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U.S. Strategy In Middle East Under New Pressure: Talks, At Least About Talking, Take Hold


UFPJ Talking Points #60

**  The Bush administration’s ideologically-driven  "no withdrawal, no negotiations" war policies in Iraq, Iran and elsewhere in the region are rapidly and visibly failing.

**  After years of winning massive anti-war victories in public opinion but unable to transform that public opinion into new anti-war policy, the U.S. and global anti-war movements are now at the center of new domestic, regional and international pressures on Washington powerful enough to force significant new shifts in once-unshakable war strategy.

 **  These new political realities and alliances involve the Obama campaign, Congress, the Pentagon, Washington’s closest Middle East allies, and even the White House itself; but war and occupation continue to shape realities in the region – war in Afghanistan is escalating, the danger of war in Iran (while somewhat diminished) remains real, the occupation of Palestine is worsening, and war and occupation in Iraq remain lethal.

 **  This is not the moment to rest on our momentary laurels, but rather a moment for anti-war forces to escalate our pressure – on candidates, on the White House, on the media, especially on Congress – to consolidate the moment’s gains, and to push the envelope on new possibilities for ending [at least some of] Washington’s wars and occupations.

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Changes in the region, most visibly in the position of Iraq’s U.S. occupation-backed government regarding withdrawal of U.S. troops, is rapidly transforming official political postures regarding the legitimacy and permanency of the occupation.  Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s sudden adoption of the call for some kind of time table or "time horizon" for U.S. troop withdrawal is clearly driven by his own election pressures.  In a country where his government’s legitimacy remains dubious at best because of its dependence on the U.S. occupation, Maliki has now claimed the mantle of Iraqi nationalism by calling for an eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops, forcing the Bush administration to grudgingly accept a joint call for a "time horizon" for troop withdrawal (though with an unspecified timeframe). 

 Regarding Iran, the failure of Bush’s insistence on a "no negotiations till they give us what we want from negotiations" position led to a sheepish reversal.  Sending top State Dept official William Burns to Geneva for the latest negotiations, while substantively meaningless, was symbolically very significant.  It was less important for showing U.S. acceptance of the European-led negotiations, than it was for demonstrating the collapse of the administration’s long-held ideological position of no negotiations.  Objectively, if not officially, it held out the possibility that Washington’s allies might be able to force U.S. with engagement with Iran in order to keep on the table the one goal fundamental to Iran’s willingness to engage diplomatically: negotiating a serious security agreement with the U.S. guaranteeing that Iran will not face military attack, invasion, or "regime change" from the one country capable of making such a guarantee: the U.S.  (So far, the possibility of an Israeli military strike, despite Israel’s and its lobbies’ globally-aimed psychological warfare operations threatening to go it alone, remains dependent on U.S. military as well as political backing for any such attack.)

 The recent new successes of the anti-war movement are most evident regarding Iran.  When the ardently pro-Israeli Rep. Gary Ackerman introduced HR 362 in the House of Representatives, calling almost explicitly for a naval blockade against Iran, he quickly and easily won hundreds of bipartisan co-sponsors.  But the anti-war movement immediately kicked into high gear, and with the national clout of United for Peace and Justice, the creative actions in and around Congress by Code Pink, the consistent pressure of Peace Action, along with dozens more organizations, all pulled into 24/7 activism, dozens of members of Congress went into a defensive re-thinking mode.

 It was very significant that many supporters of HR 362 in the House (as well as a few backers of its companion Senate version) claimed from the beginning, and may well have even believed, that escalating sanctions against Iran would serve as a bulwark against going to war.  On the one hand, the irony is rich – have they learned nothing from the Iraq experience, in which, once again, the brunt of sanctions impacted only population, not the regime, and in fact raised support of the people for the regime and against those imposing the sanctions, rather than the reverse?  Yes, they seem to have learned nothing. But perhaps more significantly, the pressure of the anti-war movement, and crucially, the reality that the anti-war movement’s work over these last seven years has transformed public views into a huge wellspring of majority anti-war opinion, mean that members of Congress now feel compelled to justify their positions based on an anti-war, not "security"-based assumption.  That’s huge.  That’s evidence of enormous success.

 The Obama Middle East junket clearly gave a huge boost to the campaign and to the candidate – in international legitimacy, in credibility as a potential commander-in-chief, and among his anti-war base at home as he tested his withdraw-in-16-months plan in Iraq going head-to-head with Maliki and incoming CentCom chief and surge-backing General David Petraeus, as well as making his all-important, make-or-break-the-campaign three-shot playing basketball with U.S. troops. 

