From the mailbag: responses to "The Time of Withdrawal"

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From the scores of letters in response to my recent piece, The Time of Withdrawal — all of them, remarkably enough, thoughtful and considered, often worried, sometimes confused about what path even to suggest that we follow in opposing this occupation/war in Iraq — I’ve chosen to publish all or parts of ten below, each addressing the question of withdrawal from Iraq in a somewhat different way. There’s an eloquent plea from a mother whose son is going to Afghanistan; a hard-nosed critique from Noam Chomsky; a discussion of the failings of the Arab League from a Turkish college student; notes from a former Bush voter; the carefully considered worries of essayist and professor of religion Ira Chernus, among others.

I chose to put Teri Wills Allison’s letter first, not just because her son is soon to be sent into one of the battle zones of our president’s “war on terrorism,” or because in her case, with so much certainly at stake, “speech” is a small act of bravery, but because I felt her letter expressed the most basic truth of any antiwar movement facing the present situation in Iraq: “Before a plan that provides for the withdrawal of our troops can be formulated,” she writes, “the decision to withdraw must be made.”

On many of the issues raised in my previous piece and certainly on the subject of a “plan” for withdrawal, I’m still thinking myself. I’m certainly going to revisit these matters, possibly as soon as my next dispatch. In the meantime, here are the thoughts of others (and my thanks to all of you who wrote in). Tom

From Teri Wills Allison, who signs off “from Bush’s ‘backyard,’ Texas and whose son, in the Army, is to ship out for Afghanistan early next year:

Your article, “The Time of Withdrawal,” is an awesome one.

I am a soldier’s mom, and one of many, many military family members calling-publicly-for an immediate withdrawal of all US military personnel from Iraq. As an active member of Military Families Speak Out, I add my voice to those demanding an immediate return of all troops to their home duty stations.

I am not a politician, or a diplomat; neither am I someone skilled in military affairs. But before a plan that provides for the withdrawal of our troops can be formulated, the decision to withdraw must be made. And, so, the calls for withdrawal must be loud, they must be clear, and they must increase in number and decibel, until the Bush (or next?) administration can no longer disregard them.

I am a soldier’s mom, and one of many, many military family members calling-publicly-for an immediate withdrawal of all US military personnel from Iraq. As an active member of Military Families Speak Out, I add my voice to those demanding an immediate return of all troops to their home duty stations.

I am not a politician, or a diplomat; neither am I someone skilled in military affairs. But before a plan that provides for the withdrawal of our troops can be formulated, the decision to withdraw must be made. And, so, the calls for withdrawal must be loud, they must be clear, and they must increase in number and decibel, until the Bush (or next?) administration can no longer disregard them.

If Bush refuses to listen, then he must be removed from power; and we must pray that we choose wisely, and that the next administration is not just another pack of lying, war-profiteering, oil-fed fanatics, interested only in stuffing their own-and their cronies’-pockets with as many dollars as they can.

It seems logical to me that-once the decision has been made-the planned withdrawal should be gradual, but steady; and that all American troops and interests must be replaced under the direction of the Iraqis themselves, with the UN overseeing all.

The US must detach itself from Iraq in entirety, and we must admit our horrible mistake.

Eighty-seven billion dollars? Damn right, whatever it takes, and not in the form of loans! We have largely destroyed what was left of the Iraqi infrastructure (after 12 years of deadly sanctions that did nothing to Saddam Hussein, but devastated the Iraqi people). We have a moral and a legal obligation to repay them, though no amount of money will ever bring back the estimated 500,000 children who died as a result of the sanctions; nor will it bring back the uncounted tens of thousands of Iraqis killed and wounded since the invasion/occupation began.

No, our children, and our children’s children will be shouldering this debt. We do not, however, owe any debt to Halliburton, Bechtel, Brown and Root, etc., and so the money must go directly to the Iraqis themselves.

