Calls for Withdrawal from Iraq Echoing in Washington

Congressional debate finally has turned to an exit strategy from Iraq after an interminable period of dominance by proponents of war and occupation, as a result of the Sept. 15 hearing on withdrawal chaired by Rep. Lynn Woolsey. Twenty-nine members of Congress attended the four-hour forum, including one Republican, Rep. Walter Jones of North Carolina.

After next week's massive anti-war demonstrations, Congress is expected to increase its gradual exploration of how to get out of Iraq. Activists who attended the hearing are demanding a specific exit strategy resolution. A critical moment will come in January 2006, the start of the election year, when Bush is likely to send a request for another $100 billion in Iraq funding on top of $100-plus billion for Hurricane Katrina. According to the Wall Street Journal, "cutting spending on Iraq is Americans' top choice for financing the recovery from Katrina."

Despite the hearing and intensified anti-war pressure, there remains a huge gap between the minimum demands of the anti-war movement and the maximum that Congressional representatives are able or willing to offer, at least in the short run. But a deep unease runs through both parties and the military. The original neo-conservative "vision" of a quick victory in Baghdad followed by invasions of Syria and Iran seems out of the question (although a sudden bombing of Iran's nuclear site remains possible).

The situation is deteriorating for the Bush Administration. The war continues in the heart of Baghdad while U.S. troops roam around the border. The failed "constitutional process," patched up by a last-minute "codicil," has devolved into a sectarian war with US-backed Kurds and Shiites on one side, and marginalized Sunnis and oppositionists on the other. The coalition of the willing has become the coalition of the vanishing. Troop pullouts by Italy (3,000), Poland (1,700), Ukraine (1,600), and Bulgaria (400) are scheduled by December. Britain is expected to remove 3,000 of its 8,500 troops as well.

And Democrats, slowly, painfully, pathetically, are beginning their reconsideration. The internal strategic thinking of party leaders was summarized by one member as: "The Republicans can declare victory and leave, but the Democrats can only declare failure and be blamed." Such reasoning leads to abdication of any opposition to the war. But that has begun to change.

One example came in the testimony of former Sen. Max Cleland at the Woolsey hearing. A Vietnam veteran and one of Sen. John Kerry's "band of brothers" in 2004, Cleland issued a Democratic radio message only a month ago in which he said the U.S. should have "a strategy to win or an exit strategy to get out." But by the Woolsey hearing, Cleland had moved to a passionate call for an exit strategy, period:

"Now, however, I have concluded that the best way to support our troops is with an exit strategy from Iraq. We need an exit strategy we choose or it will certainly be chosen for us. The question about Iraq is not whether we will withdraw our forces, but when."
Cleland also testified that "according to a four-star general, there was a five-year plan for the military occupation of the Middle East" before the occupation became bogged down.

In this context, the Woolsey exit strategy hearing was an awakening from dormancy, a challenge to party leaders, and a revelation of new perspectives and the outlines of a possible alternative to Administration policy.

Rep. Jim McDermott became the first congressperson to respond to a July call for "citizen diplomacy" by opening talks with the numerous Iraqis who demand U.S. withdrawal. McDermott traveled to Amman on August 29-31 for conversations with Iraqi exiles and Jordanians.

At the Woolsey hearing, McDermott said he was told that Moktada Al-Sadr, an Arab Shiite, would join with Sunnis in struggling against the occupation and new "constitution." He reported a widespread feeling that the U.S. purpose is to leave Iraq divided and weakened. His contacts proposed an "Arab summit," called by a widely-respected, non-American mediator, to develop a political solution. The alternative, he was told, would be a minimum of 15 more years of war and civil war. Below are some of the key elements to a successful Arab summit.

Political settlement with sunnis and opposition. Surprisingly, the nonpartisan congressional analyst Dr. Kenneth Katzman pointed to the key political solution when he testified that the conflict "could be resolved this afternoon if we bring the Sunnis in." There was no disagreement from Congress members or other panelists as Katzman described the failures of the Administration to either "overwhelm" the Sunnis or "pressure them to join."

In addition to a political accommodation with the Sunnis, there was unanimity on several other key points.

Creating a peace envoy. Marine General Joseph Hoar (ret.) proposed a "paradigm shift that places a major political figure in charge, a special envoy" to move the political process forward. Former Air Force official Antonia Chayes proposed a "third-party mediation process" including someone like former Sen. George Mitchell.

There was no discussion, however, of the key issue of opening peace talks with insurgents, a key point of the exit strategy petition proposed by peace groups.

Proposing and enacting military de-escalation steps. Hoar, Chayes and other witnesses all supported the end of search-and-destroy missions, and the only Iraqi-American witness, Anas Shallal argued for the release or reduction of inmates rounded up in sweeps. Chayes supported the end of the "war-fighting" mission its replacement by "peace-keeping" and "stability" functions during the diplomatic and mediation processes. Ambassador Mack proposed that U.S. forces move out of Iraqi cities into temporary bases.

