The time of withdrawal

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[Yaroslav Trofimov of the Wall Street Journal visited the U.S. Army’s 21st Combat Support Hospital in Balad, Iraq. It handles American casualties from the Sunni Triangle. Few of the doctors and nurses, he writes, “expected to deal with such a steady stream of casualties more than six months after the fall of Baghdad.” At the hospital he interviewed Lt. Col. Kim Keslung, an orthopedic surgeon, who summed up the situation this way:]

‘It was a mistake to discount the Iraqi resistance,’ Col. Keslung said, adding, ‘If someone invaded Texas, we’d do the same thing.’” (“In a Tent Hospital, A close-Up View Of Attacks in Iraq,” Wall Street Journal, October 29, 2003)

The U.S.-run government in Iraq has vowed to seek no congressional funding in 2005 to reconstruct that nation if it receives the Bush administration’s full $20.3 billion request this fall, raising questions about how it will meet its total spending needs.” (Jonathan Weisman, Iraq Aid Needs, Pledge At Odds, the Washington Post, )

Two passages from an ongoing travesty. Let’s start with the second of them, which looks to me for all the world like “Read my lips, no new aid.” In 2005, if we’re still in Iraq and George Bush is still in the White House, Congress will be asked to pony up more money as surely as the sun rises in the east. But the more striking part of that passage is simply the date: 2005. Two years hence, according to L. Paul Bremer’s men in Baghdad, we Americans are still going to be “reconstructing” the country. In the Pentagon, according to the latest reports, generals are discussing what our troop levels there will be in 2006.

Imagine such time-scapes and you know a great deal not about what’s going to happen, but about the Bush administration’s vision of our occupation of Iraq — which is never to depart.

Lt. Col. Kim Keslung, who won’t even leave the base where she works because she knows full well what kinds of things happen to Americans “out there,” is a far better historian than our president, our viceroy in Baghdad, our secretary or undersecretary of defense, or the various neocons in the administration and inhabiting the souks of Washington.

She’s right. Invade Texas, invade Iran, invade China, invade Albania, invade Lebanon, invade Iraq — name your place, in fact — and you better not assume there won’t be resistance. Someone always resists. That single sentence sums up the last two centuries of global history.

Empires invariably think that it’s they who are bringing civilization and progress in their train and that only the barbarians, the terrorists, the bitter-enders resist for fear of being thrown onto that dust heap of history. But history is, as it turns out, filled to the brim with barbarians, terrorists, and bitter-enders, not to speak of enraged ordinary people who have seen their friends and relatives die, who feel the discomfort — which has only grown more psychologically unbearable over the last century — of watching well-armed, well-paid foreigners walk with impunity across their lands. They do resist, exactly as Texans would. Afterwards perhaps they fall on each other’s throats. Such things are unpredictable.

But in recent centuries, if empire — the Great Powers, the Great Game, Global Domination, the Great Rivalry, the Great Arms Race — has been the Great Theme of history, the less publicized but perhaps more powerful one has been resistance. Resistance everywhere to occupation of any sort. Resistance by forgotten millions (not all of them wonderful human beings). If you need to be convinced of this, just read Jonathan Schell’s new book The Unconquerable World.

Sooner or later, regimes of occupation withdraw or collapse. Or both. In our times, it seems, ever sooner. Even the Soviet Union didn’t make it past one long human lifetime. Of course, we’ve never been in a single hyperpower version of an imperial world before. But I think it might be possible to start into the subject of withdrawal from Iraq by saying one thing: There’s a great deal of “hype” in that “hyperpower.” American power has been distinctly over-hyped. The leaders of other countries have perhaps taken us too much at the Bush administration’s overheated estimate of ourselves. Yes, our military can destroy much, quickly and from afar. Yes, we have the economic power to punish in various ways. Yes, you wouldn’t want to find yourself in a dark alley or even a cul de sac with this administration in a bad mood. But being powerful and being all-powerful are two quite different things which the utopian dreamers of Bush’s Washington have confused utterly — to their ultimate detriment I believe. Yes, militarily, our power is awesome and no other country can come close to matching it in conventional war settings. But it is most powerful withheld. As Iraq shows, once we commit ourselves to action, we are likely to find ourselves strangely overmatched. The irony here is that what an Iraqi military of 400,000 couldn’t hope to do, relatively small groups of ill-armed men and women are doing.