Maliki’s endorsement of Obama’s withdrawal plan is probably worth all of his trade union, women’s organizations and Democratic governors’ endorsements together.  And it is hardly surprising.  Maliki faces growing pressure in the run-up to this fall’s (or, more likely, next year’s) Iraqi elections to come out against the despised U.S. occupation that in fact maintains him in power, and he was desperately seeking a way to juggle those realities.  Endorsing Obama’s plan allowed Maliki to call for "an end to occupation" even though the last thing he wants would be an actual end to the U.S. troop presence.  Maliki, unlike too many U.S. supporters of Obama, certainly knew that Obama’s plan to withdraw troops over 16 months would leave behind somewhere between 35,000 and 80,000 U.S. occupation troops (his advisers say 50,000) in Iraq for an indefinite period, to carry out a wide range of military tasks including training the Iraqi security forces and unspecified counter-insurgency operations.  That would be just fine for Maliki – allowing U.S. troops to remain indefinitely, to continue backing his government, while reducing the size, visibility, and "footprint" of the U.S. occupation in the hope that popular opposition and resistance might subside. 

Certainly reducing the size of the occupation army is a good thing – withdrawing half the 150,000 or so troops would be a good thing.  But we should not confuse that with "ending the occupation."  Ending the occupation still means bringing home (home, not redeploying) all the troops and mercenaries, closing all the military bases, and ending all efforts to control Iraqi oil.

 And for the Bush administration, the rising pressure from Maliki forced a grudging acceptance of the strangely-worded call for a "time horizon" for troop withdrawals.  (There are questions whether Maliki’s initial endorsement of a "timetable" for withdrawal was in fact a "mistranslation" as claimed by one of his top aides in the New York Times.  As noted analyst Juan Cole pointed out, that aide often reflects the views of the Pentagon far more than Maliki himself, whose own office distributed the "timetable" call.)  But regardless of whether Maliki used the clearer "timetable" or the ambiguous "time horizon" language, what is clear is that a real, complete withdrawal of U.S. troops would likely mean the end of his power.  It is unlikely that is really what he wants. 

 But, like sending Burns to Geneva, it was a huge ideological climb-down for the Bush administration to even call for a "time horizon."  We may all understand that the great thing about a beautiful horizon is that you can never actually get there – but for the Bush White House, believing they are winning the war and committed to never admitting they were wrong, it is a huge concession.   (For more details on the regional developments leading to new negotiations between U.S. allies and U.S. antagonists, see UFPJ Talking Points: "U.S. Steps Up Efforts to Prolong Iraq Occupation" June 16, 2008, on the IPS website:  http://www.ips-dc.org/articles/459 )

 Now, the need is to celebrate the successes so far, recognize the limits of what we’ve done and escalate the pressure to push even further.  In Congress, there is a real possibility of defeating HR 362 (or at least having it die in committee, which amounts to the same thing).  Pressure is continuing, and needs to continue, focusing especially on every liberal or "anti-war" member, but on all the others as well, who believe that imposing a naval blockade, an act of war in international law, is somehow the way to avoid war.   It should also be remembered that most opposition is limited to the blockade language – hardly anyone is opposing the tightening of sanctions.  We should be insisting that no sanctions be added – that if we’re serious about maximizing the potential raised by the participation of Burns in Geneva, we must not undermine the possibility of new or renewed negotiations by sending the absolutely wrong message: that the U.S. will continue to impose unilateral sanctions whatever the potential is for diplomacy.  We support diplomatic, not sanctions-imposed solutions.

 This is a crucial moment.  We have an incredible opportunity to grab the false claims of "anti-war" positions and push them towards reality.  As my War Times friend Max Elbaum recently noted, we may look back on this moment and see it as parallel in some ways to 1968 – when the Vietnamese lost the Tet offensive but suddenly the whole world recognized that the U.S. could not win the war anyway.  It is an amazing opportunity – but a sobering reality -after 1968 it was another seven years before the war was over.  This time, we can’t wait that long.

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 For those of you interested, I submitted this letter to the New York Times a few days ago.  We’ll see if it gets published…

 To the Editor:

Neither President Bush nor Prime Minister al Maliki are serious about wanting to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq.  Bush is still convinced he is "winning" the war, and Maliki knows he does not have enough popular support to maintain power without U.S. occupation troops to protect his government.  Both Bush and Maliki face populations massively opposed to the U.S. military occupation of Iraq. And both face serious electorally-driven pressures. Their recent call to set a "time horizon" for withdrawal does not reflect a real intention to withdraw.

 What Iraqis and Americans have long demanded is a real end to the U.S. occupation of Iraq.  That means a complete and rapid withdrawal of all U.S. troops and U.S.-paid military contractors; closing the U.S. military bases; and ending U.S. efforts to control Iraq’s oil.

 Calling for a "time horizon" for withdrawal of only some U.S. troops is a sound-bite dodge, not a commitment to end the occupation.  Let’s not forget that the most important characteristic of a "horizon" is that while it may look nice from a distance, you can never actually get there.

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Phyllis Bennis is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC.  Her new book, UNDERSTANDING THE US-IRAN CRISIS: A PRIMER will be published in August by Interlink Publishing (www.interlinkbooks.com).

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