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Rethinking Iraq

To be both responsible and effective, the anti-war movement has to mature into a tightly organized, disciplined political campaign with a plan of action.
 
 
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A month before the elections, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh predicted the consequences of a Bush victory for Iraq. "If Bush wins re-election, he will bomb and bomb and bomb," he said. "Civilian targets, civilian neighborhoods." He was right.

Within a week after the election, the administration launched a no-holds barred offensive against Fallujah. Unlike the first assault in 2003, this time around no building was out of bounds in a strategy that was summed by Capt. Paul Fowler in the Boston Globe: "The only way to root them out is to destroy everything in your path." When the first air strike targeted the city's sole hospital, The New York Times explained – without comment – the Pentagon's rationale: "The offensive also shut down what officers said was a propaganda weapon for the militants: Fallujah General Hospital, with its stream of reports of civilian casualties."

No one knows how many died in the attack, civilian or otherwise. No one cared to ask – not the mainstream media, not the Democrats, not the American public. Iraq was also absent from the extensive electoral post-mortem as pundits, leaders, and opinionmakers publicly argued vociferously on every subject – morals, economics, the Democratic party leadership, political strategy, race – but the one issue that drove progressive politics in 2004. The unprecedented level of grassroots organizing that characterized the campaign of John Kerry would not have been possible without the anti-war movement. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 galvanized progressives of all stripes and brought them out on the streets. The anti-war demonstrations marked a level of passion and energy that surpassed even many of the Vietnam-era protests.

During the primaries, anti-war activists rallied behind Howard Dean, who emerged as the only major presidential candidate to oppose the war. But in the end, "electability" trumped all other issues in the primaries as the majority of Democrats put aside their anti-war sentiments to vote for John Kerry. Desperate to oust Bush from the White House, few wanted to take the risk of picking an anti-war candidate – not with the memory of George McGovern's ignominious defeat to Richard Nixon still looming large in the party's memory. When Kerry won the party's nomination, progressives rallied around him under the Anybody But Bush banner. The irony was unmistakable. The campaign of a candidate who voted to authorize the invasion of Iraq was being driven by his supporters' opposition to that very same decision. But in the spring of 2004, it seemed vastly more sensible to pick the ex-warrior to take on a self-described war president. In the following months, however, the Republicans would take each of Kerry's perceived strengths and turn it into a fatal weakness, be it his position or Iraq or his service in Vietnam. They paired his two votes on Iraq – the first to give Bush the power to launch the war and the other against an $87 billion appropriations bill – to paint him as a morally indecisive flip-flopper who couldn't be trusted to lead the country at a time of crisis.

The strategy worked because Kerry's position on Iraq suffered from the same key shortcomings that undermined his larger campaign. He was unable to articulate a clear moral position on one of the most important issues facing the nation and the world. When mocked by Bush for criticizing the very same war that he had authorized, Kerry responded with a complex argument about executive power: Bush as president should have been given the authority to wage war, but then bore the responsibility to do so only as a last resort. When that line of reasoning proved ineffective, he fell back on criticizing Bush's competence – the lack of a post-war plan, his poor diplomatic skills, intelligence failure, and on and on. While the evidence was damning, it lacked the moral resonance to counter the appeal of a presidency that offered certitude in an increasingly dangerous world.

"I don’t think you answer the language of faith with the language of more effective bureaucracy, which is essentially what John Kerry’s campaign presented – more effective bureaucrats of war," says Naomi Klein. A real answer required moral vision – it required Kerry to admit that the war, and therefore his vote to authorize it, was a terrible mistake.

The war is wrong, and most Americans know it. Unlike terrorism or the culture wars, Iraq is the one issue where progressives have successfully put the Bush administration on the defensive. The progressive voices have been powerful and compelling, standing steadfastly for compassion in the face of violence, whether speaking out on behalf of under-equipped soldiers or malnourished Iraqi children. Iraq may not have been enough reason for the American public to punish the Republicans in 2004, but all of Karl Rove's machinations are not going to make this political time bomb go away. A Washington Post poll conducted in December marked the first time when a decisive majority – 56 percent – of Americans have come to the conclusion that war is simply "not worth fighting." More importantly, a full 70 percent now believe that any gains to U.S. security from Saddam Hussein's departure have come at an "unacceptable" cost in military casualties. The survey also identifies a dangerous trend for the administration: support for the occupation is steadily shrinking to die-hard Republicans, while self-identified independents are becoming as skeptical as Democrats about the current Iraq policy.