Having taken Iraq, eager to nail down its resources, to establish an imperial “democracy” as well as a string of permanent military bases there, and then drive a policy dreamt up inside Washington’s Beltway directly through the Middle East, the sole Great Power on this planet, issuing documents on Global Domination till the end of time, without a Great Rival, playing a Great Game with no one, and in an Arms Race of one (but still developing plans for ever higher-tech weaponry for future decades), nonetheless finds itself driven by a modest if growing resistance movement in Iraq. The president of the greatest power on Earth is being forced by events in “5% of Iraq” to call in his advisers for endless meetings, shake up the structure of his administration, hold sudden news conferences, offer new and ever more farfetched explanations of American actions, and backtrack on claims — all because of Iraqi resistance.

I think one thing is predictable in a world where predicting anything accurately is a low-percentage bet: Sooner or later, the time of withdrawal will be upon us. Some of us would like it to be sooner, not later.

An antiwar movement shut down for months — but still emotionally in place — is now reconstituting itself and one of its demands is already for withdrawal, for an “end to the occupation,” for “bringing our troops home.” But this demand still has the feel of a slogan without particular resonance or content. Part of the reason for this is quite logical. Everyone knows to the point of despair that we — the antiwar movement, the anti-imperialists — are not in control. They are and they don’t want to leave. “We” will not withdraw from Iraq. They will, or they will feint at it anyway, but only under the pressure of impending catastrophe, literal or electoral. Withdrawal will not be directed by us or according to any plans the experts among us might draw up. Yes, we want this over. Except among military families, however, “bring our troops home” or “end the occupation” are at the moment just feeble slogans, raised to put a little pressure on the administration.

Still, a demand is being made in the face of all those people who claim that we can’t “cut and run,” that we must “stay the course,” that, whatever our thoughts about the war once were, we are all now somehow committed to an Iraqi occupation lest American “credibility” suffer grievous harm — all statements that would have sounded no less credible, or incredible, nearly four decades ago when they were indeed part of the Vietnam playbook and the language of that era. Right now in the mainstream, with the exception of a few columnists like James Carroll of the Boston Globe and Bob Herbert of the New York Times, and the odd intellectual figure like the economist Jeffrey Sachs, withdrawal is not yet on anyone’s agenda. The Democratic candidates, Kucinich aside, are criticizing how we got into the war without suggesting ways to get out any time soon.

But, given ongoing events in Iraq, the idea of withdrawal is already on an inexorable course into the mainstream world. One sign: The administration has begun floating stories about withdrawing some troops next year. As withdrawal comes to seem like an actual alternative, we’re going to be challenged on it. And by then, it better be something more than a vague slogan for us. By then, we should have explored the subject as carefully, honestly, and fully as we can.

Just the other day, a friend challenged me to stop ducking the subject. He claimed that in my dispatches I was taking the easy way out. And I think maybe he was right. It’s time for us to do our best not just to put withdrawal on the American agenda as a slogan but to give it some thought and content.

Here, then, is my modest attempt to begin to think this out and get a discussion started.

Why we must leave Iraq

The Path of History: It’s not only that history — in its last centuries — speaks eloquently against the imperial occupation of any country; a far more circumscribed, recent, and specific history speaks against this occupation as well. So let me start with that:

The United States has long been involved with Iraq and the record doesn’t make for pleasant reading. The CIA had a hand in Saddam Hussein’s rise and the success of the Baath Party. The Reagan administration supported Saddam during the years of some of his worst crimes because he seemed a reasonable, if somewhat shaky bulwark against the evil Shi’ite regime in Iran. The first Bush administration, having decided not to march on Baghdad at the end of the Gulf War (during which we slaughtered possibly tens of thousands of Iraqis), despite full command of the skies over Iraq, proceeded to look the other way while Saddam crushed a Shi’ite uprising (itself filled with bloody revenge killings). We let him use his helicopters and other weaponry against the Shi’ite rebels for fear of an Islamic Republic in Baghdad. This resulted in the killing fields whose graves Paul Wolfowitz and others now visit regularly and use as the very explanation for our invasion of Iraq. The first Bush and Clinton administrations then enforced a fierce and unrelenting version of UN-sanctions supposedly against Saddam but crushing to ordinary Iraqis and, though it’s seldom mentioned, so destructive to the various Iraqi support systems (electricity, water purification, oil fields etc.) that, under the pressure of war, looting, occupation and resistance these more or less collapsed. The second Bush administration then launched a savage war against Saddam’s regime which only lasted a few weeks but again killed many thousands of soldiers and civilians. The killings of civilians have yet to end.