But, again, before plans for a withdrawal can begin, the decision to withdraw must be made. I agree, there never was a planned exit strategy, because Bush et. al. intended –and, I believe, still intend — for our military presence to be permanent.

I believe it is our duty as American citizens to sound the drumbeat: Bring our troops home, NOW…Bring our troops home, NOW…Bring our troops home, NOW until the president is forced to respond.

God help us if we allow his “re-election.”

As Jack Johnson puts it in his song, “Cookie Jar”:

“It was you, it was me, it was every man;
We’ve all got the blood on our hands.
We only receive what we demand,
And if we want hell then hell’s what we’ll have.”

When will we decide we have had enough of the lies, the deceit and the greed?

When will we realize that our brave sons and daughters in uniform — who volunteered and took an oath to defend our nation and our constitution (which most Americans will never even consider doing) — are being betrayed, killed, horribly maimed and physically and emotionally wounded in protection of our leader’s corporate interests?!

You are correct: “Sooner or late the time of withdrawal will be upon us.”

What can be gained by delaying withdrawal? How many more American and Iraqi deaths and dismemberments are acceptable before we even begin to consider the prospect of withdrawal? What haven’t we learned from history?

Daily, more voices are joining military families in our demand:


Sincerely, in Peace and Solidarity

Noam Chomsky, whose book Hegemony or Survival has just been published, sent in the following comment:

Good article, but the proposal has one big problem, which you in fact indicate. If the US withdraws, then there was no point invading. The US would be leaving without imposing a client regime and placing military bases right at the heart of the oil-producing regions, and, furthermore, without the claim of “victory in the war on terror and against WMD,” how’s Karl Rove going to make it through 2004?

If I were Rumsfeld — but a saner and less arrogant version — I’d readjust tactics in the expectation that the occupation can succeed. Personally, I’m surprised at the failures. It must be one of the easiest military occupations in modern history: end the sanctions, kick out the thug, bring in some students from MIT to get the electricity system working, spread some money around, find collaborators who are always at the ready, and let them run the place as an “Arab facade” following US orders. Under far harsher conditions, military occupations have been quite successful. Take your example of Russia. They ran Eastern Europe quite easily, using collaborators for governing and security, rarely intervening. Or the Nazis in Western Europe. Same story. The partisans were brave, but they would probably have been wiped out if it hadn’t been for outside support — and of course Germany was engaged in major wars. Same with lots of others. It would be nice if it weren’t so, but the truth of the matter is that the guys with the guns usually win. Not forever, but nothing is forever, and planning is, inevitably, for the short run.

I spoke recently to a high official of one of the main NGOs, with plenty of experience all over the world’s horror stories. He had just come back from several months in Baghdad, and said he had never seen such a combination of “arrogance, ignorance, and incompetence” as in the US command — the civilian authorities. He was also shocked at the failure.

I presume they are not total idiots, and they surely have ample resources. So maybe they can get it together and end up with a facade that will be hailed by the Thomas Friedmans of the world as a grand democracy. At least for a while, and after that, who knows.

From Zeynep Helvaci, a Turkish college student who, having apologized for any mistakes she might make in a language not her mother tongue, proceeded to explain quite vividly, among other matters, why the Arab League (which I had mentioned in passing in my piece) would not be capable of overseeing a U.S. withdrawal:

I thought as a Middle Easterner (although our government would prefer Turkey to be considered as a European country), I should share my thoughts. I’m not the most optimistic person when it comes to international relationships, or humankind’s future for that matter. I also know the history of this region well enough not to think some country’s government could possibly come over here with their troops from the other side of the planet to bring freedom and democracy.

I completely agree with you on your thoughts about the withdrawal from Iraq. It seems to me that if we don’t want the alternatives to be considered “cutting and running”, as you say, the only hope could be the UN to take responsibility for Iraq. I’m not assuming the UN to be totally independent from US influence, or hoping members of the UN would consider only the good of the Iraqi people as they take responsiblity.

