Lakshmi Chaudhry

AlterNet Senior Editor Lakshmi Chaudhry responds to the comments from Jonathan Schell, Kamil Mahdi, Tom Hayden and Erik Leaver, all of whom wrote responses to Chaudhry's "Rethinking Iraq" article posted on AlterNet last Thursday.

First, I want to thank all of you for taking the time to respond to my essay. I see this as a valuable opportunity to kickstart an important debate over the future of the anti-war movement – a debate that AlterNet hopes to encourage and nurture in the coming weeks and months.

That said, let me begin by clarifying my position, which has been misunderstood by some of you as advocating the continuation of the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Tom especially seems to read my position as advocating "a formula for aggression with a human face." In his version, the Bush policy is to continue the occupation by other means – i.e. a proxy Iraqi regime; my position is to support occupation as a means toward other ends – i.e. a stable and democratic Iraq.

This is entirely wrong. I believe the occupation must end, the earlier the better. I, however, define occupation as much broader than – and not necessarily defined by – the presence of U.S. troops. The U.S. occupation of Iraq, in my mind, consists of absolute control over every aspect of that nation. Be it the control over reconstruction contracts, Paul Bremer's iron-clad directives to transform Iraq into a free market outpost of corporate America, brutal air strikes in the name of maintaining law and order, or the political engineering that takes the shape of illegitimate interim governments or sham elections, the United States exerts absolute power over the lives of the Iraqi people. This is wrong and must end immediately.

So when I talk about ending the occupation, what I have in mind is the transfer of power to an international coalition charged with working closely with all the major players in Iraq – be it Shia, Sunni or the Kurds – to create the conditions of real democracy and sovereignty in Iraq. These would include a genuine reconstruction effort – led by Iraqis – to both undo the damage wreaked by the U.S. assault and subsequent occupation, and revive the Iraqi economy by creating jobs and opportunity. So no Halliburton contracts or paying "contracted mercenaries," as Kamil would have it. The "credible politcal process" that Kamil wants requires stability and so the multinational forces would serve a peacekeeping role, but only in conjunction with Iraqi security forces. It's not too late to declare a general amnesty as a step toward reassembling the police and military forces dismantled by the United States.

Genuine self-representation also requires more than just a hastily-held election. As we've seen in East Timor, the UN can be entrusted with the task of creating the institutions and structures — a Constitution, effective judicial system, political governing system etc. — in consultation with Iraqi leaders, rather than handpicked U.S. proxies. Moreover, much of the groundwork for such a transfer can be laid now, while the United States is still in control. The Project of Defense Alternatives sets out a series of steps that the U.S. can take to transfer real power to Iraqi authorities — all of which would serve to reduce troop levels and American control.

I don't want to get bogged down in policy details – which is best left to experts – but clearly what I'm advocating would not look like an "occupation" in any sense of the word. Now as for Jonathan's position that any plan for democracy in Iraq cannot be U.S.-led – this seems unrealistic to me. We control the country at this time, and so we must be the ones to come up with a plan to transfer control to an Iraqi-led process that has international support and financing. We can't just leave and hope for the best.

This is where our debt – and our moral obligation – to the Iraqis comes into the picture. We're the ones who have devastated their nation – destroyed their infrastructure, public institutions, livelihood, oil production capacity, entire cities, and on and on. So how can we say it is not our responsibility to undo the damage? The bulk of the nation-building mission must be financed by the United States. It should also require limited participation of U.S. military forces — but now entrusted with mostly civilian humanitarian tasks and not law and order. It's ironic that many of the same progressives who pushed for the U.S. to do more for the victims of the Asian tsunami — assistance that included not just dollars but also the participation of U.S. soldiers in relief efforts — would claim that we are incapable of participating in a humanitarian mission in Iraq. And this is a mission that has been made necessary because of our own misdeeds and not a force of nature. Perhaps the real issue here, to echo Erik's question, is whether the U.S. can do good in the world. Kamil, Tom, and to a lesser extent, Jonathan, seem to think not, while I have greater faith in the idea of a benevolent United States. Just because we haven't seen our country play such a role, doesn't mean it isn't possible. And at least some of the responsibility falls on our shoulders for not coming up with an alternative vision of the U.S. as a global power.

Finally, when it comes to the role of the anti-war movement, I am again far more optimistic than either Kamil or Jonathan. Where Kamil is skeptical as to whether we can have any effect on the outcome in Iraq, Jonathan doubts if we can force Bush to deliver on his promise of democracy, while he doesn't explain why he thinks we can force Bush to immediately withdraw troops. I do indeed see the anti-war effort as the "other superpower," with the capacity to be every bit as powerful as any other people's movement for justice. Yes, we've had our share of failures, as in our failure to stop the war or effect policy so far. But if initial defeat were enough reason to give up, no movement for change would ever succeed. That Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday is just around the corner should be sufficient reminder of the hard road to justice. In fact, the civil rights movement succeeded by holding white America accountable to its rhetoric of freedom and equality – even though many of those in power were using the same language to justify their racism.

But we cannot win if we cede the very basis of our power, which is our moral standing. I do think we can have good, if not better, luck by advocating for the welfare of the Iraqi people and the end of the occupation — rather than catering to the "me first" attitude that attacks the war as a waste of money better spent at home. What could be more powerful than demanding that the Bush administration spend the $18.4 billion allocated by Congress and the American public to pay for Iraq's reconstruction on doing just that? When the occupation ends, that same money and more can and should be transferred to the humanitarian mission.

Of course, as I suggest in my article, there are hard choices to be made between the four goals that I outlined. Talking about our responsibility toward Iraq may well undermine our efforts to broaden the reach of the movement, which is every bit as necessary, as Erik and I suggest. The bottom line is that charting the future strategy of the anti-war movement is not going to be easy or straight-forward. There is no simple answer — and that includes chanting our favorite mantra, "immediate withdrawal."

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