To Leave or Not to Leave

Parsing the plans for “victory” in Iraq

BY Mark Levine

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In the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, President Bush told the world, “We will remain in Iraq as long as necessary, and not a day more.” But as is always the case in politics, the devil is in the details.

When will it no longer be necessary for the United States to maintain troops in Iraq? And what does “withdrawing troops” actually mean–all troops or just most troops?

According to Bush’s newly released “National Strategy for Victory in Iraq,” the most important goal of our presence in Iraq is to “help people defeat the terrorists and build a democratic inclusive state.” But if by terrorism we mean the systematic threatening, torturing and/or killing of civilians to force them to accept a political or military situation they wouldn’t otherwise sanction, then the United States has committed far more acts of terrorism and crimes against humanity than the insurgents in Iraq (with perhaps more than 100,000 dead Iraqi civilians and hundreds of billions of dollars in destruction and counting).

Equally troubling, the plan argues that “failure in Iraq will embolden terrorists and expand their reach. … The fate of the greater Middle East, which will have a profound and lasting impact on American security, hangs in the balance.” By these terms, there is little chance of U.S. pullout from Iraq any time soon, since by the Defense Department’s own reckoning, the insurgency could last well over a decade.

Numerous flaws in the administration’s analysis of its current policy will also keep the United States in Iraq for many years before what the president has termed “complete” or “total” victory can be achieved. In highlighting three tracks that the administration deems essential to winning the war–political, security and economic–the president’s plan fails to acknowledge that for most Iraqis it is the United States–not the “insurgency”–that is the primary “enemy” in the country; that U.S. policies of “clear, hold and build” have largely failed in all three areas; and that the neoliberal economic program it has imposed cannot “reform, restore and build” an Iraqi economy that, whatever its many faults, was the envy of the developing world before the first Gulf War and the subsequent sanctions and invasions.

Indeed, in the almost three years since the current invasion, the United States has been unable to rebuild much–if not most–of the infrastructure it destroyed, while the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and its Iraqi clients have inspired contempt from Iraqis with regard to the “reforms, transparency and accountability” described as crucial for the country’s development. At the same time, by demonizing Iraq’s insurgents as “perverse” and “against humanity,” the Bush administration has precluded the possibility of a negotiated settlement and full withdrawal of U.S. forces.

Most alternatives fall short

If the president’s latest strategic tweaking of U.S. goals and tactics in Iraq is worrisome, few of the alternative plans by Democrats and their allies are much better. On the official level, perhaps the most prominent statement by a “liberal hawk” was Sen. Joseph Biden’s (D-Del.) November 21 remarks to the Council on Foreign Relations, in which he accused the Bush administration of “misrepresenting the facts, misunderstanding Iraq, and misleading on the war.” While this is no doubt true, Biden hardly does a better job of reflecting the situation in Iraq.

The reason is that his framework is the same as the president’s: “preserving America’s fundamental interests”–or, as he rephrased it later in his speech, our “core interests”–in Iraq. Since he never explicitly states what those are, it makes it difficult to define a strategy much different than that of the White House. Biden’s rhetoric of “realism” is no less troubling than Bush’s “grandiose goals.” Biden argues that “Iraq will not become a model democracy any time soon,” and that because of this, we need to “refocus” our mission on preserving America’s fundamental goals. In fact, however, the one level on which Iraq is enjoying a measure of success is in building the infrastructure of formal democratic practice. After all, can we say for sure that our last two presidential elections were fairer than Iraq’s?

Biden argues that America’s fundamental goals are to stop Iraq from being a haven for terrorists and to prevent a full-blown civil, and ultimately regional, war. But we’ve already lost on the first count, while on the second our continued presence will likely catalyze, rather than slow, the march toward regional anarchy.

These dynamics help explain the strong similarities betweeen Bush’s plan and Biden’s three-pronged alternative–forging a political settlement, strengthening the Iraqi government’s capabilities through reconstruction and services, and accelerating our training of Iraqi forces. This is not surprising if we assume that America’s “core interests” as stated (but not explicitly defined) by Biden are similar to the views of the Bush administration: a long-term military presence and the ability to direct, profit from and control other countries’ (especially China’s) access to Iraq’s immense petroleum reserves as the world enters the age of Peak Oil.

The most comprehensive plan offered by the Democratic establishment is from two members of the moderate Center for American Progress. Titled “Strategic Redeployment: A Progressive Plan for Iraq and the Struggle Against Violent Extremists,” and written by former Reagan Defense official Lawrence Korb and Brian Katulis, the plan has one major virtue: It admits that “most Iraqis do not want us there and they do not feel our presence makes them safer.”

In a more explicit and far-reaching version of Biden’s vision, this plan calls for 80,000 U.S. troops to be redeployed by the end of 2006, most home, although many to Afghanistan and “other hot spots around the globe.” Significantly, the plan asserts that “by the end of 2007, the only U.S. military forces in Iraq would be a small Marine contingent to protect the U.S. embassy, military advisers to the Iraqi government and counterterrorist units working with Iraqi forces.” This sounds like a big improvement over Bush’s open-ended commitment of more than 100,000 troops, but it’s disturbingly close to our position in Colombia or the Philippines, which helps to perpetuate oppressive practices in the name of stability and fighting terrorism.

