As the US occupation of Iraq grinds on through its fourth year with no end in sight, one of the principal obstacles facing the peace movement is its failure to articulate a simple and persuasive rationale for the withdrawal of US forces. Although the occupation’s unpopularity is gradually increasing, and a majority of Americans agree that we should never have gone into Iraq in the first place, many liberals and progressives remain deeply ambivalent about a rapid US withdrawal. Only by confronting the concerns underlying that ambivalence and developing a convincing response can the peace movement hope to create the political momentum necessary to bring our troops home.
THE POTTERY BARN RULE
Many sensible and humane people who oppose the Bush administration and everything it stands for still object to the withdrawal of our troops, largely because of the so-called Pottery Barn rule: You break it, you own it. The idea is that because we created the chaos in Iraq today, and because there will likely be increased chaos if we withdraw, we are obligated to stay until there is sufficient order and stability. To leave under current circumstances, and risk plunging Iraq into even worse violence and misery, would be inexcusable.
There is certainly some truth in this argument. It is undeniable that after invading Iraq, overthrowing its government, and turning it into a violence-torn disaster area, we are obligated to help the Iraqis repair and heal their country. We’ve got to fix what we’ve broken.
At the same time, there must be limits to the Pottery Barn rule, or it will threaten to become a blanket excuse for all sorts of imperialist violence. One actually could have used the rule to justify our invasion of Iraq in the first place-given the fact that in the 1980s we armed Saddam Hussein and thus helped make him the monster he was, we were obligated to go in later and “clean up our mess.” And anyone familiar with the history of 20th-century colonialism knows that western imperialists frequently justified their continuing domination of the Third World on the grounds that the colonized peoples, whose societies the imperialists had destroyed, were not yet “ready” for independence and self-rule. In fact, under the Pottery Barn rule, the Congo should still be ruled by Belgium, which broke it so severely that it has not been fixed to this day.
But most opposition to the Pottery Barn rule has not been articulated at this broad, theoretical level. Rather, it has focused on the premise that our troop presence in Iraq is helping to enhance security, and that things will get worse, much worse, if we withdraw. Many in the peace movement have argued that the facts are precisely the reverse. They claim that US troops in Iraq are fueling the insurgency, not extinguishing it, and that withdrawal of our troops won’t hurt and might even help.
Considered as a basis for the peace movement’s advocacy and organizing, this approach is not promising, because arguments like this are nearly impossible to “win” in a convincing way. The facts on the ground in Iraq are extremely complex and fluid. The occupation’s proponents will always be able to cite some fact or other-some new outbreak of violence (so we’re still “needed”), some new sign of improving security (so the occupation must be “working”), some new development in Iraq’s internal politics, or some new military strategy to defeat the insurgency-to justify holding on at least a little longer. And the suggestion that the occupation is not enhancing security will strike many Americans as showing a distasteful lack of faith in our troops. They’re our troops, and they can “get the job done” as long as we give them the support they need (which might actually mean sending more troops).
It will consequently be extremely difficult for peace activists to win people over by engaging them on this ground. In fact, this whole dispute seems to be intrinsically unresolvable. The central issue-what will happen if US troops withdraw?-is at bottom a matter of speculation about the future, and the truth is that no one really knows what the future might hold for Iraq, regardless of whether US forces stay or go. Things might get better, they might get worse, or they might stay roughly the same. We can argue about the relative likelihood of different scenarios, but in the end it’s all just educated guesswork. To be realistic, the peace movement must acknowledge that if US troops withdraw, the situation in Iraq really could deteriorate considerably, just as supporters of the occupation must acknowledge that things really might get better if we leave. Anyone who claims to know for certain what will happen is just not credible.
