We find ourselves in a remarkable situation today. Despite a massive propaganda campaign in support of the occupation of Iraq, a clear majority of people in the United States now believes the invasion was not worth the consequences and should never have been undertaken.
Likewise, people strongly disapprove of the foreign policy of Republicans and Democrats in Congress, particularly their position on the war in Iraq. In a September 2005 New York Times-CBS News poll, support for immediate withdrawal stood at 52 percent, a remarkable figure when one considers that very few political organizations have articulated an “Out Now” position.
The official justifications for the war have been exposed as complete fallacies. Even conservative defenders of U.S. empire now complain that the situation in Iraq is a disaster.
Yet many people who opposed this unjust invasion, who opposed the 1991 Gulf War and the sanctions on Iraq for years before that, some of whom joined mass demonstrations against the war before it began, have been persuaded that the U.S. military should now remain in Iraq for the benefit of the Iraqi people. We confront the strange situation of many people mobilizing against an unjust war but then reluctantly supporting the military occupation that flows directly from it.
In part, this position is rooted in the pessimistic conclusions many drew after the February 15, 2003,day of international demonstrations – perhaps the largest coordinated protest in human history – failed to prevent the war. This pessimism was exacerbated by some of the leading spokespeople for the antiwar movement, who misled audiences by suggesting that the demonstrations could stop the war. As inspiring as the demonstrations were, it would have taken a significantly higher degree of protest, organization, and disruption of business as usual to do so.
The lesson of February 15 is not that protest no longer works, but that protest needs to be sustained, coherent, forceful, persistent, and bold – rather than episodic and isolated. And it needs to involve large numbers of working-class people, veterans, military families, conscientious objectors, Arabs, Muslims, and other people from targeted communities, not just as passive observers but as active participants and leaders.
We will need this kind of protest to end the occupation of Iraq. But we will also need to be able to answer the objections and concerns of thoughtful, well-meaning people who have been persuaded by one or more of the arguments for why U.S. troops should remain in Iraq, at least until “stability” is restored. Below, I outline eight reasons why the United States should leave Iraq immediately, addressing common arguments for why the United States needs to “stay the course.”
THE U.S. MILITARY HAS NO RIGHT TO BE IN IRAQ IN THE FIRST PLACE.
The Bush administration built its case for invading Iraq on a series of deceptions. The war in Iraq was sold on the idea that the United States was preempting a terrorist attack by Iraq. But Iraq posed no threat. The country was disarmed and had overwhelmingly complied with the extremely invasive weapons inspections. In a rare moment of honesty, Vice President Dick Cheney told CNN in March 2001,”I don’t believe [Saddam Hussein] is a significant military threat today.”
As the case for war has crumbled, so has the case for occupation, which also rests on the idea that the United States can violate the sovereignty of the Iraqi people and all the laws of occupation, such as the Hague and Geneva Conventions, which clearly restrict the right of occupying powers to interfere in the internal affairs of an occupied people.
THE UNITED STATES IS NOT BRINGING DEMOCRACY TO IRAQ.
Having failed to find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq – the first big lie of the invasion – the United States has turned to a new big lie: George Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, John Negroponte, Condoleezza Rice, John Bolton, and their friends are bringing democracy to the Iraqi people.
Democracy has nothing to do with why the United States is in Iraq. The Bush administration invaded Iraq to secure long-established imperial interests in the Middle East – the same reason Washington backed Saddam Hussein as he carried out the worst of his crimes against the Iraqi people, the Kurds, and the Iranians
By invading Iraq, Washington hoped not only to install a regime more favorable to U.S. oil interests; it hoped to use Iraq as a staging ground for further interventions to redraw the map of the Middle East. Several U.S. bases have been established in Iraq and are likely to remain long after U.S. troops are expelled. All of this has nothing to do with democracy. In fact, the United States has long been a major obstacle to any secular, democratic, nationalist, or socialist movements in the region that stood for fundamental change, preferring instead what is euphemistically called “stability,” even if it meant supporting the most reactionary fundamentalist religious forces or repressive regimes.
The U.S. government opposes genuine democracy in the Middle East for a simple reason: if ordinary people controlled the region’s energy resources, they might be put toward local economic development and social needs, rather than going to fuel the profits of Western oil companies.
Democracy cannot be “installed” by outside powers, at gunpoint. Genuine democracy can come about only through the struggle of people for control over their own lives and circumstances, through movements that are themselves democratic in nature. When confronted with such movements, such as the 1991 Iraqi uprising, the U.S. government has consistently preferred to see them crushed than to see them succeed.
THE UNITED STATES IS NOT MAKING THE WORLD A SAFER PLACE BY OCCUPYING IRAQ.
The invasion of Iraq has made the world a far more unstable and dangerous place. By invading Iraq, Washington sent the message to other states that anything goes in the so-called war on terror.