So as the nation faces four more years of George Bush, it is the moral opposition to the U.S. occupation that offers the greatest opportunity to build a broad-based movement for change. But in order to succeed, the spontaneous, loose-knit anti-war effort built around marches and symbolic protests has to mature into a tightly organized, disciplined political campaign with a well-honed agenda – and plan of action. There are four key goals that everyone committed to ending the war in Iraq must work toward over the coming months: bring the soldiers home; support the creation of a genuinely democratic and stable Iraq; hone an effective anti-terrorism strategy that reflects a progressive foreign policy agenda; expand the anti-war movement.

Bringing the Soldiers Home

The occupation has to end. Each day that the U.S. stays in Iraq brings death and suffering for all involved. The devastation of Iraq is plain to see, even if impossible to measure, thanks to the Pentagon's refusal to count the Iraqi dead. Each day brings news of more civilian casualties, adding to the 100,000 already estimated by a Lancet study. No one knows how many more have been disabled, maimed, or traumatized by the U.S. efforts to bring freedom and democracy to their country.

The price of war on the occupiers, however, is more invisible. The 1,200-plus death toll does not begin to weigh the burdens of war being shouldered by American soldiers. It doesn't count the wounded, who represent a better measure of the price of war at a time when modern medicine is able to save someone's life despite horrific injuries. Atul Gawande described one such "lucky" survivor in the New England Journal of Medicine:

One airman with devastating injuries from a mortar attack outside Balad on September 11, 2004, was on an operating table at Walter Reed just 36 hours later. In extremis from bilateral thigh injuries, abdominal wounds, shrapnel in the right hand, and facial injuries, he was taken from the field to the nearby 31st CSH in Balad. Bleeding was controlled, volume resuscitation begun, a guillotine amputation at the thigh performed. He underwent a laparotomy with diverting colostomy. His abdomen was left open, with a clear plastic bag as covering. He was then taken to Landstuhl by an Air Force Critical Care Transport team. When he arrived in Germany, Army surgeons determined that he would require more than 30 days' recovery, if he made it at all. Therefore, although resuscitation was continued and a further washout performed, he was sent on to Walter Reed. There, after weeks in intensive care and multiple operations, he did survive. This is itself remarkable. Injuries like his were unsurvivable in previous wars. The cost, however, can be high. The airman lost one leg above the knee, the other in a hip disarticulation, his right hand, and part of his face. How he and others like him will be able to live and function remains an open question.

It's a very good question that no one in the media seems to be asking with any great urgency. The unnamed airman is among the 10,000 wounded that the Pentagon counts among the combat-related casualties of war, but there are tens of thousands of non-combat related injuries that are airbrushed out of this carefully edited picture of the occupation. More than 31,000 veterans have sought "disability" benefits for physical or psychological injuries. And most medical and military experts concede that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – which can lead to alcoholism, domestic abuse, homelessness, and suicide – could affect up to 75 percent of all returning soldiers. Let's not forget that a great number of these men and women are between 18 and 22 years old, their young lives destroyed by a cruel and futile war.

Yes, the costs of this occupation are indeed "unacceptable." But to bring the soldiers home, we need to develop a plan that pushes for the phased departure of U.S. troops rather than hold out for a Vietnam-style dramatic about-face. As Foreign Policy in Focus expert Erik Leaver points out in his five-point plan for a better strategy in Iraq, one of the initiatives should be to reduce troop presence as we shift both law and order and reconstruction duties on to the shoulders of Iraqis:

As a first step to withdrawal, the U.S. should declare an immediate cease-fire and reduce the number of troops deployed in Iraq. Increased offensive operations will only escalate the violence and make Iraq less secure and less safe. The U.S. should pull troops out of major cities so that greater manpower can be directed to guarding the borders to stem the flow of foreign fighters and money being used to fund the resistance.