Of course, France, Germany, Russia and all other countries would give their own interests higher priority. But when only one nation’s (or rather, administration’s) interests are considered important, it sure won’t lead to a better result. Only if different nations’ aims conflict, might a mid-way be found that could end by doing good for the Iraqi people.

I should explain why I think the UN is a better choice than the Arab League. First of all, Arab League countries are not independent from either the US or the oil companies. On the contrary, most of these countries’ economies are based mainly on oil, because that’s the only product they can possibly export. There’s no need to discuss how oil issues are relevant to this war. Secondly, the Arab League has never been a strictly united structure. For historical reasons, peoples of this region have always had serious conflicts between each other. Arab League countries and their populations are no exception.

As an “optimistic” prediction, one could suggest Middle Eastern people will get closer and more united in time, mainly because of US politics in the region and this “war on terror” which is perceived more as a war on Islam itself by these people. But withdrawal from Iraq is such an urgent issue that we can’t wait for Arab League countries to unite to find a solution for this problem. Not only Arab League countries, but none of the countries around Iraq should take responsibility themselves, without the supervision and control of the UN. Most of them are likely to want a piece of Iraq for themselves as it falls apart; sadly, my own country included.

I don’t believe the UN could bring a whole new liberal system to Iraq on its own, but since there’s no other international structure capable of this, it seems to me the only choice. The only rational solution could be for US administration to declare a calendar for giving responsibility to the UN first, and then for the Iraqi people to re-build their own country, with their new system, although there still would be serious handicaps. Attacks on the UN and Red Cross buildings aren’t encouraging the international community to take responsibility in Iraq; and obviously, barriers won’t be enough to stop the resistance forces. The only way to stop these, if there’s any, could be convincing the Iraqi people that the invasion will end and that the foreigners who do stay in Iraq will be there only to keep the peace and help reconstruction. As long as the foreign troops that literally destroyed the country stay in the region, nobody will believe the Iraqi people will govern themselves eventually.

Another crucial point should be making sure all different religious and ethnic groups in Iraq take part in governing their country; or else, no matter when or how the withdrawal takes place, a civil war will be inevitable. Perhaps the UN should consider playing a more active role in the whole region, because in the end, no stable peace can be found in Iraq or any other country of the region as long as the whole region remains a “problem” itself. To add one last thing, although I only mentioned some of the most powerful countries of the UN, when I say that the UN should take responsibility, I mean all the countries in the UN.

The following on the broad-based nature of elite resistance to withdrawal from Iraq came in from Kevin, a Bush voter in 2000:

I agree with most of what you wrote. Once the US leaves, and at some point it will, Iraq will probably fall into the chaos that existed prior to Saddam Hussein. Iraq may split up or it may find itself another Saddam Hussein who will impose his will upon the Iraqi people.

I voted for Candidate Bush in 2000. In part, I believed he was going to follow a more humble foreign policy as he promised. I also agreed with his skepticism regarding the US being engaged in nation-building. Boy was I fooled!!!

One of the distressing things is that even the Democrats are committed to toughing it out in Iraq. Dean says he disagreed with the invasion of Iraq but now that the US is there, it must stay. Unfortunately it seems that US support for imperial adventures is broad-based and in both major political parties. The liberals’ humanitarian interventionism a la Bosnia is joined at the hip with the Bush imperial drive in Iraq, now dressed up as a form of humanitarian interventionism to remove an evil dictator.

The convergence of both political parties’ interventionism is clear in the keeping of US forces in S. Korea. The original purpose of keeping the Warsaw Pact and USSR out in order to protect Japan is long over with. Nevertheless, the US forces stay.

From Mark Selden, a historian of Asian wars and revolutions, and author of War and State Terrorism: The United States, Japan and the Asia-Pacific in the Long Twentieth Century among other works, comes a call to “look over the horizon”:

I’ve been continuing to think about your “out of Iraq” piece, and wondering whether it doesn’t stop too soon . . . with the key and crucial discussion on which we agree — the need for the withdrawal of U. S. forces.