After September 11,India called its nuclear rival Pakistan an “epicenter of terrorism.” Israel has carried out “targeted assassinations” of Palestinians, bombed Syria, and threatened to strike Iran, using the same rationale that Bush did for the invasion of Iraq.” You don’t negotiate with terrorism, you uproot it. This is simply the doctrine of Mr. Bush that we’re following,” explained Uzi Landau, Israel’s minister of public security.
Furthermore, the invasion of Iraq is spurring the drive for countries to develop a deterrent to U.S. power. The most likely response to the invasion of Iraq is that more countries will pursue nuclear weapons, which may be the only possible protection from attack, and will increase their spending on more conventional weapons systems. Each move in this game has a multiplier effect in a world that is already perilously close to the brink of self-annihilation through nuclear warfare or accident.
Meanwhile, the invasion has also quite predictably increased the resentment and anger that many people feel against the United States and its allies, therefore making innocent people in these countries far more vulnerable to terrorism, as we saw in the deadly attacks in Madrid on March 11, 2004, and London on July 7, 2005.
The United States is reviled not because people “hate our freedoms,” as Bush suggests, but because people hate the very real impact of U.S. policies on their lives. As the British playwright and essayist Harold Pinter observed,” People do not forget. They do not forget the death of their fellows, they do not forget torture and mutilation, they do not forget injustice, they do not forget oppression, they do not forget the terrorism of mighty powers. They not only don’t forget. They strike back.”
THE UNITED STATES IS NOT PREVENTING CIVIL WAR IN IRAQ.
Perhaps the greatest fear of many antiwar activists who now support the occupation is that the withdrawal of U.S. troops will lead to civil war. This idea has been encouraged repeatedly by supporters of the war. “Sectarian fault lines in Iraq are inexorably pushing the country towards civil war unless we actually intervene decisively to stem it,” explained one U.S. Army official, making the case for a continued U.S.presence.
But Washington is not preventing a civil war from breaking out. In fact, occupation authorities are deliberately pitting Kurds against Arabs, Shia against Sunni, and faction against faction to influence the character of the future government, following a classic divide- and-rule strategy.
Taking this idea to its logical extreme, New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman argues, “We should arm the Shiites and Kurds and leave the Sunnis of Iraq to reap the wind.” Such arguments are not just the fantasy of keyboard warriors like Friedman, however. As the journalist A.K. Gupta notes, “the Pentagon is arming, training, and funding” militias in Iraq “for use in counter-insurgency operations.” Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said such commandos were among “the forces that are going to have the greatest leverage on suppressing and eliminating the insurgencies.”
In addition, the Iraqi constitution, drafted under intense pressure from occupation authorities, essentially enshrines sectarian divisions in Iraqi politics. And, finally, despite all of its rhetoric about confronting Islamic fundamentalism in Iraq, the United States has in fact encouraged it, bringing formerly marginalized fundamentalist parties such as the Dawa Party and the Iranian-backed Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq into the Iraqi government.
THE UNITED STATES IS NOT CONFRONTING TERRORISM BY STAYING IN IRAQ.
Iraq has never been the center of a terrorist threat to the United States. Each month, further evidence emerges that the Bush administration went to great lengths to suppress facts that undermined its case for war, while touting bogus evidence in its support. As the New York Times reported in November 2005, “A top member of Al Qaeda in American custody was identified as a likely fabricator months before the Bush administration began to use his statements as the foundation for its claims that Iraq trained Al Qaeda members to use biological and chemical weapons, according to newly declassified portions of a Defense Intelligence Agency document.”
Al-Qaeda made its first appearance in Iraq only after the invasion, a predictable outcome of the U.S. occupation. In reality, the United States engaged in state terrorism under the pretext of fighting a terrorist threat that did not exist in Iraq, and in the process greatly increased the likelihood of individual and organizational terrorist acts targeting the United States or its proxies abroad.
Even more circular is the idea that the United States has to stay in Iraq until it “defeats” the resistance to the occupation. The occupation itself is the source of the resistance, a fact that even some of the people responsible for the war have been forced to acknowledge.
THE UNITED STATES IS NOT HONORING THOSE WHO DIED BY CONTINUING THE CONFLICT.
One of the most cynical reasons for staying in Iraq was advanced by President Bush in response to the growing public criticism over the mounting deaths of U.S. soldiers and the deliberate campaign by the administration to suppress images of the returning coffins. Speaking to a carefully targeted audience in Salt Lake City, Utah, where he fled to escape the protest of Cindy Sheehan, who lost her son, Casey, in Iraq on April 4, 2004, Bush made a rare public acknowledgment of the number of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. “We owe them something,” he said. “We will finish the task that they gave their lives for. We will honor their sacrifice by staying on the offensive against the terrorists.”