A bigger problem, however, is that the plan still defines the main object of U.S. policy as “most effectively defeating our enemies.” There is no discussion of how U.S. policies produced a situation where our enemies can prosper, even as it admits that attacks have skyrocketed under the Bush administration. But without this historical context, a successful plan against the insurgency and the larger problem of terrorism cannot be developed.

Similarly, when Korb and Katulis criticize Bush administration policy for “remain[ing] the same,” the authors refer merely to counter-terrorism policy, not the larger policies whose sameness across a host of administrations is at the root of today’s terrorist threat. When it refers to the “lack of information” at the disposal of the American people, it refers merely to military information, not to the horrendous state of ignorance of most Americans about our foreign policy and its consequences in the Middle East for decades. Indeed, most Muslims know this history far better than most Americans.

One example cited by the authors demonstrates the context their analysis lacks. They argue that “earlier this year, Sheikh Jawad al-Kalesi, a leading Shiite cleric in Baghdad, asserted that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed long ago, but that the United States was continuing the ‘ploy’ of using al-Zarqawi as an excuse to continue the occupation and a pretext to stay in Iraq. The United States does not do enough to counter these distortions of the facts.” I met with Sheikh Jawad when I was in Iraq last year. He was among the most open and honest of the religious leaders I came across, and certainly the least hateful toward the United States. He stressed the importance of finding nonviolent ways to resist the occupation, unlike his Sunni counterparts I met, who blithely discussed “killing every infidel” to get the United States out of Iraq. Sheikh Jawad’s views about Zarqawi, if not intended sarcastically, were likely meant to reflect the view of many Iraqis, who believe that Zarqawi serves American interests so well that if he didn’t exist the United States would have had to invent him.

If Sheikh Jawad is spreading “myths and conspiracy theories,” their roots lie deep in the Green Zone. Comparing him to terrorists who use the media to “disseminate targeted messages” misses the huge difference between the moderate Shia establishment represented by Jawad and the radical foreign Sunni jihadis, who consider Shiites like him as much an enemy as occupation forces.

The power of simplicity

If the idea of “strategic redeployment” is problematic in many areas, the plan outlined by Pennsylvania Representative and 37-year Marine Corps veteran John Murtha is clearer, more pragmatic, and in one respect, profound: He calls simply for a coherent “exit strategy” that would bring all the troops home in the near future. Specifically, he argued in November, “Staying the course in Iraq is not an option or a policy. I believe we must begin discussions for an immediate redeployment of U.S. forces from Iraq. I believe it can be accomplished in as little as six months but it must be consistent with the safety of U.S. troops. We must insist that the Iraqis step up and seize their own destiny.”

Murtha’s no-nonsense stance comes from his realization that “the future of the U.S. military is at risk” via its extended presence in Iraq. Crucially, “the original plan to win the peace was flawed. Two and a half years later, the indices that would determine the ultimate success of a stable Iraq have not improved … we have lost the hearts and minds of the Iraqi peoples.” In response, his plan, offered as a Joint Resolution in the House of Representatives on November 17, is: 1) to immediately redeploy U.S. troops consistent with the safety of U.S. forces; 2) to create a quick reaction force in the region; 3) to create an over-the-horizon presence of Marines; and 4) to diplomatically pursue security and stability in Iraq.

The White House immediately denounced Murtha’s plan. Just as telling was the negative reaction to it from Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (although she’s since moved closer to his position), Sen. John Kerry and Sen. Biden. It seems that few if any elite member of the U.S. political establishment will support Murtha’s calls for the explicit “termination” of the U.S. presence in Iraq. Moreover, it seems that the leadership on both sides of the aisle have come together to tamp down any serious push for a full withdrawal.

Perhaps sensing this dynamic, this past summer Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) offered the simplest plan for turning the tide of the war. On June 30, Lee introduced a bill that states it is “the policy of the United States not to enter into any base agreements with the government of Iraq that would lead to a permanent United States military presence in Iraq.” (See “Permanent Occupation,” October 24.)

Several dozen sponsors have joined since the bill was introduced. Its aim is “to simply codify the sentiments expressed by the president and the secretary of defense that we will not have a permanent military presence in Iraq.” But it is clear that Lee and other progressive legislators, such as Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), understand that the administration has little intention of leaving Iraq soon if it can avoid doing so. Indeed, Condoleezza Rice refused to say that the United States would withdraw completely within 10 years. One senior aide to a senator on the Armed Services Committee described to me an angry phone call his boss received from the Pentagon after he publicly pushed a general in testimony to provide a date, no matter how far into the future, when he could say that U.S. forces would leave the country.

In such an environment, simplicity is the best option for politicians and activists seeking to begin a process of withdrawing all U.S. forces from Iraq. The longer and more detailed the plan, the more likely it falls into the very political, ideological and strategic traps that have made such a mess of the occupation to begin with.

For now, the best way to force a debate about withdrawal is to force the political establishment to come clean about America’s true long-term plans for the U.S. military in Iraq. Once Americans understand that there really is no exit plan per se, the calls to define one will grow louder and more emphatic, here and in Iraq.

Mark LeVine is professor of modern Middle Eastern history, culture and Islamic studies, UC Irvine, and the author of Why They Don't Hate Us: Lifting the Veil on the Axis of Evil (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2005)

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