Why Withdrawal Is Unmentionable


Pulling out of Iraq would be an imperially momentous decision. It would mean the abandonment of more than two decades of American foreign policy in the Middle East.
by Michael Schwartz, Tomdispatch.com

The report of James A. Baker’s Iraq Study Group has already become a benchmark for Iraq policy, dominating the print and electronic media for several days after its release, and generating excited commentary by all manner of leadership types from Washington to London to Baghdad. Even if most of the commentary continues to be negative, we can nevertheless look forward to highly publicized policy changes in the near future that rely for their justification on this report, or on one of the several others recently released, or on those currently being prepared by the Pentagon, the White House, and the National Security Council.

This is not, however, good news for those who want the U.S. to end its war of conquest in Iraq. Quite the contrary: The ISG report is not an “exit strategy;” it is a new plan for achieving the Bush administration’s imperial goals in the Middle East…


The ISG report stands out among the present flurry of re-evaluations as the sole evaluation of the war by a group not beholden to the President; as the only report containing an unadorned negative evaluation of the current situation (vividly captured in the oft-quoted phrase “dire and deteriorating”); and as the only public document with unremitting criticism of the Bush administration’s conduct of the war.

It is this very negativity that brings into focus the severely constrained nature of the debate now underway in Washington — most importantly, the fact that U.S. withdrawal from Iraq (immediate or otherwise) is simply not going to be part of the discussion. Besides explicitly stating that withdrawal is a terrible idea — “our leaving would make [the situation] worse” — the Baker report is built around the idea that the United States will remain in Iraq for a very long time.

To put it bluntly, the ISG is not calling on the Bush administration to abandon its goal of creating a client regime that was supposed to be the key to establishing the U.S. as the dominant power in the Middle East. Quite the contrary. As its report states: “We agree with the goal of U.S. policy in Iraq.” If you ignore the text sprinkled with sugar-coated words like “representative government,” the report essentially demands that the Iraqi government pursue policies shaped to serve “America’s interest and values in the years ahead.”

Don’t be fooled by this often quoted passage from the report: “By the first quarter of 2008, subject to unexpected developments in the security situation on the ground, all combat brigades not necessary for force protection could be out of Iraq.” The ebullient interpretations of this statement by the media have been misleading in three different ways.

First, the combat brigades mentioned in this passage represent far less than half of all the troops in Iraq. The military police, the air force, the troops that move the equipment, those assigned to the Green Zone, the soldiers that order, store, and move supplies, medical personnel, intelligence personnel, and so on, are not combat personnel; and they add up to considerably more than 70,000 of the approximately 140,000 troops in Iraq at the moment. They will all have to stay — as well as actual combat forces to protect them and to protect the new American advisors who are going to flood into the Iraqi army — because the Iraqi army has none of these units and isn’t going to develop them for several years, if ever.

Second, the ISG wants those “withdrawn” American troops “redeployed,” either inside or outside Iraq. In all likelihood, this will mean that at least some of them will be stationed in the five permanent bases inside Iraq that the Bush administration has already spent billions constructing, and which are small American towns, replete with fast food restaurants, bus lines, and recreation facilities. There is no other place to put these redeployed troops in the region, except bases in Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, none of which are really suited to, or perhaps eager to, host a large influx of American troops (guaranteed to be locally unpopular and a magnet for terrorist attacks).

Third, it’s important not to ignore those two modest passages: “subject to unexpected developments in the security situation on the ground” and “not necessary for force protection.” In other words, if the Iraqi troops meant to replace the redeployed American ones are failures, then some or all of the troops might never be redeployed. In addition, even if Iraqi troops did perform well, Americans might still be deemed necessary to protect the remaining (non-combat) troops from attack by insurgents and other forces. Given that American troops have not been able to subdue the Sunni rebellion, which is still on a growth curve, it is highly unlikely that their Iraqi substitutes will do any better. In other words, even if the “withdrawal” parts of the Baker report were accepted by the President, which looks increasingly unlikely, its plan has more holes and qualifications than Swiss cheese.

Put another way, no proposal at present on the table in Washington is likely to result in significant reductions even in the portion of American troops defined as “combat brigades.” That is why this statement says that the combat troops “could be out of Iraq,” not “will be out of Iraq” in the first quarter of 2008.

So, the ISG report contemplates — best case scenario — “a considerable military presence in the region, with our still significant [at least 70,000 strong] force in Iraq, and with our powerful air, ground, and naval deployments in Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar…” Given a less-than-optimum scenario, the American presence in Iraq would assumedly remain much higher, perhaps even approaching current levels. As if this isn’t bad news enough, the report is laced with qualifiers indicating that the ISG members fear their new strategy might not work, that “there is no magic formula to solve the problems of Iraq” — a theme that will certainly be picked up this week as the right-wing of the Republican Party and angry neocons continue to blast at the report.

