The Insanity of 'Staying the Course' in Iraq

As the bodies pile up in Iraq, new polls show that most Iraqis want us out of their country, and they want us out soon. At the same time, Al Jazeera acquired a letter believed to be from a high-ranking al Qaeda operative that shows that our worst enemies think a protracted occupation of Iraq is "the most important thing" for the future of their cause.

Yet the Bush administration and its mouthpieces insist that we must "stay the course" in Iraq -- either to bring stability to the war-torn country or out of some misguided belief that we can salvage America's dignity from an embarrassing Vietnam-style defeat.

Underlying the "stay the course" argument is a fundamentally flawed assumption that U.S. troops are at least keeping havoc in check. But every year of the occupation has brought about worsening violence, peaking during a summer that saw thousands of Iraqi civilians killed each month. The Washington Post reported that last month "the number of U.S. troops wounded in Iraq has surged to its highest monthly level in nearly two years," and Reuters added that "bomb attacks in Baghdad have hit an all-time high ..." Studies by the Saudi government and a respected (and hawkish) Israeli think tank found that most of the insurgents in Iraq had never engaged in political violence but were radicalized by the occupation itself. The recently leaked National Intelligence Estimate predicts that with American troops on the ground, the insurgency in Iraq will grow and fester over the next two years.

But more importantly, the U.S. presence creates a Catch-22. One of the biggest problems in Iraq is that its fledgling government has little legitimacy, and a large part of that problem comes from a widespread perception that it remains subservient to U.S. commanders. According to a recent poll by the Project on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA), Iraqis, by a 5 to 2 margin, thought that a U.S. commitment to withdraw would "strengthen the Iraqi government." Three out of four believe an American withdrawal would make the various factions in Iraq's parliament more willing to cooperate with one another.

Eight out of ten Iraqis believe the U.S. military presence is "provoking more conflict than it is preventing," and they're in the position to know best. Just 14 percent said the U.S. forces were having "a positive influence on the situation in Iraq."

The idea that Iraq will spiral out of control if U.S. forces withdraw has been hammered home since the beginning of the occupation by the war's supporters, but while it's a danger, it is also anything but the certainty that's become part of the conventional wisdom. Seventy percent of Iraqis have confidence that their police force can maintain order.

The hawks who brought us this war have gone through an exquisite set of intellectual gymnastics to produce new justifications for why we have to stay the course. The latest is that pulling out of Iraq will "embolden" the terrorists. Vice President Cheney said recently that a withdrawal at this point would only "validate the al Qaeda strategy and invite even more terrorist attacks." The obvious flaw in that argument is that whatever "emboldening" might or might not occur has already happened; before the invasion, the secretary of defense of the most powerful country the world has ever known predicted that the war "could last six days, six weeks" but doubted it would last six months. Yet three and a half years later, a few thousand Iraqi insurgents with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades have kept the leviathan pinned down, and there's no sign that they're anywhere close to their "last legs." They've isolated the United States from its allies, stymied U.S. foreign policy from Singapore to the Sudan and halted Bush's ambitions to "reform" the Middle East. The lesson has already been learned, as evidenced by the Taliban's adoption of many of the Iraqi insurgents' tactics in Afghanistan.

This latest administration talking point couldn't make anyone happier than the leadership of al Qaeda. The Christian Science Monitor's Dan Murphy reported last week that a letter from a senior al Qaeda leader was discovered in the rubble of the house where Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed in June. Murphy wrote that "al Qaeda itself sees continued American presence in Iraq as a boon for the terror network." "The most important thing," wrote the al Qaeda official, is that "prolonging the war is in our interest."

Iraq's government is dysfunctional, and that creates an environment ripe for turmoil. Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi told Reuters that the U.S. presence -- especially under the vague rules in which its forces operate -- is "impeding the ability of Iraq's Shi'ite-led national unity government to tackle rampant violence and economic woes."

