Jonathan Schell, Why We Must Leave Iraq

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On Monday at New York University, Senator John Kerry launched his first strong attack on George Bush’s Iraq War policy. (“By one count, the president offered 23 different rationales for this war. If his purpose was to confuse and mislead the American people, he succeeded. His two main rationales, weapons of mass destruction and the Al Qaida-September 11th connection, have both been proved false by the president’s own weapons inspectors and by the 9/11 Commission. And just last week, Secretary of State Powell acknowledged those facts. Only Vice President Cheney still insists that the Earth is flat”) On Tuesday, the exceedingly cautious UN General Secretary Kofi Annan, who only the other day managed to term our war and occupation in Iraq “illegal” for the first time, stood at the podium of the General Assembly, called on the assembled UN delegates to uphold “the rule of law at risk around the world,” and symbolically denounced the tortures of Abu Ghraib (“we have seen Iraqi prisoners disgracefully abused”).

Then President Bush stepped to the same podium and made the following curious observation — “We know that dictators are quick to choose aggression, while free nations strive to resolve differences in peace” — as part of a speech ostensibly aimed at the audience of stony-faced delegates. Like almost all Bush speeches, however, his was in fact a rousing, hectoring propaganda moment, a nationalist speech geared to the election and largely aimed at his own fundamentalist base. It was full of red-meat lines not meant for the delegates from France or Bangladesh, but for the conservative, assumedly UN-loathing voter from the American heartland.

Among other things, there were the invocations of “human dignity,” part of the President’s endlessly coded reaffirmations of his stances on abortion, cloning, and (by implication) stem-cell research. “No human life,” he said, “should ever be produced or destroyed for the benefit of another.” There was the ringing denunciation of “the evil of trafficking in human beings,” a mobilizing issue for his evangelical base; and there was that reddest of all red meat lines, “Coalition forces now serving in Iraq are confronting the terrorists and foreign fighters so peaceful nations around the world will never have to face them within our own borders.” Within our own borders this is the line with which the Bush administration hopes to win the election. War in Iraq, however terrible, is better than fighting in the streets of Toledo.

But in the real Iraq quite a different process is underway. In Superpower Syndrome, America’s Apocalyptic Confrontation with the World, an insightful little paperback published last year, psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton wrote of how the Bush administration “responded apocalyptically to an apocalyptic challenge”; of how in the wake of 9/11 and facing Islamist fanaticism, it offered its own version of a fundamentalist “world war without end”; of how, perversely, it then partnered up with al-Qaeda in a strange global dance of animosity.

If indeed at the highest levels we are seeing two versions of fundamentalism locked in a strange embrace, then it’s hardly surprising that something similar should be replicated “on the ground,” as has happened in Iraq. To me, the most striking aspect of the Iraqi situation is that this administration’s fundamentalist occupation of Iraq emboldened, even (you might say) created, its own dream enemy. Soon after the insurgency there gained modest strength, the President declared Iraq “the central front in the war on terrorism” — and as with one of those genies in some old Arabian tale, Poof! It was so.

In Iraq, everything we’ve done from not attempting to stop the initial pulse of looting to dismantling Saddam’s army, police, and state, from instituting American right-wing fundamentalist economic policies to our deep belief in the unimportance of Iraqis in the occupation of their country — we didn’t even arrive with translators, no less experts — not to speak of our heavy-handed use of military power and torture power in the “liberated” country at the earliest signs of resistance — all have essentially favored the growth of the most extreme elements in Iraqi society and in the region more generally. The administration which turned away from the real “war” on terror to Iraq for reasons of its own and whose top officials then melded Saddam, 9/11, weapons of mass destruction, and al-Qaeda into a tasty propaganda stew, have now, not surprisingly, managed to turn fantasy into reality.

Today, according to Time magazine correspondent Michael Ware, who was almost kidnapped by members of Attawhid wal Jihad (Unity and Holy War), a militant group loyal to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, “the most wanted terrorist in Iraq”:

“The group’s black flags flutter from the palm trees and buildings along the Baghdad boulevard where we were stopped, an area known as Haifa Street. It’s a no-go zone for U.S. forces. The fact that insurgents tied to al-Zarqawi are patrolling one of Baghdad’s major thoroughfares–within mortar range of the U.S. embassy–is an indication of just how much of the country is beyond the control of U.S. forces and the new Iraqi government. It also reflects the extent to which jihadis linked to al-Zarqawi, 37, the Jordanian believed to be al-Qaeda’s chief operative in Iraq, have become the driving forces behind the insurgency and are expanding its zone of influence.”

This is a remarkable, if dark, achievement for the Bush administration. Iraq may indeed now be “the central front in the war on terrorism.” A reader wrote me recently, on the subject of withdrawal from Iraq, asking whether we could possibly consider withdrawing without first “stabilizing” the country. But the point is the opposite: You can’t put our fundamentalist administration and its Iraqi plans in the same sentence with the word “stabilization.” The longer we remain, the more destabilizing we will prove. Let Jonathan Schell, whose book The Unconquerable World puts a frame of history around the events of our moment, take on the issue of withdrawal below in his latest Nation magazine “Letters from Ground Zero” column, which the editors of that magazine have been kind enough to let me share with you. Tom

Why We Must Leave Iraq
By Jonathan Schell

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, once a supporter of the war in Iraq, has been rethinking his position. The day after Senator John Kerry’s speech at NYU attacking the President’s war policies, Cohen wrote, “I still don’t think the United States can just pull out of
Iraq. But I do think the option is worth discussing.”

