Staying in While Talking About Getting Out

THE PEOPLE OF the United States want out of Iraq right away. That’s the message they sent on November 7. But the result of the election is that the Democratic Party, now controlling Congress, will also share the responsibility with a discredited Bush administration for continuing this hated war. Neither party will accept the reality the whole world already knows -the reality of the U.S. defeat in Iraq.

How big and long lasting a defeat will it be?  That’s the question uppermost in the minds of imperial strategists. The task assigned to the “Iraq Study Group” headed by James Baker and Lee Hamilton was to work out, first, how to reduce the magnitude and global consequences of the imperial defeat, and second, how to sell a damage-control program simultaneously to the antiwar U.S. public, to Congressional Democrats and to the dead-end Bush regime.

In its report and recommendations released on December 6, the Baker-Hamilton group aims for creating a bipartisan consensus; for getting out of Iraq while staying there at the same time; for making Iraqis responsible for their own future while privatizing Iraqi oil for the benefit of international corporate looters; for resolving the Palestine-Israel crisis with mutual recognition, while not forcing Israel to leave the Occupied Palestinian Territories…In short this report, welcomed by most Democratic and Republican “moderates” as “pragmatic” and violently denounced as “surrender” by the right wing, as if it all meant something serious, serves up an absurd hash. Its only unambiguously true statement, “the situation is Iraq is grave and deteriorating,” is exactly what the voters on November 7 showed they already know.

There’s no need to dwell on what we’ve insisted here for the past two years, that the United States has lost this war, and the longer it lasts the bigger disaster it becomes for Iraqis and Americans alike. Once the New York Times admitted as much, and once NBC announced (two years late but better than never) the reality of Iraqi civil war, the old debate was over even if George W. Bush still doesn’t get it. The new consensus holds that the war was a bad idea to begin with, made worse by incompetent execution, that “victory” is impossible, and that the realist foreign policy geniuses of the Bush Senior administration are coming back to provide “adult supervision” in place of the ideological neoconservatives who drove Bush Junior’s failed “transformation of the Middle East.”

This requires critical scrutiny, however. The new mantra will be that the aims of the Iraq war were only too noble, but not realistic: The United States tried to bring Iraq the gifts of “our democratic values,” but the problem was that Iraqis lacked the culture to receive them. In other words, the people of Iraq – not imperialism and invasion – are to blame for destroying their country. Now, democratic dreaming must be replaced by a hard-headed aim – encapsulated in the Iraq Study Group report — of relative “stability” for Iraq, with the cooperation of Iran and Syria, so that most U.S. troops can be safely “redeployed” to secure bases or neighboring countries.

Taking a different stand are Senator John McCain and a handful of neocons – types whom we might call, in Donald Rumsfeld’s memorable phrase “dead-enders” – demanding a drive for “victory” by sending MORE troops into Iraq. A retired two-star Army major general, John Batiste, describes troop withdrawals as “terribly naïve,” according to the New York Times:

“Before considering troop reductions, General Batiste said, the United States needs to take an array of steps, including fresh efforts to alleviate unemployment in Iraq [Reality Check: funds for “Iraqi reconstruction” have run out – ed.], secure its long and porous borders [with how many armies?], enlist more cooperation from tribal sheiks, step up the effort to train Iraq’s security forces [now fully infiltrated by various death squads], engage Iraq’s neighbors and weaken, or if necessary, crush the militias.” (NYT, November 13, 2006: A14)

This “debate” is rubbish, and the antiwar movement should be exposing the pretensions of both sides, not supporting one of them. The “more troops” crowd, the neocons and Rush Limbaugh and the like, can blather on in the safe real-world knowledge that more troops won’t be sent: There are hardly any more combat-ready units to send, equipment and machinery in the field are breaking down, and a temporary “spike” of ten or twenty thousand U.S. soldiers will not stop the civil war. The more insidious argument is the claim that the U.S. strategy for Iraq must prioritize “stability” as opposed to democracy – insidious both because of its colonialist premise, and because it’s being deployed today as a bipartisan excuse to continue the war rather than ending it.

Democracy or Conquest?

Let’s be clear: It wasn’t democracy that failed in Iraq. What failed was an imperial conquest and occupation packaged in a threefold lie: that it would remove a threat of Weapons of Mass Destruction, that it would bring “democracy” with a “free-market economy” to the Middle East on an American-approved neoliberal model, and that it would cost nothing as Iraqi oil would pay for the reconstruction.

After three-going-on-four years of carnage, democracy in Iraq must begin – it would be only a beginning, but the essential first step – with an agreement among internal political forces over keeping their country from sectarian collapse. The presence of imperial occupiers is the first and main obstacle to that kind of agreement. The Iraqi people deserve democracy as much as any other nation — and they deserve security too. It’s not a question of a noble American intervention choosing one or the other. The U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, the twelve years of economic sanctions that preceded it — and the decade of support for Saddam Hussein’s hideous tyranny prior to that — damaged if not destroyed the possibilities for the Iraqi people to win either democracy or security.

The war in Iraq was not some liberating mission that went tragically wrong because it was waged incompetently, arrogantly, with “too few” troops on the ground and too many political miscalculations and stupid blunders. Precisely because there was indeed so much idiocy and ignorance in the operation, it’s too easy to forget what matters most: This was an imperialist conquest, aimed at establishing unchallenged American global rule, which had no progressive or democratic purpose. If its failure has instead weakened U.S. imperial power – for us, that’s the only positive part of the outcome.  

The United States has no legitimate part in deciding whether Iraq’s future lies in a unitary state, a federation or separation. The argument that “we can’t leave Iraq until the Iraqis are ready” is as bankrupt as the bull refusing to leave the china shop because the merchandise is broken. The occupation of Iraq will not, and cannot, stop the hundreds or even thousands of communal torture-murders taking place every week. That’s not because Iraqis are savages who won’t stop killing each other. It’s because the occupation has destroyed so much of the social fabric and physical structure of the country – after Saddam’s regime had wiped out politics — that people find some measure of protection only in communal identity and militias.

For the American people, who have clearly registered their disgust with this war, there is only one way to get out of Iraq – which is, simply, to get out of Iraq. The antiwar movement, as it returns to the streets of Washington DC on January 27 and in the spring mobilizations to come, must offer a clear and straightforward message to the popular majority in this country: Bring the Troops Home Now!