If Iraqi security forces need assistance maintaining order, they have the option of inviting in regional forces, as proposed by Saudi Arabia. They could also reinstate the former Iraqi army, which was well-trained, after purging upper-level Saddam supporters and providing additional counterinsurgency training to deal with the current war. Once implemented, these measures would allow for total withdrawal of U.S. forces.

The other prong of this strategy would be to push for an end of the occupation first – i.e., to transfer the control of Iraq to a truly multinational force entrusted with the humanitarian task of rebuilding the nation and helping the Iraqi people gain control over their future. While the likes of former general Anthony Zinni are skeptical about the prospects of international assistance, we can't afford to not pursue the option. As long as the U.S. remains in charge, the insurgency will continue to grow, Iraqi security forces will be reluctant to take on the burden of defending an imperial project, and innocent Iraqis will remain trapped in the crossfire of an unjust war. "Who would come?" Zinni asked reporters when pressed on the possibility of international assistance. Well, it's time we made a good faith effort to raise that question. The world – especially the European and Arab nations – cannot afford a chaotic or unstable Iraq any more than the United States. An open willingness to cede real power – hardly the hallmark of the Bush policy – may well spark more enthusiasm amongst our allies.

A Democratic and Stable Iraq

Many anti-war Americans support one simple plan for Iraq: bring the troops home. There's been very little discussion of the fallout of such a strategy on the grounds that the very fact of removing the U.S. presence from Iraq will be an improvement per se. In other words, whatever the consequences – for Iraqis, the Middle East, or terrorism – it can only be better than what we have now. Before long, supporters of immediate withdrawal find themselves on difficult moral ground. Bill Maher, for example, is wont to argue that it's presumptuous to assume that Arabs want democracy or freedom. Others like Jonathan Schell argue that the only moral position is to leave Iraqis to their fate, whatever it may be:

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.

Underlying each of these arguments – including Schell's – is the assumption that a U.S.-led plan for a viable democracy in Iraq is simply not possible. As a result, we find ourselves advocating for one set of values at home – equality, freedom, economic security – while jettisoning them in the name of advocating a lesser evil in Iraq. So where Bush talks of Iraqis' rights to a better future – however self-servingly – we speak only of our rights to the same. Bring our soldiers home so that: our sons and daughters can be safe; our communities can prosper; our lives will be more secure. These are all sane and reasonable positions, but they lack moral force. We repeatedly take the president to task for lying about his plan to bring freedom and security to Iraq, but we refuse to advocate for policies that would force him to do so.

The other troubling aspect of the get-the-hell-out position is the glaring absence of any sense of moral responsibility. As Naomi Klein pointed out in her column, Colin Powell was half-right about the "You-break-it, You-own-it" Pottery Barn rule: "The failure to develop a credible platform beyond 'troops out' may be one reason the anti-war movement remains stalled, even as opposition to the war deepens. Because the Pottery Barn rulers do have a point: Breaking a country should have consequences for the breakers. Owning the broken country should not be one of them, but how about paying for the repairs?"

We can't simply turn our backs on the millions of Iraqis – who lack basic necessities like water, electricity, food or medical care – just because many of us didn't vote for the man who caused their suffering. Is it moral for us to leave them to die in the crossfire of a violent civil war, fueled by extremists that we created? Chaos creates a political vacuum that is almost always filled by the power-hungry and the ruthless. So what will a Taliban-style regime in Iraq mean for Iraqi women? What effects will it have on the rest of the Middle East, which is already a tinderbox waiting for the careless spark of instability? Will an unstable Iraq really improve hopes for a genuine and just peace in the Middle East? These are not questions that we can afford to shrug off in the heat of anti-war rhetoric. Taken together, they constitute a giant question mark about the connection between our politics and our values.

