The Time of Withdrawal

Though we arrived in Iraq speaking the language of liberation (in English only) and most Iraqis were relieved initially to have the sanctions regime and the war ended as well as a horrendously abusive regime gone, we did not arrive as liberators. Though almost all of the above had largely been forgotten by Americans and could barely be found in our media, it was certainly in the minds of many Iraqis, who had to assume, on the basis of the historical record, a distinct self-interestedness on our part. We arrived in Iraq thinking utterly beneficently about ourselves, but undoubtedly from the Iraqi point of view (dangerous as it is to assume that there is only one such) we had much to prove (or perhaps disprove) – and fast. The proof in the last six months has been painfully in line with the previous historical record cited above.


No exit: When thinking of withdrawal, it’s important to remember that it was never a concept in the Bush administration’s vocabulary. Despite all those years of Vietnam “lessons” and Colin Powell’s “doctrine” which said that no military action should be undertaken without an “exit strategy” in place, Bush’s boys had no exit strategy in mind because they never imagined leaving. Of course, they expected to quickly draw down American forces in the face of a jubilant and grateful population. But there was no greater signal of our long-term intentions than our dismantling of the Iraqi military, and their planned recreation as a lightly armed border-patrolling force of perhaps 40,000 with no air force. Put that together with the four permanent bases we began building almost immediately and you know that we were expecting to be Iraq‘s on-site military protector into the distant future.


Iraq itself was to be the lynchpin of an American empire of bases that was to extend from the former Yugoslavia to Uzbekistan, right across the “arc of instability” which just happened to coincide with the major oil lands of this Earth. Occupying Iraq would also – of this the neocons were quite confident — tame Syria and Iran, settle the Palestinian question on grounds favorable to the Sharon government, and solve the awkward problem of basing our troops in Saudi Arabia about which Osama bin Laden had so long been bitter. This is what “liberation” truly meant.


So when considering withdrawal, you can’t think only of Iraq. When occupying it, the Bush administration had far larger fish to fry. They had a global no-exit strategy of domination they wanted to put fully in place.


It has often been said – and on this score there has been much complaint in the military – that our troops were never trained to be policemen or peacekeepers (and that we didn’t bother to bring into Iraq any significant number of military police) – but that’s the narrowest way to look at a very large problem. We arrived in Baghdad as a victorious, or more bluntly, a conquering army, not as peacekeepers. And we have continued in that vein.


In the weeks before, during and after the war, the administration itself often compared the occupation of Iraq to the Japanese and German occupations at the end of World War II. But we did allow actual Japanese and Germans to rebuild their countries economically, more or less to Japanese and German specifications. Iraq has been another matter. At every level, the Iraqis themselves have been sidelined. Reconstruction has been a kind of economic pillage, booty offered to huge American corporations linked to the Bush administration – and the future economy of Iraq has been declared a free-fire zone for international finance. This is not what the Americans did to Japan, but what the Huns did to Europe, even if dressed up in modern capitalist garb. When mobs of Iraqis began to loot museums, ministries, stores, homes, oil refineries, electric plants, anything in sight, we were all shocked. When the power occupying Iraq opens the country to foreign (read American) corporations for the wholesale looting of its wealth and economic well-being, no one so much as blinks.


Again, history tells us that the Iraqis – and not just thugs, terrorists, and “bitter-enders” – will not live long on the sidelines of such a situation. Soon, they will challenge us about withdrawal, something never previously part of the Bush agenda. It must be part of ours.


The time of withdrawal: When considering the issue of ending the occupation quickly and bringing our troops home, perhaps the most important matter to think about is time itself. As we hear endlessly, we must not “cut and run,” but instead “stay the course.” The implication in all such statements is that, if only the United States toughs it out, on the other side of this rough patch of resistance lies another far less chaotic world in which a new and more peaceful Iraq will play at least something like the role the Bush administration imagined for it. Perhaps it was once true, when news traveled slowly and the colonial world was in more or less another universe, that an imperial power indeed did have five or ten years in which to pacify, at least for a time, a conquered and occupied land. Time like that is no longer available to the United States or to the Bush administration.