Danger to Empire

Why was the Iraq Study Group so reluctant to advocate the withdrawal of American troops and the abandonment of the Bush administration’s goal of pacifying Iraq? The likely explanation is: Its all-establishment membership (and the teams of experts that gave it advice) understood that withdrawing from Iraq would be an imperially momentous decision. It would, in fact, mean the abandonment of over two decades of American foreign policy in the Middle East. To grasp this, it’s helpful to compare the way most Americans look at the war in Iraq to the way those in power view it.

Most Americans initially believed that the U.S. went into Iraq to shut down Saddam Hussein’s WMD programs and/or simply to topple a dangerous dictator (or even a dictator somehow connected to the 9/11 attacks). Of course, had that really been the case, the Bush administration should have withdrawn almost immediately. Even today, it could, at least theoretically, withdraw and declare victory the day after Saddam Hussein is executed, since the WMDs and the 9/11 connection were evanescent. In this scenario, the dismal post-invasion military failure would represent nothing but the defeat of Bush’s personal crusade — articulated only after the Hussein regime was toppled — to bring American-style democracy to a benighted land.

Because of this, most people, whether supporters or opponents of the war, expect each new round of policy debates to at least consider the option of withdrawal; and many hold out the hope that Bush will finally decide to give up his democratization pipe dream. Even if Bush is incapable of reading the handwriting on the Iraqi wall, this analysis encourages us to hope that outside advisers like the ISG will be “pragmatic” enough to bring the message home to him, before the war severely undermines our country economically and in terms of how people around the world think about us.

However, a more realistic look at the original goals of the invasion makes clear why withdrawal cannot be so easily embraced by anyone loyal to the grandiose foreign policy goals adopted by the U.S. right after the fall of the Soviet Union. The real goals of the war in Iraq add up to an extreme version of this larger vision of a “unipolar world” orbiting around the United States.

The invasion of 2003 reflected the Bush administration’s ambition to establish Iraq as the hub of American imperial dominance in the oil heartlands of the planet. Unsurprisingly, then, the U.S. military entered Iraq with plans already in hand to construct and settle into at least four massive military bases that would become nerve centers for our military presence in the “arc of instability” extending from Central Asia all the way into Africa — an “arc” that just happened to contain the bulk of the world’s exportable oil.

The original plan included wresting control of Iraqi oil from Saddam’s hostile Baathist government and delivering it into the hands of the large oil companies through the privatization of new oil fields and various other special agreements. It was hoped that privatized Iraqi oil might then break OPEC’s hold on the global oil spigot. In the Iraq of the Bush administration’s dreams, the U.S. would be the key player in determining both the amount of oil pumped and the favored destinations for it. (This ambition was implicitly seconded by the Baker Commission when it recommended that the U.S. “should assist Iraqi leaders to reorganize the national oil industry as a commercial enterprise”)

All of this, of course, was contingent upon establishing an Iraqi government that would be a junior partner in American Middle Eastern policy; that, under the rule of an Ahmed Chalabi or Iyad Allawi, would, for instance, be guaranteed to support administration campaigns against Iran and Syria. Bush administration officials have repeatedly underscored this urge, even in the present circumstances, by attempting, however ineffectively, to limit the ties of the present Shia-dominated Iraqi government to Iran.

Withdrawal from Iraq would signal the ruin of all these hopes. Without a powerful American presence, permanent bases would not be welcomed by any regime that might emerge from the current cauldron in Baghdad; every faction except the Kurds is adamantly against them. U.S. oil ambitions would prove similarly unviable. Though J. Paul Bremer, John Negroponte and Zalmay Khalilzad, our three ambassador-viceroys in Baghdad, have all pushed through legislation mandating the privatization of oil (even embedding this policy in the new constitution), only a handful of top Iraqi politicians have actually embraced the idea. The religious leaders who control the Sunni militias oppose it, as do the Sadrists, who are now the dominant faction in the Shia areas. The current Iraqi government is already making economic treaties with Iran and even sought to sign a military alliance with that country that the Americans aborted.

Still Staying the Course

Added to all this, from Lebanon to Pakistan, the administration’s political agenda for the “arc of instability” is now visibly in a state of collapse. This agenda, of course, predated Bush, going back to the moment in 1991 when the Soviet Union simply evaporated, leaving an impoverished Russia and a set of wobbly independent states in its place. While the elder George Bush and Bill Clinton did not embrace the use of the military as the primary instrument of foreign policy, they fully supported the goal of American preeminence in the Middle East and worked very hard to achieve it — through the isolation of Iran, sanctions against Iraq, various unpublicized military actions against Saddam’s forces, and a ratcheting upward of permanent basing policies throughout the Gulf region and Central Asia.

