A Response to Kale Baldock: Urgency of Withdrawal

Michael Schwartz

I APPRECIATE KALE Baldock’s thoughtful argument (The Case for Staying in Iraq, ATC 122) that “continuing the occupation” is necessary because “it offers the best chance for the chaotic forces now at work in Iraq to settle, over time, into some type of coherent nation.”

His argument does not rest on the unconvincing premises so often offered for this position: that Bush’s invasion was justified; and/or that we must “stay the course” to insure against a humiliating U.S. defeat; and/or that steady progress is being made toward creating a democracy in Iraq.

Instead he rests his case on a Realpolitik argument that the American presence is needed to protect the Iraqi people from the horrors of what would “likely happen if the mediocre framework of security now in place were to dissolve.”

But in perfecting the “we must stay” position, Kale Baldock reveals its fatal weakness. By inspecting his argument, we can see the absolute urgency of an American withdrawal.

Baldock makes his case by chronicling the indubitable horrors that could occur if the current internecine warfare matures into a full fledged civil war. His scenario is vivid. The current stream of bodies found in ditches could become “thousands upon thousands of dead;” the current tension the war has created in the Middle East could mature into a regional war that would, in Dilip Hiro’s words, “suck in all six of Iraq’s neighbors;” the already spreading terrorism could topple the Saudi monarchy, and bring the “world economy to a halt without its precious petroleum fix;” and the ongoing chaos could trigger a collapse of the Pakistani government and allow Islamist terrorists to get “their hands on nukes.”

All this is part of the terrible legacy that escalation of the conflict in Iraq might create. But what Baldock fails to acknowledge is that the U.S. presence is not preventing disaster; it is, instead, the principal engine driving the Middle East toward each of these catastrophes.

Taking each of these nightmares very briefly:

  1. The occupation has been a key factor in generating the ethno-religious warfare that has been building since the invasion. Three examples. First, the horrific annihilation of the city of Falluja led — as state terror so often does — to the raft of suicide car bombings last year; desperate Sunnis were won over to the idea that the United States and its Shia allies understood nothing but profound violence.

    Second, the United States organized the death squads that Baldock mentions as so dangerous; this was done (as it was in El Salvador 20 years ago) in a desperate attempt to use terror to demoralize the anti-occupation resistance. Third, the U.S. uses Shia troops against Sunnis and Sunnis against Shia; this cynical ethnic exploitation is inflaming the hatred that fuels ethnic warfare and providing the opportunity for all manner of gratuitous brutality.

    If the United States were to leave, most (but not all) of the provocation generating the violence would dissolve. If the U.S. stays long enough, the hatred may become self-sustaining.

  2. The U.S. presence has been the key factor in rising Middle East tensions. Threats of attacks on Iran and Syria have made each country more belligerent and undermined efforts to bring stability to regional relations. The political chaos in Iraq has created tensions between Turkey and several of its neighbors, and intermittent threats by the Turkish to militarily intrude into Iraqi Kurdistan.

    The threatened division of Iraq has set in motion destabilizing shockwaves around the region. As long as the U.S. occupation remains, these forces will continue to escalate and heighten the risk of war erupting among two or more of Iraq’s neighbors.

  3. The violence and brutality of the U.S. occupation has resulted in an exponential increase in terrorist attacks outside of Iraq and throughout the region. As the United States continues its air attacks in Iraq, it also creates more and more revolutionaries and fundamentalist jihadists, not only in Iraq, but also in all the neighboring countries. Saudi Arabia is particularly vulnerable, and will become more vulnerable for as long as the U.S. presence extends. The best way to protect against a regional war is to remove the U.S. military from the region.

  4. The Pakistani government’s alliance with the United States is the single most important reason for its shaky condition. So long as the U.S. presence remains in Iraq, the more vulnerable the regime in Pakistan becomes. The best way to prevent the replacement of Musharraf in favor of Islamist fundamentalists is for the United States to promptly withdraw from Iraq.

    In short, Baldock rightly argues that the chaos in Iraq contains the seeds of a much larger catastrophe. To stop these seeds from germinating, we must remove the key nutrient of chaos: the American occupation.


    Michael Schwartz is Director, Undergraduate College of Global Studies and Professor of Sociology, State University at Stony Brook, New York.