The first order of business for the anti-war movement, therefore, must be to recover its moral footing by becoming, in Klein's words, "a pro-democracy movement." We must take the president at his word and force him to deliver on the promise of freedom. We were right in claiming that no good could come of invading Iraq. But being right doesn't excuse us from the obligation of doing right by the Iraqi people. We can and should both call for an end to the occupation and for a brighter future for Iraq.

Toward a Progressive Security Policy

The greatest failing of the Kerry campaign was that it never put the war in Iraq – or Bush's decision to wage it – on trial, but instead confirmed the dominant wisdom that the anti-war position was simply too far outside the mainstream to merit consideration. Yet simply opposing the war would not have solved the Democratic Party's problems. Kerry's greater weakness was that he never fully articulated an alternative Iraq policy. His arguments were instead based on defending the status quo – a weakness that characterizes traditional liberal politics in general, be it on foreign policy or the economy. It's no accident that Kerry harped ceaselessly on the administration's policy of unilateralism, which he painted as a dangerous break from the central tenets of U.S. foreign policy-making since the Second World War. Other than vague statements about bringing in allies or working with the UN, Kerry had little to offer voters except a promise to return to the traditional multilateral approach. His message: let's go back to the old way of doing things. Republicans immediately responded by accusing him of having a pre-9/11 mentality. It was an especially damaging accusation at a time when 75 percent of Bush voters in October still believed that Saddam Hussein was connected in one way or another to al Qaeda.

Kerry's problems reflect a deeper weakness in the anti-war movement. In a post-9/11 era, opposition to a war – however immoral or dangerous the war – will never gain wide support unless it also addresses the American public's genuine fears of terrorism. The Bush "war on terror" offers a simple strategy: take the fight to the enemy by whatever means necessary. It's an approach that ensures blanket support for almost any measure that the administration might choose to take in the name of this war, be it invading Iraq or rounding up immigrants without a trial. As a result, even though many Bush voters no longer supported the occupation of Iraq, they still voted for the president. People who are scared will not abandon a leader who is doing something to fight terrorism just because it's not working. Americans needed to hear a clear, well-thought-out alternative plan to keep them safe. Neither Kerry nor the anti-war movement gave them that choice.

This void offers the perfect window of opportunity for so-called liberal hawks eager to jump on the war on terror bandwagon. In December, Peter Beinart, the editor of The New Republic, created a stir with an article titled, "A Fighting Faith," which accused liberals of ignoring the peril of "totalitarian Islam" in a post-9/11 world. The only way forward, Beinart argued, is to create a more muscular, hawkish version of liberalism, which would embrace the use of force, push for development-oriented economic aid, and most importantly, purge the liberal movement of anyone who dissents – namely Michael Moore and MoveOn. The essay was equally cavalier in its use of the word "totalitarian" to describe all Islam, as it was in painting progressives as lily-livered "softs."

For the most part, Beinart was less interested in making "an argument for a new liberalism," than using Kerry's defeat to lobby for a brand of hawkish Democratic politics that was with us long before John F. Kennedy blundered into the Bay of Pigs. Yet it's an argument that requires a response if the anti-war movement is to be taken seriously. The most significant obstacle in building an effective opposition to the war is the perception that all progressives are "soft" on terrorism. In other words, we're not interested in battling any foe, period – be it Saddam or al Qaeda. The charge is, of course, unfair and untrue. "The dynamic is simple – we've been in the opposition and on defense," MoveOn founder Wes Boyd told Salon recently. "So when the president says that the way to fight terrorism is to fight a war in Iraq, the opposition says, 'Wait a second, are you insane?' That's perceived as not caring about terrorism." Boyd, however, thinks it's now time to go on the offensive with "the development of a security policy that is strong and hard."

The threat of terrorism is real. It poses a threat to innocent people around the world, be it in a building in Manhattan, a nightclub in Bali, a school bus in Tel Aviv, the mountains of Kashmir or the streets of Baghdad. We must be as fierce in our opposition to extremism abroad as we are at home. So far we have been content to critique the policies of the Bush administration, offering only a few scattered suggestions in response. But a proposal to check commercial cargo on an airplane or strengthen the ports just seems like more "gotcha" politics in the absence of a coherent security policy. And given our sensitivity to the complex realities of global politics, progressives, in fact, are better suited to craft an effective, pragmatic strategy than the chest-thumping hawks on either side of the aisle.