THE RADICAL ARGUMENT FOR WITHDRAWAL
A more forceful response to the Pottery Barn rule is to challenge the assumption that the purpose of our continuing troop presence in Iraq is to “fix” it, i.e., to turn Iraq into a secure, independent, and democratic nation. Our government’s unflagging support for despotic regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and elsewhere raises serious doubts about the likelihood that the administration has ever wanted independence and self-government in Iraq. Rather, given the consistent pattern of US policy in the gulf region, it is much more plausible to suppose that what Bush wants in Iraq is US control, with or without a democratic facade.
Other evidence abounds, from both before and after the invasion, that our government has never intended to bring genuine popular government to Iraq. When Colin Powell was rounding up votes for the only resolution he managed to push through the UN Security Council before we invaded, he got Russia and France on board by promising that a post-Hussein Iraq would honor all of its pre-existing petroleum contracts. He also pledged that a post-Hussein Iraq would remain a single country, rather than break up into several smaller states. No one batted an eye at either of those promises, but each of them was flatly inconsistent with a commitment to Iraqi self-determination. If the Iraqis themselves were really going to control their government after Hussein was toppled, there was no way that Powell could say in advance what that government would or would not do. Maybe it would renegotiate all of its petroleum contracts, or just repudiate them. Maybe it would decide that breaking up the country was really the way to go. Who knows? By making promises in advance about what the future Iraqi government would do, Powell made clear that Iraqi government policy would be determined by the Bush administration, not by the Iraqis.
Evidence of the administration’s less-than-honorable intentions has continued to mount since the invasion. A few examples: As Juan Cole and others have noted, the US has worked very hard to give the Iraqis as little democracy as possible. We initially tried to draft a permanent constitution before any elections were held, rather than letting the Iraqis elect the drafters. We also tried to impose some sort of caucus system, which could be more easily manipulated and controlled than one person-one vote elections. In each case, we were forced to back down by the Iraqis’ non-violent protests. In addition, we began constructing permanent military bases in Iraq immediately after the invasion, long before Iraq had a government that had any claim to democratic legitimacy. That is, we took their land for our bases before they even had an opportunity to consent or object. What kind of respect for Iraqi sovereignty and self-determination is that?
To anyone on the left, this idea-that the US government is not pursuing, and actually opposes, genuine democracy in Iraq-should be familiar to the point of banality. Left-leaning historians and commentators have argued for some time that opposition to independence and popular government has been a dominant theme of US foreign policy toward the Third World for at least the last 60 years. And if all of that is correct, as I believe it is, then there is no justification for our continuing troop presence in Iraq.
But despite its merits, this line of reasoning is hopeless as a focus of the peace movement’s outreach activities. To the overwhelming majority of Americans, the idea that US intentions are not benevolent is virtually unthinkable. If the peace movement’s only hope for success is to convince a majority of the American people that our government actually opposes meaningful democracy in Iraq, then we might as well quit right now.
Don’t get me wrong: There is never a bad time to try to raise consciousness about the true character of US foreign policy, and I am not suggesting that anyone doing it should stop. But if the goal of the peace movement is to get our troops out now, then the movement should not base its efforts on a project whose chance of success in the short term is essentially zero. What we need, ideally, is grounds for withdrawal that can have broad and immediate appeal.
THE COMMON SENSE ARGUMENT FOR WITHDRAWAL
Fortunately, such grounds exist. The key is to focus on a critical question that has so far been ignored: What do the Iraqi people actually want? Most Americans would agree that if the Iraqis want our troops out of their country, then our troops must leave, period. Iraq is their country, after all. It’s hard to imagine how even Bush & co. could deny that with a straight face.
The available evidence leaves no doubt that the people of Iraq-not just the insurgents-want our troops to go. Recent surveys by the State Department found that, outside of Kurdish areas, a decisive majority of Iraqis want US troops withdrawn immediately. And a poll conducted in early September 2006 by the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes reached similar conclusions: 71 percent of Iraqis want their government to ask foreign forces to leave within a year.