What it doesn’t address is this: then what? The point, as Tomdispatch has shown so well over the months, is that the issue isn’t just Iraq; it is the larger structure of US global power; the claim that pre-emptive strikes are our absolute right, with Afghanistan and Iraq as simply the two most recent examples; the destructive unsettling of the entire Middle East; the new base structures; the new division of Iraq oil and Afghan oil pipelines . . . and on and on. In other words “withdrawal” is a powerful slogan, but we have also, simultaneously, to look over the horizon.

What future for Iraq if, for example, Bush declared victory tonight and began withdrawal tomorrow. Or, more seriously, if the Bush plan which has now become crystal clear (it could change, of course) and which is predicated on Vietnamization (Iraqization) is swiftly implemented and the number of US forces is drawn down over 2-3 years? In other words, I think that we need to confront a range of issues from Iraq reconstruction with the UN taking the lead to the regional and global posture of US power in a postwar situation.

David Neal of West Virginia boldly takes up the keep-our-troops-in-place-lest-a-“bloodbath”-occur critique of withdrawal (a subject I’ll soon take up myself):

The most common counter-argument against the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq is that Iraq would immediately descend into a bloodbath. The belief, as you pointed out, is that we can stay until Iraq passes through into some semblance of democracy.

A good historical lesson to apply to that argument is the case of Great Britain in India. They occupied and “stabilized” India for over a century. When they finally withdrew, what happened? A Hindu/Moslem bloodbath that ultimately split India into three-and-a-half nations (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Kashmir) and still simmers today.

So it’s a fallacy to believe that we can somehow stay until things are stable and then hand things over to a functioning Iraqi democracy. It’s like believing that you can take the lid off of a heated pressure cooker without an explosion. The only way is to remove the heat first.

That brings up another question: What are the sources of heat and can they be removed before withdrawing? One source of heat is the religious tension between Kurds, Sunnis, and Shiias. The only way to eliminate that source of heat is to eliminate religion. That’s pretty unlikely. Another source of heat is political repression. We’re not helping that situation much as long as tanks are rolling through the streets and we’re gunning down civilians and kicking in doors. Another source of heat is oil wealth — who controls it, who profits from it.

For all of those reasons, waiting for a peaceful transition to democracy in Iraq is just wishful thinking. Any occupier will have to perpetually rule with an iron fist (something Saddam had already realized) or step out and let the lid off the pressure cooker. Those seem to be the only choices.

Ira Chernus, professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a regular essayist for the Commondreams website — his latest piece is Focus on ‘Will and Resolve’ Could Get Bush Re-elected — traces his complex path to a “bring ’em home now” position, but calls for a certain “humility” on the part of the antiwar movement in the face of the vast uncertainties of the situation:

Should we bring the troops home now? In the best of all possible worlds, the answer would be “No.” We should use them to serve the genuine needs of the masses in Iraq. With $87 billion, the huge well-organized resources of the U.S. military, and a genuine concern for the Iraqi people, we really could help to make life a lot better over there. Of course this isn’t the best of all possible worlds and that ideal solution isn’t going to happen. The three great blocs of opinion are against it. First, the internationalist foreign policy establishment is not willing to let Iraq be for the Iraqis. They want to make sure that Iraq becomes a permanent outpost for our military and our multinational corporate economy.

Second, the large majority of American voters are not willing to pay the price to help the Iraqis. A relatively small $20 billion grant raised a furor, while $67 billion for the military breezed through with no debate at all. Our masses are uninterested in “nation-building,” while federal deficit-building is no problem — as long as it’s to “defend” our own nation. The one price the masses will not pay in Iraq is an excessively high American body count.

That is what the third bloc, the peace movement, is waiting for. Most peace activists have already decided that it’s time to “bring the boys home, now.” If activists stick to that slogan and the body count gets high enough, the movement has a real chance. It could ally with a disenchanted middle America and defeat the internationalist establishment. Genuine conviction, plus the scent of another Vietnam-style political victory, will keep the peace movement firmly focused on bringing the troops home.