Well, let’s discuss it.

The United States should just pull out of Iraq.

There are many issues in politics that are very complicated. The war in Iraq is not one of them. Common sense in regard to this war rests on two rock-solid pillars:

(1) The United States should never have invaded Iraq.

(2) Now it should set a timetable to withdraw and leave.

These two propositions go together. The litany of reasons why it was wrong to invade Iraq — that there were no weapons of mass destruction in the country, no ties to Al Qaeda and only the dimmest prospect of democracy — are the same as the reasons why it is now wrong to remain

And in truth, the war would have been an even greater mistake if the reasons given for it had been based on reality-if the weapons of mass destruction and ties to Al Qaeda had existed. People don’t have to ask themselves today what might have happened if Vice President Cheney had been correct in saying, as he did before the war, that Iraq had “reconstituted its nuclear weapons” and if CIA director George Tenet had also been correct in saying that the sole circumstance in which Saddam might use weapons of mass destruction would be if his power were threatened. Had both men been correct, there might have been a use of weapons of mass destruction against American troops in the Iraq theater, or even on US soil (if the ties to Al Qaeda had also been real), and a possible use of nuclear weapons by the United States in retaliation.

How fortunate we are that Cheney, at least, was factually mistaken! That he was wrong is the bright side, if you like, of the current mess. His disastrous factual errors may have saved us from his catastrophic policy errors. Nor has the war brought with it any new justification for itself. On the contrary, it has added fresh reasons for leaving. If the story of the occupation so far — a story of scarcely imaginable incompetence, misfired intentions, collapsing plans, multiplying horrors and steadily growing resistance — teaches a single clear lesson it is that the United States is a radicalizing force in Iraq. The more the United States pursues the goal of a democratic Iraq, the farther it recedes into the distance. The longer the United States stays the course, the worse the actual outcome becomes.

Let there be as orderly a transition as possible, accompanied by as much aid, foreign assistance and general sweetness and light as can be mustered, but the endpoint, complete withdrawal, should be announced in advance, so that everyone in Iraq — from the beheaders and other murderers, to legitimate resisters, to any true democrats who may be on the scene — can know that the responsibility for their country’s future is shifting to their shoulders. The outcome, though not in all honesty likely to be pretty, will at any rate be the best one possible. If the people of Iraq slip back into dictatorship, it will be their dictatorship. If they choose civil war, it will be their civil war. And if by some happy miracle they choose democracy, it will be their democracy — the only kind worth having.

Kerry’s speech was the beginning “at long last” (his words) of a serious debate in the campaign over the war. The speech was heralded by his charge, a few days before, that George W. Bush lives in a “fantasy world of spin” — the first telling, or even widely audible, phrase that Kerry has used in his entire campaign for President. Bush, indeed, has an audacious personal quality that has somehow served him well so far: full frontal repudiation of facts known to all. Faced with the absence of WMDs in Iraq he once simply said, “We have found the weapons of mass destruction.” Faced with a Presidential Daily Brief titled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in the U.S.,” he and his spokespersons called it “historical.” In his universe, faithfulness to delusion is “consistency.” It reached its apogee at the GOP convention, where the President presented a picture of the war in Iraq from which all current facts-the street fighting, the bombing, the kidnappings, the torture, the departing allies-had been removed.

“Staying the course” meant staying in the imaginary world. At the convention, the President, if we are to judge by his sudden dramatic rise in the polls, apparently drew a majority of the country into that world with him. Yet almost immediately thereafter, he sank again in many polls. As of this writing, the polls are in anarchy, showing anything from a double-digit Bush lead to a dead heat. The polling may reflect the confusion of a public groping to deal with its immersion in the imaginary world. Like a movie audience emerging from a feel-good blockbuster onto the icy streets, the public probably cannot help noticing that what is before its eyes is quite different from what was on the screen. The bright and shining lies are always more appealing, at least for a while, than the plain truth. Could the resulting double-vision be the reason for a certain flip-flopping, so to speak, of the public itself?

In his speech, Kerry embraced one of the pillars of common sense, finally declaring that the war was a mistake, saying of the President, “Is he really saying that if we knew there were no imminent threat, no weapons of mass destruction, no ties to Al Qaeda, the United States should have invaded Iraq? My answer is no.” He did not proceed, however, to the necessary corollary, that withdrawal is necessary, though he hinted at it. Each of his concrete proposals — to find allies, train Iraqi police, speed up reconstruction, hold elections — is fine, but none guarantee the success in creating a “viable” Iraq that he still seems to promise. He has put one foot in the real world, but left the other in the imaginary world, leaving himself open, still, to the flip-flopping charge that Bush immediately leveled against him again. Only one-hundred-percent fantasy will do for the President. But Kerry has at least begun the journey — one as hard as the journey from his service in Vietnam to his protest against it — toward the real. Give him credit for that.

Jonathan Schell is the Harold Willens Peace Fellow at the Nation Institute and the author of The Unconquerable World (Metropolitan Books) as well as A Hole in the World, a collection of his “Letters from Ground Zero” column for the Nation magazine.

Copyright C2004 Jonathan Schell

This article will appear in the October 11 issue of The Nation magazine.