This is the context for the peculiar stance taken by the Iraq Study Group towards the administration’s disaster in Iraq. Coverage has focused on the way the report labeled the situation as “grave and deteriorating” and on its call for negotiations with the previously pariah states of Iran and Syria. In itself, the negotiation proposal is perfectly reasonable and has the side effect of lessening the possibility that the Bush administration will launch an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities in the near future.

But no one should imagine that the “new” military strategy proposed by Baker and his colleagues includes dismissing the original goals of the war. In their letter of transmittal, ISG co-chairs James Baker and Lee Hamilton declared: “All options have not been exhausted. We believe it is still possible to pursue different policies that can give Iraq an opportunity for a better future, combat terrorism, stabilize a critical region of the world and protect America’s credibility, interests and values.”

This statement, couched in typical Washington-speak, reiterates those original ambitious goals and commits the ISG to a continuing effort to achieve them. The corpus of the report does nothing to dispel that assertion. Its military strategy calls for a (certainly quixotic) effort to use Iraqi troops to bring about the military victory American troops have failed for three years to achieve. The diplomatic initiatives call for a (certainly quixotic) effort to enlist the aid of Syria and Iran, as well as Saudi Arabia and other neighbors, in defeating the insurgency. And the centerpiece of the economic initiatives seeks to accelerate the process of privatizing oil, the clearest sign of all that Baker and Hamilton — like Bush and his circle — remain committed to the grand scheme of maintaining the United States as the dominant force in the region.

Even as the group called on the President to declare that the U.S. “does not seek permanent military bases in Iraq” once the country is secure, it immediately hedged this intention by pointing out that we “could consider” temporary bases, “if the Iraqi government were to request it.” Of course, if the Bush administration were somehow to succeed in stabilizing a compliant client regime, such a regime would surely request that American troops remain in their “temporary” bases on a more-or-less permanent basis, since its survival would depend on them.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the ISG report is its embrace of the Bush administration’s imperial attitude toward the Iraqi government. Although the report repeatedly calls for American “respect” for Iraqi “sovereignty” (an implicit criticism of the last three years of Iraq policy), it also offers a series of what are essentially non-negotiable demands that would take an already weak and less-than-sovereign government and strip it of control over anything that makes governments into governments.

As a start, the “Iraqi” military would be flooded with 10,000-20,000 new American “advisors,” ensuring that it would continue to be an American-controlled military, even if a desperately poor and recalcitrant one, into the distant future. In addition, the ISG offered a detailed program for how oil should be extracted (and the profits distributed) as well as specific prescriptions for handling a number of pressing problems, including fiscal policy, militias, the city of Kirkuk, sectarianism, de-Baathification, and a host of other issues that normally would be decisions for an Iraqi government, not an American advisory panel in Washington. It is hardly surprising, then, that Iraqi leaders almost immediately began complaining that the report, for all its bows to “respect,” completely lacked it.

Most striking is the report’s twenty-first (of 79) recommendations, aimed at describing what the United States should do if the Iraqis fail to satisfactorily fulfill the many tasks that the ISG has set for them: “If the Iraqi government does not make substantial progress toward the achievement of milestones on national reconciliation, security, and governance, the United States should reduce its political, military, or economic support for the Iraqi government.”

This could be interpreted as a threat that the United States will withdraw — and the mainstream media has chosen to interpret it just that way. But why then did Baker and his colleagues not word this statement differently? (“… the United States should reduce, and ultimately withdraw, its forces from Iraq.”) The phrase “reduce its political, military, or economic support for the Iraqi government” is probably better interpreted literally: that if that government fails to satisfy ISG demands, the U.S. should transfer its “political, military, or economic support” to a new leadership within Iraq that it feels would be more capable of making “substantial progress toward” the milestones it has set. In other words, this passage is more likely a threat of a coup d’état than a withdrawal strategy — a threat that the façade of democracy would be stripped away and a “strong man” (or a government of “national salvation”) installed, one that the Bush administration or the ISG believes could bring the Sunni rebellion to heel.

Here is the unfortunate thing. Evidently, the “grave and deteriorating” situation in Iraq has not yet deteriorated enough to convince even establishment American policymakers, who have been on the outside these last years, to follow the lead of the public (as reflected in the latest opinion polls) and abandon their soaring ambitions of Middle East domination. If they haven’t done so, imagine where George W. Bush and Dick Cheney are in policy terms. So far, it seems everyone of power or influence in Washington remains committed to “staying the course.”


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