Stuck In Baghdad? Yeah, Right

It is no longer justifiable for reasonable people to support the war in Iraq, if it ever was. At this point, "staying the course" is neither logically nor morally defensible.

Believing in the war's ever-shifting goals and in the competence and motivation of those tasked to accomplish them is no longer a matter of ideology or party affiliation. When it comes to facts on the ground, we have reached a moment of clear division between the "reality-based community" and those willing to accept the storyline of the day from proven liars in the White House and the Pentagon.

We're almost back to the days of the "Five O'Clock Follies," when the military told a frankly disbelieving press corps that everything was going swimmingly in Vietnam. Now, top commanders testify to Congress that we have little hope of "winning" in Iraq, and then go on the cable news show circuit and say that just the opposite is true.

With such a stark disconnect, it's no longer possible to tolerate differences about whether the war should be seen through to its questionable end.

We're not stuck in Iraq for the reasons the foreign policy elite in Washington would have us believe. We're not stuck there by history, or by the threat of the country devolving into civil war (although that's a troubling reality we need to face). We're stuck in Iraq because we have a leadership that wants to be "stuck" there, and a strategic class that lives in a bubble formed of its own endlessly repeated blather about "Vietnam syndromes" and "failed states" and "Powell doctrines." And we're stuck because making Iraq into an example of U.S. dominance and undoing the taint of Vietnam, or "finishing what we started" during the first Gulf War remain the goals of other constituents in Bush's foreign policy world.

But most of all, we're stuck in Iraq because the burden of fighting the war has fallen disproportionally on rural, small-town America -- on the poor and the middle class -- while the benefits of a wide-open, ultra-liberal Iraqi economy and access to what may be the world's largest oil reserves are still on course to line the pockets of the administration's backers. And as long as they have the cover of pro-war Democrats and the shelter of their liberal media conspiracy theories, it's a lot easier for them to pretend things aren't as bad as they obviously are in Iraq, and "stuck" we will remain.

As Antonia Juhasz wrote in the Los Angeles Times:

The Bush administration has succeeded in maintaining a stranglehold on issues such as public versus private ownership of resources, foreign access to Iraqi oil and U.S. control of the reconstruction effort -- all of which are still governed by administration policies put into place immediately after the invasion. The Bush economic agenda favors foreign interests -- American interests -- over Iraqi self-determination.
Is it worth the loss of American blood and treasure to "stay the course" in the hope that Iraq will become safe for foreign investors, or should we get out as soon as we can without making matters much worse than they are today? Keep in mind that Donald Rumsfeld told Fox News that "Insurgencies tend to go on five, six, eight, 10, 12 years."

The argument that we can't "cut and run" is as seductive as it is illogical: we broke Iraq, and now we have to put it back together. It's a moral argument that the public can't ignore, and, worst of all, it's a crutch for the Democratic establishment to keep the "get out of Iraq" position of its supporters at arm's length.

But it has three fatal problems. First, it assumes that the only way we can hope to influence the outcome in Iraq is through military occupation. Second, it ignores the Catch-22 that's plagued the Iraq adventure from the beginning: the fact that the occupation itself -- our military presence in yet another Muslim country -- is the primary source of instability. Finally, it assumes that we can learn from our mistakes and change our policies in Iraq -- that we can do the job better.

All of these are faith-based arguments, and we have to reject them. We would be well served to remember that U.S. troops remained in the Philippines for 94 years after we "liberated" them from the Spanish, and they remain today in Japan 61 years after its surrender and in Korea 52 years after the ceasefire that ended that "police action."

As Representative Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who introduced a bill preventing the U.S. from entering into long-term basing deals in Iraq, recently wrote:
The Chicago Tribune reported on the construction of 14 "enduring bases" in Iraq. ... [The] Washington Post described the military's plan to consolidate military personnel in Iraq into four massive "contingency operating bases." According to the Congressional Research Service, Emergency Supplemental funds appropriated for military construction in Iraq for fiscal years 2001 to 2005 total more than $805 million, with the vast majority, more than $597 million, coming in the 2005 fiscal year.
Lee added, "No one disputes that many of the installations under construction are of a physically permanent character." And Iraqis know that as well as anyone.

Why it's immoral to stay the course

Staying the course -- as flawed as it has been -- is not what the majority of Iraqis want, not what the majority of Americans want, and not in the security interests of the citizens of either nation.

Iraqis' desire for the occupation to end, while on the one hand apparent, also goes largely unreported by the mainstream media. In May 2004, the Coalition Provisional Authority conducted a poll of Iraqis and found that 97 percent viewed the U.S. forces as "occupiers," while only 2 percent saw them as 'liberators.'

A Zogby opinion poll conducted in January found that 82 percent of Sunnis and 69 percent of Shiites were in favor of the withdrawal of American and coalition forces "either immediately or after an elected government is in place." Meanwhile, a New York Times/CBS news poll of Americans released two weeks ago found U.S. support of the war "at an all-time low."

We're told that the reason we have to stay, despite the desires of both the Iraqi and American peoples, is that 1) to do otherwise would precipitate civil war and 2) we need to fight "them" over there so we don't fight them in our own backyards.