No one testified in favor of plans for immediate withdrawal. Witnesses were divided over a one-year timetable for withdrawal, as envisioned in the Woolsey and Feingold plans. On the other hand, all of the witnesses opposed the open-ended "stay the course" position of the Bush administration.

Declaring no interest in permanent bases or control of Iraq's oil. There was strong consensus in favor of such an immediate declaration.

Funding real reconstruction. There appeared to be consensus that economic reconstruction should be pledged through new mechanisms free of the present dominance of U.S. contractors. Gen. Hoar testified that "development projects should put everyone to work who wishes to be employed. Our country has apparently forgotten the CCC experience of the 1930s in which tens of thousands of unemployed Americans were put to work on public works projects."

In general, the testimony, largely provided by mainstream experts from military, diplomatic, and political institutional cultures, revealed a sharp difference from the Bush Administration while not embracing the explicit withdrawal plan demanded by the peace movement. However, the points of agreement should be incorporated as a starting point for further hearings. To summarize, those consensus points were

  1. Declaration that the U.S. has no strategic interest in permanent bases or oil.
  2. De-escalation of offensive operations.
  3. Political settlement with Sunnis and opponents of occupation.
  4. Appointment of a peace envoy or mediator
  5. Commitment to reconstruction based on Iraqi economic needs, with U.S. funding.

Proposals 1, 3, 4, and 5 closely overlap the proposals made in the exit strategy petition, which was presented with 25,000 signatures at the hearing.

The chief point of difference is over announcing total military withdrawal itself, with a timetable. The petition calls for declaring as goals the withdrawal of troops and end of occupation "in months," combined with an initial troop withdrawal gesture before January 2006. The petition would add the declaration of intent to withdraw to the declarations.

A major issue needing clarification is how elements of the Iraqi resistance and the larger Sunni community can be brought into a peace process and settlement. There seemed to be consensus that the administration's current course will not work. Options to be discussed might include the proposed envoy working directly and indirectly through third parties to achieve local peace agreements and transfer of power to Iraqis, ending the sectarian character of the so-called Iraqi armed forces, conceding electoral districts to the disenfranchised Sunnis, and the release of prisoners and closure of Abu Ghraib.

There are numerous experts on these subjects who were not invited, including those at the Project on Defense Alternatives, Dr. Gareth Porter and many others. Above all, voices of the Iraqi opposition need to be heard in the process immediately. The blackout on their existence needs to end. All existing surveys show a majority consensus among Iraqis themselves, at least among Sunnis and Shiites, that U.S. troops must go and the occupation must end. The only differences are around subordinate issues of sequencing and timing. The U.S. is not only siding with sectarian parties (Shiite and Kurdish) in a civil war but is intervening against the will of a majority of Iraqis in the name of "democracy."

Next steps will include:
  1. Sept. 25 national meeting to plan congressional district campaigns for the exit strategy. (Contact Progressive Democrats of America)
  2. Propose that congressional progressives draft and introduce a concrete exit strategy resolution for debate and vote.
  3. Consensus-building on exit strategy with women's groups, clergy, labor, black and Latino activists.
  4. Building grass-roots support for the petition, working alongside counter-recruitment campaigns and organizations supporting progressive budget priorities.

The gap between our position and the institutional Democratic leadership (reflecting as they do much of the corporate, media and military establishments) remains enormous, seemingly unbridgeable, but they are beginning to "reposition" themselves in light of the situation.

In a Sept. 6 memo to his Senate Democratic colleagues, Sen. Joseph Biden clearly reveals the state of thinking of these Democratic hawks. It is worth noting the modest, but measurable, evolution in his thinking. He starts by asking the question "are we doing more harm than good by staying in Iraq in large numbers?" exactly the question all fence-sitters come to sooner or later. And of course, he hasn't decided, which means he supports the war and occupation. But the status quo, he realizes, may not be sustainable. He worries about public opinion. And therefore he begins to borrow the words and rhetoric of the exit strategy advocates without yet embracing the substance:

  1. "without Sunni buy-in, the constitution cannot unify Iraq -- it will fatally divide it. [we are headed for ] the worst of all worlds."
  2. The President must state "clearly and repeatedly" that "we do not seek permanent military bases in Iraq or to control its oil."
  3. "The President should immediately name a senior regional envoy" to convene a regional conference.

The Bidens can be pressured and persuaded to tiptoe along their present path -- if the peace movement keeps intensifying the pressure, and if the winds of public opinion keep blowing. The tragedy of it all is that millions of Iraqis continue to suffer and struggle.

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