And while the Sunni insurgents have made repeated attempts -- the most recent of which came last week -- to open up negotiations with the occupation forces, they rejected a call by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to join in the political process earlier this year. The Sunnis -- who are not the only combatants at this point -- won't participate in the political process as long as the open-ended occupation continues, and there won't be stability until they do engage politically -- Catch-22.

For all these reasons, majorities of Iraqis of all sects want their government to request a U.S. withdrawal. Seven out of ten want a deadline within a year, while just one in ten want the U.S. to remain until "the security situation approves" -- the Bush administration's line. Even two-thirds of the Kurdish population -- long the strongest supporters of U.S. policy -- agreed, although many Kurds want a two-year window.

They join majorities of American Democrats and Republicans, and U.S. military personnel in Iraq, all of whom favor a "strategic redeployment" and an end to the occupation (interestingly, three out of four Americans also believe that if the Iraqi government asked the United States to withdraw, it wouldn't do so).

But Iraqis are getting a taste of U.S.-style democracy, a system in which popular will needs to be managed rather than considered seriously in policymaking.

In September, 104 members of Iraq's 275-seat parliament sponsored a resolution asking the United States for a timetable to get out. As Raed Jarrar notes, "typically a good 80 MPs haven't actually been coming to the sessions, so it is possible that the resolution" would have passed with 104 votes. That was unacceptable to both Iraqi and American leaders; the AP reported that a procedural maneuver shelved the resolution for six months (which, conveniently for the United States, will be three months after Iraq's permanent Oil Law must be passed). A similar resolution in mid-2005 got the support of 103 Iraqi parliamentarians. When that resolution was killed, they signed a petition that accused the National Assembly of "blatantly ignoring the demands of the MPs."

Even if the request were made, most Iraqis consider us to be "occupiers" rather than "liberators" (A Gallup poll last year found that fewer than one in five Iraqis viewed the U.S. as "liberators"). PIPA found that a "large majority of Iraqis--and a majority in all ethnic groups--believes that the United States plans to maintain permanent military bases in Iraq and would not withdraw its forces if asked by the Iraqi government."

As a result -- at least in part -- six out of ten Iraqis approve of attacks on U.S. forces (including among the Shiites that benefited politically from our "liberation"). The insurgency may have started with a small number of Baathist "dead-enders," but as a result of U.S. mismanagement, it now has broad popular support. And that means it has legs.

The question of whether it would be a net gain to leave Iraq is itself far too narrow. The occupation is having a dangerous ripple effect; the National Intelligence Estimate found that Iraq had become a "cause célèbre" for radical Islamists across the region (and worldwide) and was creating a whole new generation of "jihadists." That means that the U.S. presence in Iraq is fueling conflicts in neighboring countries, where a major realignment of power between Sunnis and Shiites could easily blow up into a series of regional wars that would make the past few years in Iraq look like a stroll in the park.

And as domestic political pressure to come up with some kind of chimerical victory mounts, U.S. policymakers will find the idea of splitting Iraq into three autonomous zones -- long championed by Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., former Ambassador Peter Galbraith and others -- more and more appealing. This, too, is contrary to what the Iraqi people want; according to PIPA, "Iraqis appear to agree on having a strong central government, and ... majorities of all groups do not favor a movement toward a looser confederation." According to the Times of London, the Iraq Study Group -- the commission headed by former Secretary of State James Baker that has guided much of the disaster in Iraq -- may recommend the partition approach. As the University of Michigan's Juan Cole notes, "If the loose federal plan ends in partition, the situation is set up for a series of wars of the Sunni Arabs versus the Shiites, as well as of the Sunni Arabs and some Turkmen versus the Kurds. Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia will certainly be pulled into these wars."

Most Americans and Iraqis of every religious sect and political persuasion want the United States to set a timetable for withdrawal, but the Bush administration and al Qaeda's leaders believe it's in their best interests to prolong the occupation. What more does one need to know?

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