But as Juan Cole, the University of Michigan's Middle-East expert, told me, "There's already a low-level, unconventional civil war in Iraq. When twenty or thirty guys end up dead in an alleyway each morning, that's a civil war." He differentiated between the low-level civil conflict that exists in Iraq and larger "set-piece" wars such as the one he experienced in Lebanon during the 1980s.

As for the "flypaper theory" -- that we're fighting them there so we don't have to fight them here -- advanced by the Bush administration and its supporters, it has been debunked so thoroughly that to repeat it is to show one's contempt for reality.

For the most part, we are not fighting "militants," but normal, pissed-off Iraqis. According to a Reuters story about a recent report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, "Non-Iraqi militants made up less than 10 percent of the insurgents' ranks -- perhaps even half that." What's more, "Most were motivated by 'revulsion at the idea of an Arab land being occupied by a non-Arab country.'"

When I asked Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., about this, he said, "As long as our troops are there they're going to be a continued irritant in the situation, partly because -- and this is a very important point -- the troops are just kids put into a foreign land where they don't know who the enemy is and they don't know the language.

"So they protect themselves and innocent Iraqis get killed, and that fans the fires of the insurgency. Whose fault is it? The administration's, not the 20 year-olds'."

Last month, Major General Joseph Taluto, head of the 42nd Infantry Division which covers "trouble spots" including Baquba and Samarra, told the Gulf News that "good, honest" Iraqis are fighting us:
If a good, honest person feels having all these Humvees driving on the road, having us moving people out of the way, having us patrol the streets, having car bombs going off, you can understand how they could [want to fight us]."
That our presence in Iraq is the source of this is no longer a debatable point. In July, the Royal Institute of International Affairs -- a British defense think-tank -- reported that "the invasion of Iraq and its bloody aftermath had boosted recruitment and fund-raising for al Qaeda."

And the University of Chicago's Robert Pape, who has compiled data on every suicide bombing in the past 25 years, wrote in an Op-Ed for The New York Times [$$]:
Al Qaeda is today less a product of Islamic fundamentalism than of a simple strategic goal: to compel the United States and its Western allies to withdraw combat forces from the Arabian Peninsula and other Muslim countries.
Meanwhile, none of those who argue that Islamic militants hate us for our "values" have ever had an answer for Osama Bin Laden's straightforward challenge to the "Clash of Civilizations" narrative: "Explain why we did not attack Sweden, for example."

Pick an exit strategy, any exit strategy

If you strip away the straw man arguments -- no one advocates leaving Iraq tomorrow -- you get a choice between those who argue for immediately announcing an exit from Iraq based on a phased withdrawal and those who want to keep on pursuing the same policies and hope for better results.

According to reports from Iraq, a deal regarding the constitution has been hammered out and is likely to be approved. That would be a perfect opportunity for the United States to declare either victory or defeat -- they're the same at this point aside from the spin -- and get out.

But the first part of exiting Iraq -- deciding we need to -- is the hardest. Rep. McDermott, whose calls for a sudden exit are among the most direct in the Democratic Party, laid the problem out to me in eight sentences:
I keep coming up with the problem, my first stage problem, is how do I get the president of the United States to change his attitude about what's going on? If I can't get him to go to the United Nations and say: "You know, things have gotten to the point in Iraq that it's very clear that we need a new path." I don't even want him to get on his knees and beg or anything like that -- I'm not looking for that -- but he has to go up to the United Nations and say: "We as the United Nations have to sit down and figure out how to work this out."
Then it makes it possible to talk about a United Nations peace enforcing force or it makes it possible to talk about NATO or it makes it possible to talk about a lot of things as ways of sort of stabilizing the situation and getting the chronic irritant of the United States military and our presence out. But unfortunately, I can't get around the president's attitude that we're going to stay the course and we're going to make this happen. I mean we're locked into Vietnam ... I think the rest of the world would get involved if they thought that we were serious.
The Big Lie is that withdrawal is a complex game. Juan Cole has proposed withdrawing troops from populated areas and using airpower to support the Iraqi government. Russ Feingold has proposed a "flexible" exit strategy that would have U.S. troops home by the end of next year. Several have suggested a strategy where, in the first stage, U.S. troops would turn over domestic security to Iraq's fledgling security forces and withdrawal to less populace parts of the country -- ostensibly to secure Iraq's borders. That would be followed by further withdrawals as Iraqi security forces are trained. Naomi Klein has proposed a remarkably human strategy that requires that we take our obligations to the Iraqi people seriously.

Even those liberal hawks at the Center for American Progress have a half-baked plan to reduce our presence in Iraq to 40,000 troops -- hardly an exit plan, but a start.

Conservatives are correct about one thing: the only force that can compel the United States military to withdrawal from a conflict is lack of support from the American public. And that's why we have to challenge the electoral viability of Democrats who continue to provide cover for this administration's occupation, and refuse to apologize for their catastrophic choices. Ultimately, their hands are as bloody as the administration's.

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