Though we arrived in Iraq speaking the language of liberation (in English only) and most Iraqis were relieved initially to have the sanctions regime and the war ended as well as a horrendously abusive regime gone, we did not arrive as liberators. Though almost all of the above had largely been forgotten by Americans and could barely be found in our media, it was certainly in the minds of many Iraqis, who had to assume, on the basis of the historical record, a distinct self-interestedness on our part. We arrived in Iraq thinking utterly beneficently about ourselves, but undoubtedly from the Iraqi point of view (dangerous as it is to assume that there is only one such) we had much to prove (or perhaps disprove) — and fast. The proof in the last six months has been painfully in line with the previous historical record cited above.

No exit: When thinking of withdrawal, it’s important to remember that it was never a concept in the Bush administration’s vocabulary. Despite all those years of Vietnam “lessons” and Colin Powell’s “doctrine” which said that no military action should be undertaken without an “exit strategy” in place, Bush’s boys had no exit strategy in mind because they never imagined leaving. Of course, they expected to quickly draw down American forces in the face of a jubilant and grateful population. But there was no greater signal of our long-term intentions than our dismantling of the Iraqi military, and their planned recreation as a lightly armed border-patrolling force of perhaps 40,000 with no air force. Put that together with the four permanent bases we began building almost immediately and you know that we were expecting to be Iraq’s on-site military protector into the distant future.

Iraq itself was to be the lynchpin of an American empire of bases that was to extend from the former Yugoslavia to Uzbekistan, right across the “arc of instability” which just happened to coincide with the major oil lands of this Earth. Occupying Iraq would also — of this the neocons were quite confident — tame Syria and Iran, settle the Palestinian question on grounds favorable to the Sharon government, and solve the awkward problem of basing our troops in Saudi Arabia about which Osama bin Laden had so long been bitter. This is what “liberation” truly meant.

So when considering withdrawal, you can’t think only of Iraq. When occupying it, the Bush administration had far larger fish to fry. They had a global no-exit strategy of domination they wanted to put fully in place.

It has often been said — and on this score there has been much complaint in the military — that our troops were never trained to be policemen or peacekeepers (and that we didn’t bother to bring into Iraq any significant number of military police) — but that’s the narrowest way to look at a very large problem. We arrived in Baghdad as a victorious, or more bluntly, a conquering army, not as peacekeepers. And we have continued in that vein.

In the weeks before, during and after the war, the administration itself often compared the occupation of Iraq to the Japanese and German occupations at the end of World War II. But we did allow actual Japanese and Germans to rebuild their countries economically, more or less to Japanese and German specifications. Iraq has been another matter. At every level, the Iraqis themselves have been sidelined. Reconstruction has been a kind of economic pillage, booty offered to huge American corporations linked to the Bush administration — and the future economy of Iraq has been declared a free-fire zone for international finance. This is not what the Americans did to Japan, but what the Huns did to Europe, even if dressed up in modern capitalist garb. When mobs of Iraqis began to loot museums, ministries, stores, homes, oil refineries, electric plants, anything in sight, we were all shocked. When the power occupying Iraq opens the country to foreign (read American) corporations for the wholesale looting of its wealth and economic well-being, no one so much as blinks.

Again, history tells us that the Iraqis — and not just thugs, terrorists, and “bitter-enders” — will not live long on the sidelines of such a situation. Soon, they will challenge us about withdrawal, something never previously part of the Bush agenda. It must be part of ours.