Moreover, none of this is new. A Zogby poll found that 82 percent of Iraqi Sunnis and 69 percent of Shiites want our troops withdrawn. That poll was taken one month before the January 2005 elections, which were won by a Shiite coalition whose electoral platform included a plank calling for the withdrawal of US troops. Then, in August 2005, a secret survey commissioned by the British Ministry of Defense found that 82 percent of Iraqis were “strongly opposed” to the presence of foreign troops in Iraq. (We don’t know how many of the remaining 18 percent were merely “opposed,” because only a few of the poll’s findings were leaked to the press.) And the list goes on. Every serious survey of Iraqi popular opinion shows that the Iraqi people want us out.
By focusing on these facts, advocates of withdrawal can avoid the endless debates about whether the situation on the ground is likely to get better or worse if US troops pull out. The point is not that security in Iraq will improve if we withdraw. It’s entirely possible it will deteriorate-who knows? The point is that the people of Iraq have the right to face that prospect on their own, without our troops in their country, if that is what they want to do.
In fact, every argument in defense of the occupation crumbles under the weight of Iraqi popular opinion. For example, we can now see both what’s right and what’s wrong with the Pottery Barn rule. When the US invasion “broke” Iraq, what it broke was a country full of human beings who have their own ideas about how to fix their country, and who should do the fixing. Breaking Iraq thus doesn’t mean we have the right to fix it in just any way we please. It means we must give any assistance we can, as long as the Iraqis themselves don’t reject our aid. If they don’t want our troops in their country, then we have no business ramming that form of “help” down their throats.
Or consider Bush’s claim that proponents of withdrawal want to “cut and run” or “accept defeat” in Iraq. At the same time, Bush insists that the goal of the invasion and ongoing occupation is to bring democracy to Iraq, to give Iraqis real control over their lives and their country. But if that’s what we’re trying to do, then leaving when the Iraqis want us to leave does not mean abandoning our stated mission-it means fulfilling that mission. It means victory. It means giving the Iraqis what they want.
Opponents of withdrawal might also point out that Iraq’s elected government has not asked us to leave. That’s true, and there’s at least one obvious reason why: Iraqi officials are probably worried that, with US troops gone, they might be easier targets for the insurgents. But the fact remains that the people of Iraq want us out, and the State Department poll actually found that Iraqis don’t want us to wait for their government to ask us to leave. It consequently makes no sense to wait, probably forever, for such a request. To do that would be to let the Iraqi government become a means of defying the will of the Iraqi people. If that’s how Iraqi democracy functions, what good is it?
Finally, our troops’ own sacrifices become all the more poignant when seen in light of both Iraqi popular opinion and the National Intelligence Estimate’s finding that the occupation is making the threat of Islamic terrorism worse. How can Bush look our soldiers in the eye and send them off to face severe injury or death in Iraq even though the Iraqi people don’t want us there and our own intelligence agencies agree that the occupation is making Americans less safe? What on earth is all that bloodshed for? The only real way to support our troops is to bring them home now.
Of course, the peace movement should also emphasize that withdrawing our troops doesn’t mean abandoning the Iraqis and leaving them to their own devices. We can, for example, get our troops out but still use our influence on the Security Council to cancel Iraq’s reparations debts from Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. Iraq’s current reparations payments exceed its combined health and education budgets. Why should the people of Iraq be stuck paying Hussein’s bills? We can send food, doctors and nurses and medical supplies, teachers and textbooks. There are countless ways we should try to help the Iraqis without having our troops in their country.
American politicians should find it easy to embrace the idea that we’ve got to get out of Iraq because the Iraqi people want us to. It’s not a liberal or left-wing idea. In fact, it’s a conservative or libertarian one, because keeping 140,000+ US troops in Iraq, at the cost of hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands upon thousands of US and Iraqi dead and injured, all because we think we know more about what’s good for the Iraqis than the Iraqis themselves do, is paternalistic Big Government at its absolute worst. If our peace groups and just a few of our political leaders were making this pitch, popular opposition to the occupation would be spreading even faster than it already is.
Frank J. Menetrez is an attorney in Los Angeles and a member of Military Families Speak Out. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.