Sheehan herself had the best response to this attempt to manipulate people into supporting continued occupation, asking, “Why should I want one more mother to go through what I’ve gone through, because my son is dead?… I don’t want him using my son’s death or my family’s sacrifice to continue the killing.”
The soldiers in Iraq have not died for a “noble cause,” as Bush claims. Whatever personal motivations may have brought them into the military, they died for oil, for empire, for power and profit. More deaths and injuries of Iraqis and of U.S. soldiers will only compound the tragedy of the numerous lives already lost.
THE UNITED STATES IS NOT REBUILDING IRAQ.
The contractors now in Iraq are not there to help the people of Iraq but to help themselves, drawing on their close ties to influential politicians to secure contracts and profit from what Pratap Chatterjee rightly calls the “reconstruction racket.”
The reality is, Halliburton, Bechtel, and the other companies in Iraq are looting the country far more than they are rebuilding it. Iraqis have been forced to pay elevated prices to import oil, benefiting corporations like Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown & Root, while ordinary Iraqis have to stand in lines sometimes for days to buy gasoline. Project after project remains unfinished. Hospitals are in shambles. Electricity is still at woefully inadequate levels.
As the journalist Naomi Klein eloquently observes, “The United States, having broken Iraq, is not in the process of fixing it. It is merely continuing to break the country and its people by other means, using not only F-16s and Bradleys, but now the less flashy weaponry” of economic strangulation.
The Iraqi people are perfectly capable of rebuilding their own society, in fact far more so than foreign soldiers or contractors. To the extent that there have been any social services or security in the last two years, it is primarily Iraqis who have provided it. During the years of sanctions, Iraqis also showed their immense resourcefulness in holding together their badly damaged infrastructure. Iraqi engineers, teachers, and doctors have long been among the most educated and best trained in the Arab world. It is ultimately a racist worldview that believes Iraqis cannot rebuild or run their own country.
THE UNITED STATES IS NOT FULFILLING ITS OBLIGATION TO THE IRAQI PEOPLE FOR THE HARM AND SUFFERING IT HAS CAUSED.
Understandably, many opponents of the war now believe that the United States has an obligation to the Iraqi people and therefore has to stay to “clean up the mess it has created.” MoveOn.org, which grabbed headlines and signed up millions of online members with its anti-Bush campaigning, refuses to call for withdrawal of troops from Iraq because, in the words of its executive director, Eli Pariser, “There are no good options in Iraq.” Using this same logic, leading anti-sanctions and antiwar groups such as the Education for Peace in Iraq Center have formally adopted positions in support of occupation, if somehow a more enlightened occupation, and therefore against immediate withdrawal.
We must confront the bizarre logic of saying that the people who have devastated Iraq, who encouraged and enforced sanctions that cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis in the last decade, who have failed at even the most basic responsibilities as an occupying power, who are the source of the instability in Iraq today, are the only ones who can protect Iraqis from hunger and anarchy. In no other area of our lives do we accept such logic, but when it comes to the crimes of empire, we are supposed to continually ignore history. The “doctrine of good intentions” exculpates all crimes.
The reality, however, is that the U.S. occupation, rather than being a source of stability in Iraq, is the major source of instability and ongoing suffering.
Moreover, those calling for immediate withdrawal do not advocate a position of isolationism and of simply walking away from any obligation to the Iraqi people. Does the U.S. government have an obligation to the Iraqi people? Absolutely. An obligation for the crimes Washington supported for years when Saddam Hussein was an ally. For arming and supporting both sides in the brutal Iran-Iraq War. For the destruction of the 1991 Gulf War. For the use of depleted uranium munitions, cluster bombs, daisy cutters, and white phosphorus. For the devastating sanctions. For the humiliation and deaths caused by the 2003 invasion, and for the great damage the occupation has caused since.
But the first step in meeting this obligation is to withdraw immediately.
If there were any genuine justice for the people of Iraq, not only would the politicians responsible for this unjust war face prosecution for their crimes, but the U.S. government would be required to pay reparations to the Iraqi people and to the families of U.S. soldiers who have been maimed and killed by its criminal actions.
In demanding an end to the U.S. occupation, we do not need to call for some other occupying power to replace the United States. We should allow the people of Iraq to determine their own future. This means, as Naomi Klein has argued, that in addition to calling for an end to military occupation, we should be calling for an end to the economic occupation of Iraq and the cancellation of all debts that Iraq still owes from the previous regime (many of which still have not been forgiven). If the Iraqis ask for outside assistance, that is their prerogative. But it is their decision, not ours, to make, and that decision can only be freely made if the United States, United Kingdom, and other occupying armies withdraw completely and end their economic, political, and military coercion of Iraq.
This article is adapted from Anthony Arnove’s forthcoming book Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal, due out on April 18 from The New Press.
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
We've partnered with the publisher, Haymarket Books, and 100% of your donation will go towards supporting In These Times.