In Defense of Bugging Out

For some months, the conventional wisdom has been that whether or not you thought the occupation of Iraq was a good idea, now that we're there, "we've got to get it right." More troops, more money, better leadership, better decisions -- whatever it takes. We are in a "test of resolve," a "time to come together and meet this great challenge we face." We can't "abandon" Iraq until it's "stabilized" and "democratic."

Columnist Cynthia Tucker, a critic of the war, expressed this clearly Monday, in reaction to the news that the Bush administration has reversed field and is going to, in the vernacular of Texan Molly Ivins, bug out. "If we clear out too soon, we may be setting the stage for Armageddon in the Middle East before 2008," writes Tucker. "And we'll be sending a message to hundreds of American families that their sons and daughters died for nothing."

Unfortunately, the conventional wisdom is dead wrong. It is based on the same confabulation of circular logic, paternalistic neocolonialism, faulty intelligence, fuzzy morality and lack of historical perspective that sucked us into the vortex of war in Indochina 40 years ago. And when it naively supposes that the mainstream hopes for this war -- a defeat for tyranny and terrorism, the spread of peace and democracy -- match up with the goals of those who are actually at the helm of power, it completely collapses.

The documents, arguments and decisions underpinning the White House's big roll of the dice in Mesopotamia make it clear that this war is about projecting raw power to remind the world who is boss and accrue our rewards accordingly. Arab democracy, nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the war on terrorism have always been afterthoughts if not fig leafs for this invasion. The conventional wisdom turns a blind eye to the layer upon layer of phony motives the Administration has lobbed out to defend the war since its marketing campaign was launched in August 2002.

First pitched as a roundhouse blow in response to 9/11, the rationale for invading Iraq was amended by the President at various times to be a mercy mission for the Iraqi people; a defense against the use or proliferation of certain classes of weapons; or a way to bring enlightenment to the benighted Arab world. Skeptics, bless their hearts, thought oil, Israel and hooking up Bechtel and Halliburton with juicy reconstruction contracts were maybe a tad more prominent in the thinking of the war's architects.

Actually, some war supporters are clearer on this issue of motives. They don't much care that Iraq's blowhard dictator turned out to be more Wizard of Oz than Adolph Hitler, that his vaunted weapons programs was a joke and his huge army little more than a week's cannon fodder for the U.S. juggernaut. Nor do they waste much time worrying about the fact that Saddam Hussein had never had an alliance with Al Qaeda, but had been supported for decades by the United States. Many of these folks agreed with neoconservative Michael Ledeen of the American Enterprise Institute, who said, "Every 10 years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business."

There's a certain consistency in this inconsistency, which amounts to something along the lines of, "I don't care what goes on over there -- gas lines, suicide bombings, human rights abuses -- as long as you make sure no more of it gets back here."

But the conventional wisdom is much different. Essentially liberal, it has changed little since the 60s, when it was the position of a generation of Democrats and moderate Republicans who naively endorsed taking the nation down into a muddy trench called Vietnam. This tortuous stance is doomed to failure, predicated as it is on employing brute power and overwhelming firepower in a far-off land to forge something as delicate and diaphanous as democracy and a lasting social compact.

A year ago, we encountered the same mushy thinking, as moderates again prematurely endorsed a war before the country could digest the potential consequences. The results to date of our uninvited and unilateral occupation of a dysfunctional nation were predictable: A whirlpool of confusion, moral ambiguity, opportunism, nihilism, exhaustion and suffering.

Reports in recent days indicate that beneath its relentless bravado, the Administration may be working behind the scenes on a way to get out of Iraq before next year's election and still save face. But our official position is clear: We have promised not just the destruction of a foul regime but also the gift of peace, prosperity and democracy to an entire region. Why do we Americans persist in believing that such a gift is in our power to give?

I believe it is because many of us so badly want to believe it is. Like the utopian Protestant cults that landed here almost four centuries ago, as a people we are a sucker for fantasies of moral progress and our own moral nobility. Having been rewarded by God with the Best Damn Country on Planet Earth, we are used to seeing ourselves as the chosen people of the modern world, and whether it is a time of peace or war we believe our touch is golden. For sentimental hawks, this means using our powers as a cleansing fire, a destroyer of moral pestilence; for tough-talking doves, it is hoped the Marines and Rangers can provide cover for Amnesty International and USAID to do their thing.

In the last quarter century, the outcomes of our military engagements have been mixed. Not worrying about the Soviets has allowed the U.S. a freer hand to try its hand at playing a little good cop, even while keeping national and corporate interests at the forefront, of course. In Panama, we recalled our own dictator; in Kosovo, we helped diminished an outbreak of acute misery. It is less clear what we accomplished in Haiti, but it seems to have been a good-faith effort. Beirut and Somalia were disasters for us and them, while the first Gulf War protected a dictatorship in Kuwait and abandoned Kurdish and Shiite rebellions in the north and south after egging them on. In Afghanistan we mildly disrupted a terrorist network and chose warlords over religious fanatics to run the place, which is arguably an improvement.

In Iraq, however, it seems the White House is shooting for the moon -- and paying only lip service to the hallowed ideals of post-WWII nation building and "democratization." For those who disliked the CIA's habit from the '50s through the '80s of casually knocking off progressive-minded, elected foreign leaders and replacing them with kings and generals, it should be noted that Iraq at least is a change of pace. By disbanding the country's military and bureaucracy, then letting the country be systematically looted for weeks on end, L. Paul Bremer and the American Coalition Provisional Authority officials running Baghdad have created a scenario more in keeping with China's Cultural Revolution than the installation of Pinochet as pro-capitalist tyrant in Chile.

Iraqis are not so much being abused by their new, self-appointed ruler as they are being tortured by chaos -- no jobs, no security, nobody to whom they can bring their grievances. Armed troops that don't speak the local language may come to your neighborhood in the night and take away the men in blindfolds. A miscommunication at a checkpoint and you and your family may end up dead. Protests and labor union actions are in most cases illegal. If the occupying troops shoot your brother during a raid, there will be no formal investigation as to why and how it happened. There is still no clear plan or timetable for how power will be handed over to Iraqis (or the UN), or which Iraqis will get to make the key decisions about how to rebuild the country. Because of paternalistic hubris and a lack of security, the occupiers and the contractors they have hired to do reconstruction operate with a bunker mentality, inaccessible and remote from "the natives."

But perhaps this is too negative; our own government would have us believe that there is more good news in Iraq than bad, and that things are improving every day. I cannot personally dispute this, although there are many there who do. But in fact, it doesn't matter: Under Bush's leadership we are not committed to leaving Iraq slightly less beat up and traumatized than we found it. Even if we believe the White House's rosy depiction of progress in Iraq, it is clear we are a long way from delivering peace and prosperity.

In the end, Iraq in 2003 is not Indochina in 1965, and things could turn out differently. But we must acknowledge we are supporting essentially the same goal we pursued to such tragic results for more than a dozen years in Vietnam -- to transform a country into a compliant clone of the United States, despite the fact that said country seems to have very different ideas of what it would like to become, and how it would like to get there.

Christopher Scheer is a staff writer for AlterNet. He is co-author of "The Five Biggest Lies Bush Told Us About Iraq."

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