So those of us who would organize for the ideal solution — a humanitarian effort by the U.S. military in Iraq — are hopelessly outnumbered. Recognizing that in reality the U.S. military will be used in Iraq only to serve U.S. interests, I’ll pick up the cry: “Bring ’em home, now.” But I will know that I might be wrong. Many Iraqis seem to want U.S. troops to stay for a while. The alternative could be a civil war, massive street crime, a breakdown of all essential services, or some combination of the three.

It would be nice to see the peace movement temper its demand with some humility, some acknowledgment that we could be wrong on this one. Self-righteousness got the U.S. into this mess in Iraq. It won’t help us get out, whether it comes from the right or the left. Gandhi offered us a marvelous example of a politics willing to take a strong stand — even to die — for our view of truth, yet admitting quite candidly that we might be wrong, because no one can see the whole truth. In a situation so fraught with uncertainties, we would do well to remember Gandhi’s truth.

Charlie Thomas of North Carolina focuses on a topic rarely raised (except to be dismissed) in the mainstream media but one that concerned many who wrote in — oil and, in his case (as in mine), the permanent bases the U.S. is building in Iraq about which there has been almost no coverage:

Listen to the talking heads on your TV. Whether they are Republicans or Democrats, reporters, experts, or generals, they seldom disagree on the basic fact of empire. Their talk centers around pacifying the country, rebuilding the infrastructure, casualties, tribal rivalries, the religious aspects, and UN help. But when all of these topics are forgotten, two others will remain: oil and bases. And the unspoken assumption from the administration and the press is that we will keep those.

It is fashionable to say in mournful tones that our servicemen are not trained or equipped for their tasks of nation building, implying that the Bush administration or the military is somehow failing in its mission. That would be so if their mission was exporting democracy. If their job is seen as militarily occupying Iraq, they are very successful.

A large fraction of the world’s oil is in Iraq and the US means to control it. This is not just a conspiracy cobbled together by Texas oil men. It has instead been the long term goal of the American government. Remember that the ten years of sanctions that killed so many Iraqis occurred under Republican and Democratic administrations alike. It was not accidental that most of the Democrats running for president supported the war. It is their policy the same as it is Bush’s.

Even the leading Democratic candidates who opposed the war now support the occupation, so our next president, whether Bush, Clark, or Dean, will not change American policy in Iraq. The main analogy to Vietnam is this: we will not leave until and unless we are driven out.

From a small gaggle of Australians who have, somehow, stumbled across and read Tomdispatch (and several of whom wrote in) comes this thoughtful response. Thanks to the miracle of Internet-connectivity, Tad Tietze writes:

A brave and intelligent argument. Immediate US withdrawal is the only reasonable solution. A couple of comments for your interest:

(1) When you spoke of the confusion in the anti-war movement after the fall of Baghdad, I recalled how the anti-war coalition here in Sydney split soon after on the question of whether the replacement of a US-led occupation with a UN-led occupation (has there ever been such a creature?) should be a leading demand.

(The split also had a lot to do with the sectarianism of both the more radical and moderate wings of the movement, a culture tragically ingrained here in Sydney. Luckily, the Greens — of which I am a member these days — are working with both coalitions. This paid off during the Bush visit… with the Greens now being touted as the “real opposition” to Howard.)

The conservatives argued, wrongly I think, that without arguing for “UN in,” you would look stupid arguing for “US out.”

Some of this came from misplaced faith in the UN, but some from a nasty streak of anti-Muslim ideas. For example, one activist claimed that the early anti-US protests in Baghdad were not really supported by ordinary Iraqis — they were “just doing what the Mullahs tell them to.” The prospect of Iraqis REALLY controlling their own destiny was too horrifying for some, it seems.

Another activist basically admitted that he thought a full withdrawal was worse than the US continuing its own occupation.

