’ll know something’s in the air when some serious panel gets together to sort out our future strategy in Iraq, and you start regularly seeing “withdrawal” surface in the media without an adjective attached, or when you see any sober discussion of permanent bases, American air power, or oil.

Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s (“a regular antidote to the mainstream media”), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews with American Iconoclasts and Dissenters (Nation Books), the first collection of Tomdispatch interviews.

Copyright 2006 Tom Engelhardt