It is far more reasonable – given what we know of history and of the present situation – to assume that time is not on our side. What is bad now for us – and for the Iraqis – will only be worse later. The resistance will be greater, more organized, and more determined. Our allies, both within and without Iraq, ever more distant; American troops more isolated, angry, and embattled; money in shorter supply; military morale lower; and the antiwar movement here stronger. This is a prediction, of course, but a far more reasonable one, I think, than those that we hear every day. And if “staying the course,” toughing it out, only makes a bad situation worse, then withdrawal when it comes, as it will, will only be that much harder and the results only that much more catastrophic for all parties concerned.


Let me sum up in four sentences:


History, long term and more recent, is not on our side.


We are a war-making and an occupying force, not a peacekeeping force.


We never planned to leave Iraq.


Time is against us.


Or to boil all this down to a sentence: We are not and never have been the solution to the problem of Iraq, but a significant part of the problem.


If this is true, then that’s what we’ll remain as long as our troops are there, all of which speaks to the need for a quick withdrawal from Iraq. I don’t claim to have a plan for doing so. Withdrawal plans must come, but probably not from the likes of me. A look at history (by those more expert than I) might be of use. There are endless imperial withdrawals from various occupied lands to consider — some more embattled and horrific, some more peaceful, some braver, some more cowardly, some showing foresight, some barely ahead of collapse itself. And sometimes, of course, there was no withdrawal at all. The occupying forces were simply driven out. Examples obviously range from the French in Algeria and the Portuguese in Africa to the Israelis in Lebanon and the Russians in Eastern Europe. How this might be done and whom Iraq would be handed off to must be considered as well. Would the UN take some responsibility for Iraq or, for that matter, the Arab League? I don’t know. All I know is that if the will to withdraw, and withdraw quickly, is there, withdrawal is what will happen.


I’m no expert on Iraq. I can hardly keep the Shi’ite groups straight even with the help of the writings of Juan Cole. I do think it would be a mistake for any of us to claim that we know what would happen during a genuine withdrawal. It could indeed be a terrible mess or simply a true horror. Iraq could split in three – an embattled Kurdish semi-democracy in the north (under the ominous shadow of Turkey), a Sunni dictatorship in the center, and a harsh Islamic Republic in the South. There could be bloodshed or civil war. Or not. The future has a way of surprising – and since the American occupiers have chosen not to trust Iraqis with either responsibility or power, we have no idea what they might have done with it, or might someday do with it.


All of that is speculation. But what we can see is what a long-term horror an American occupation and reconstruction of Iraq is likely to turn out to be. We can see the rising death toll; we can read about the civilians slain; we can note the mini-gulag set up there. We can mull over the greed and corruption in what passes for “reconstruction.” All this we know. The rest is possibility. This we should not want to continue in our names. This “course” we should not want to “stay.” Alternatives should not be considered “cutting and running.”


For me at least, the imperial occupation of the lands of this earth – whatever the empire – is unacceptable. Any armed occupation will always be part of the problem not the solution on this planet. In our present world, such acts can only lead to hell. We need to pressure this administration hard to step outside the box it has created for us, our troops, and the Iraqi people who truly did deserve a liberation and not the occupation and looting that they are living through. They are not the spoils of war.


Let us offer Iraq genuine help, reconstruction aid, and support of all sorts afterwards, possibly indirectly through groups whose interests can’t be mistaken for ours. But our troops are an occupying army. They can’t keep the peace. They are the war.


[Tom Engelhardt is a long time editor in publishing and author of The End of Victory Culture and The Last Days of Publishing. This article first appeared his weblog for the Nation Institute, Tomdispatch.com, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion.]

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