For all the energy and resources progressives have invested in specific international issues over the years – Vietnam, Iran-Contra, and now Iraq – no coherent foreign policy vision has emerged. Progressives have been defined instead by dissent. When the Soviet Union fell, the neoconservatives saw it as an opportunity for a far-reaching, aggressive vision of U.S. military power. Progressives instead got busy pushing for cuts in Pentagon spending or moved on to protesting globalization. It's time to think big and think positive. As Gary Hart put it in an LA Times op-ed, it is time for a "new grand strategy:

A grand strategy is simply the application of a nation's powers to the achievement of larger purposes. I would argue we have three such purposes: to ensure security (both for ourselves and, where possible, for others), to expand opportunity and to promote liberal democracy around the world. And to achieve them, we can harness three powers – economic, political and military – far superior to anyone else's. Our economy is larger than the next four or five national economies combined. We have an unrivaled diplomatic and political network. And soon we will spend more on our military than the rest of the world combined.

But we also have a fourth power, shared by few, if any, other great nations in history. That power is contained in our founding principles, the constitutional statement of who we are, what we believe and how we have chosen to govern ourselves. The idea that government exists to protect, not oppress, the individual has an enormous power not fully understood by most Americans, who take this principle for granted from birth. Far more nations will follow us because of the power of this ideal than because of the might of all our weapons.

The Anti-War Movement of Tomorrow

Iraq is still the linchpin of the progressive movement. It has the potential to become the galvanizing issue of a broad-based, re-energized grassroots effort that reaches far beyond our traditional allies. As the Bush administration continues to pursue its failing strategy in Iraq, there is no doubt that the war will grow steadily more unsustainable. As Tom Hayden points out, the months to come will offer valuable opportunities to reach out to soldiers and their families who are becoming rapidly disenchanted with an occupation that is wearing them thin. Veteran groups will grow more vocal and so will moderate Republicans who are no longer ready to remain silent in the name of party unity, giving us the opportunity to grow stronger and more powerful than ever before. Growing a movement is also not just about numbers. Unless anti-war activists begin connecting the war to broader issues – be it freedom, economic opportunity, or patriotism – our voices will never be heard by the vast number of Americans for whom the violence is just another gruesome image on television. If we stick to single-issue politics as usual, the outcome is also going to remain unchanged. The occupation of Iraq represents a historic moment when we can do more than just reignite the anti-war constituency. It can also kickstart a powerful movement to transform all aspects of America. This is why an anti-war strategy must reflect and inform a broader moral and political vision with principles that apply equally at home and abroad.

The task is indeed a difficult one. There are significant trade-offs between the goals outlined above – tensions that need to be acknowledged and addressed. For example, can we bring our soldiers home and fulfill our responsibility toward the Iraqi people? Will talk of reparations limit the efforts to broaden the anti-war movement? There are no simple answers to these questions, which test our moral judgment and priorities. Even Boyd, of MoveOn, admits to being torn: "Our membership is split on immediate withdrawal versus the sense that if you break it's yours to take care of. I feel that same split myself."

Perhaps we all could do well to learn from some of the very soldiers we want to bring home. Denver Jones, an Army reserve specialist who suffered a spine-shattering injury in Iraq, speaks not of his own suffering but that of the Iraqis: "Just because someone is in a 'Third World' country, they're not different than I am. They're human beings and one of God's children. Because I have been blessed with the opportunity to achieve what I have, it doesn't mean that as a human being that I'm more deserving or any better than they are." Though the 35-year old former UPS mechanic would likely never see himself this way, he represents the very best of progressive values. Let's not ask any less of ourselves.

Lakshmi Chaudhry is Senior Editor of AlterNet. She is co-author, with Robert Scheer and Christopher Scheer, of AlterNet’s book, 'The Five Biggest Lies Bush Told Us About Iraq.'