The time of withdrawal: When considering the issue of ending the occupation quickly and bringing our troops home, perhaps the most important matter to think about is time itself. As we hear endlessly, we must not “cut and run,” but instead “stay the course.” The implication in all such statements is that, if only the United States toughs it out, on the other side of this rough patch of resistance lies another far less chaotic world in which a new and more peaceful Iraq will play at least something like the role the Bush administration imagined for it. Perhaps it was once true, when news traveled slowly and the colonial world was in more or less another universe, that an imperial power indeed did have five or ten years in which to pacify, at least for a time, a conquered and occupied land. Time like that is no longer available to the United States or to the Bush administration.

It is far more reasonable — given what we know of history and of the present situation — to assume that time is not on our side. What is bad now for us — and for the Iraqis — will only be worse later. The resistance will be greater, more organized, and more determined. Our allies, both within and without Iraq, ever more distant; American troops more isolated, angry, and embattled; money in shorter supply; military morale lower; and the antiwar movement here stronger. This is a prediction, of course, but a far more reasonable one, I think, than those that we hear every day. And if “staying the course,” toughing it out, only makes a bad situation worse, then withdrawal when it comes, as it will, will only be that much harder and the results only that much more catastrophic for all parties concerned.

Let me sum up in four sentences:

History, long term and more recent, is not on our side.

We are a war-making and an occupying force, not a peacekeeping force.

We never planned to leave Iraq.

Time is against us.

Or to boil all this down to a sentence: We are not and never have been the solution to the problem of Iraq, but a significant part of the problem.

If this is true, then that’s what we’ll remain as long as our troops are there, all of which speaks to the need for a quick withdrawal from Iraq. I don’t claim to have a plan for doing so. Withdrawal plans must come, but probably not from the likes of me. A look at history (by those more expert than I) might be of use. There are endless imperial withdrawals from various occupied lands to consider — some more embattled and horrific, some more peaceful, some braver, some more cowardly, some showing foresight, some barely ahead of collapse itself. And sometimes, of course, there was no withdrawal at all. The occupying forces were simply driven out. Examples obviously range from the French in Algeria and the Portuguese in Africa to the Israelis in Lebanon and the Russians in Eastern Europe. How this might be done and whom Iraq would be handed off to must be considered as well. Would the UN take some responsibility for Iraq or, for that matter, the Arab League? I don’t know. All I know is that if the will to withdraw, and withdraw quickly, is there, withdrawal is what will happen.

I’m no expert on Iraq. I can hardly keep the Shi’ite groups straight even with the help of the writings of Juan Cole. I do think it would be a mistake for any of us to claim that we know what would happen during a genuine withdrawal. It could indeed be a terrible mess or simply a true horror. Iraq could split in three — an embattled Kurdish semi-democracy in the north (under the ominous shadow of Turkey), a Sunni dictatorship in the center, and a harsh Islamic Republic in the South. There could be bloodshed or civil war. Or not. The future has a way of surprising — and since the American occupiers have chosen not to trust Iraqis with either responsibility or power, we have no idea what they might have done with it, or might someday do with it.

All of that is speculation. But what we can see is what a long-term horror an American occupation and reconstruction of Iraq is likely to turn out to be. We can see the rising death toll; we can read about the civilians slain; we can note the mini-gulag set up there. We can mull over the greed and corruption in what passes for “reconstruction.” All this we know. The rest is possibility. This we should not want to continue in our names. This “course” we should not want to “stay.” Alternatives should not be considered “cutting and running.”

For me at least, the imperial occupation of the lands of this earth — whatever the empire — is unacceptable. Any armed occupation will always be part of the problem not the solution on this planet. In our present world, such acts can only lead to hell. We need to pressure this administration hard to step outside the box it has created for us, our troops, and the Iraqi people who truly did deserve a liberation and not the occupation and looting that they are living through. They are not the spoils of war.

Let us offer Iraq genuine help, reconstruction aid, and support of all sorts afterwards, possibly indirectly through groups whose interests can’t be mistaken for ours. But our troops are an occupying army. They can’t keep the peace. They are the war.

[To Tomdispatch readers: please feel free to write me your own thoughts on withdrawal from Iraq. I have limited time to reply, but I would be interested and I might use some of them in a follow-up dispatch.]