Your comments towards the end of the dispatch are very relevant, therefore. We can’t predict how bad the mess we occupiers leave behind will be — but the longer we stay in the worse the mess we will eventually create.

Luckily, the experience of the occupation is shifting people’s ideas and building confidence in the “end the occupation” slogan.

(2) When you talk about the “hype” in the hyperpower, you hit the nail right on the head. But I think it goes even further than you say.

The US plan for “full spectrum dominance” is not just based on the (correct) assessment that the US is by far the greatest military power on earth. I think it also comes from a concern by US policymakers about their relative weakness in the world. The US no longer holds 50% of the world’s production within its borders as it did after WWII. It is relatively a smaller force on the economic stage, now being outstripped, according to some estimates, by the EU. And while Japan remains stagnant, China is growing apace, and many in the Republican wing of the establishment have long been worried about this development in Asia.

I think events of the last 2 years are best understood as an attempt by US imperialism to overcome its relative economic weakness by projecting its politico-military hegemony. That is, to enhance its competitive power against its chief rivals in the economic sphere. I fear we are returning to the sort of inter-imperialist rivalry that eventually led to the World Wars, although at an early stage (thank goodness).

The relative US weakness explains the German/French/Chinese reaction–they feel more confident to throw their weights around despite their relative military weakness. It explains how the US remains out in the cold in terms of coalition-building and financial aid in its Iraq occupation. It explains the splits in the establishment, because of the very high risk nature of the project as a solution to problems of US hegemony.

It also explains the benefits of using Afghanistan and Iraq as targets (weakened states in strategic areas–very near China and Russia in the case of the former, and in the key resource-rich area in the case of the latter).

Finally, it points to the risks inherent in supporting another great power (or potential great power) as the alternative to the US. (Here in Australia we have some intellectuals saying we should look to Asia/China rather than the US, oddly enough.) It is our movement, and its penetration into the wider population, that holds the key. We are the “other” superpower in the world.

Finally, from Patrick Foy, a kind of grim early epitaph for our latest Iraq war:

Since there is no legal basis for the U.S. occupation of Iraq, one might think a withdrawal would be easier. But the opposite may be true. Remember, there was no surrender signed by the Saddam regime or his generals — like with Germany and Japan in WWII –and hence no transfer of power. Since there are no WMD and Bush has admitted that Iraq was not involved in the 9/11 terrorist attack upon the United States, there was no threat to the national security of the United States posed by this third world country whose infrastructure and civilian population had been decimated by sanctions throughout the Clinton Administration and whose armed forces had been reduced by 2/3rds since the attempted annexation of Kuwait.

Therefore, the stated premise for the Bush Administration’s attack upon Iraq was false. In addition, there was no declaration of war by the Congress or authorization by the UN Security Council to attack. This was strictly a Presidential war. Offhand, I would say reparations are in order for the damage done to the targeted country. But no American president wants to admit that his administration was wrong or lied. I can’t think of any who ever did with respect to foreign policy. These circumstances would immensely complicate a withdrawal from Iraq by the Bush Administration.

A withdrawal of whatever kind would of necessity have to come under another a false smokescreen of some sort, just like the going in. Falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus. The bottom line for undertaking this adventure was the perception by the Bush inner circle that it could be easily done, easily gotten away with, and that it would be good politics for 2004 — a continuation of the “patriotism card” which suckered-punched the Democrats in the 2002 midterm elections. It has not worked out that way. If it had, a very significant withdrawal would be in the cards prior to November 2004. But now Bush is stuck with a failed policy based on false premises, which policy is blowing up in his face. To withdraw pre-November 2004 would be to admit failure. For political reasons, Bush can’t do that. He has got to maintain multiple fictions, just like LBJ did. Any withdrawal pre or post November 2004 will be followed by a civil war. Mission accomplished. In fact, a civil war could get underway during the American occupation itself. Welcome to the 21st Century.