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Why Withdrawal?

J.A. Wiser, whose opinion I generally, genuinely respect, finally decided to write about Iraq. As J.A. points out, the rhetoric being floated by politicians about what is to be done in Iraq conflicts with popular stereotypes of political persuasion. I don’t think that’s much of a problem. Efforts like Senator Durbin’s to describe Iraq as a suckling five-year-old kid long overdue to be weaned from the teats of America are despicable—although entirely predictable, given the ways that occupations tend to go. Politicians presumably speak in order to argue for policy, and so long as Durbin continues to argue for “the orderly redeployment of our troops so that they can begin coming home soon,” his contradictory impulses are tolerable. That’s certainly better than overstating the chances of success in order to defend escalation. But really, it’s the wish that J.A. concludes with that I want to address. It is true that no one asks most Americans, nor especially librarians, to write foreign policy or policy analysis, but those who do could at least try to dispense with their fantasies when they do so:

I wish that both parties would come together and not point fingers at each other for political gain. As tempting as it may be, Democrats need to rise above gloating over the obvious political gift this incompetent Republican administration has given them and get to work to solve this quagmire, frustrating though it is. Republicans need to realize that the Bush administration is largely a lame duck one by now, and they can and should distance themselves from the White House in order to deal with facts as they are (many Republicans have begun to do this).

It might indeed be nice if the entire Congress, along with George Bush and his Cabinet, assembled in the House chamber, locked arms and sang “We Shall Overcome.” But of course, that’s not going to happen, not the least because I very much doubt that Trent Lott knows the words. What I find unsettling about J.A.’s wish is that it implies the coming together to be what matters and it ignores the government that actually exists in Washington. Unless you’re Joe Lieberman or John McCain bipartisanship is not an end in itself, and it’s wrong to approach it as if it were. Ideal is the impetus; policy is the end; bipartisanship is sometimes, if necessary, the means to get there. In contrast, Lieberman and McCain seek out claims of bipartisanship like addicts doing blowjobs for heroin, but—as with the Gang of 14 or McCain’s torture compromise—the compromises they decide upon look very little like the ideals they claim or the policies they originally sought. Because each man’s political soul is in the appearance of compromise rather than in the strength of his belief, he folds in the face of real ideologues who want to torture, to escalate war, or to alter status quos for no other reason than belief that the status quo is worth disrupting for disruption’s sake. The end is that there is no actually existing Bush administration that will meet with Democrats and create good policy with respect to Iraq. What more evidence of this does one need than the past two months? As soon as the Iraq Study Group, itself bipartisan, released its report in November, the president began trotting advisers in and out of the Oval Office in a transparent show of ignoring the commission’s criticism and recommendations. Beyond that, there is too the problem—which is more a problem when the president is both a hawk and, as Carl Cannon explores in The Atlantic, prone to lying to himself—of the separation of powers: the executive has both foreign policy and the execution of wars under its wings, and there is very little that Congress—which now of course means Democrats—can do about it other than exercise oversight and try to lead public opinion (although how public opinion of the Bush administration could get any worse than it is now I don’t know). In the end, what J.A. hopes for either has happened, can’t happen, or won’t happen, and so I wonder: from whence springs his hope?

The second part of J.A.’s post, the practical question of what to do about Iraq, is more serious, and with it I sympathize. I agonize over the fact that it is likely that withdrawal will create more chaos there. I believe too that there are definite ethical and moral problems with abdicating the responsibilities of invasion and occupation. But as I’ve said before, withdrawal is the only right option. The problem isn’t what will happen: the problem is occupation itself. America’s actions in Iraq and continued concern for what will happen to “them” if “we” leave will only ever be colonialism, and an imperial superpower will never be perceived by the occupied as benign. This is especially true

In other words, because the United States long ago blew its chances to make its words matter, so long as the U.S. remains in Iraq, its actions will always be suspect by those who matter most—that is, the people who live there. Invasion and occupation breeds injustice, and the anger and hatred that arises from it is righteous. The power the empire assumes wholly disrupts the power that the occupied can give. Therefore, the fact is, whether the U.S. finally tries something credible to fix the Iraq it broke or whether the U.S. withdraws now and makes Iraq more broken, the result with respect to how the United States will be perceived will be the same: mistrust, anger, resentment, cynicism, and many, many broken bodies and lives will be the result. At least with withdrawal, it is possible, by abdicating claims to power, to lessen any one or all of those things and allows Iraq and the Middle East in general to see the U.S. as something other than a threat. No other action offers the U.S. so much.



You’ve made a very strong case for withdrawal, and I’ll continue my fence-sitting by saying that I don’t necessarily disagree. I concede that you’ve thought more about this than I. Further, I very much want you to be 100% correct. As I indicated in my comments, the only thing about Iraq of which I (personally) am confident is that I haven’t a clue what the best, next steps should be. I think W’s surge idea is ridiculous. If pressed, I would perhaps favor a gradual withdrawal, but I’d do so with both eyes kept wide open to the possibility of all hell breaking loose. My bleeding heart fears genocide much more than it fears the US taking a black eye in the collective perception of the Middle East (too late for that one, anyway).

My (admittedly) idealistic dream of bipartisanship I hope is not one of bipartisanship for its own sake to create a mushy middleground policy. Instead, I would hope that a spirit of bipartisanship would give GOP senators (not named McCain, obviously) cover for bailing on their administration. Currently, I suspect the White House can still play the party loyalty card to whip up filibusterable support for its policies. If more GOP senators believed that the discourse was truly bipartisan (ie, that’s why I hope Democrats do everything possible towards creating this goal), I think that discursive space would allow them to come to a more rational conclusion, a conclusion and approach that probably mirrors your own. But since the GOP senators feel pressured from both sides now, they probably trust the White House to offer political cover more than they do their colleagues across the aisle.

In all this, therefore, I think the key variables are the GOP’s Senators. The future of this quagmire hangs in their balance…and again, why I think the Dems should do everything possible in the next 6-8 weeks to be as magnanimous in their public face as possible. It may hurt their pride in the short term, but the benefits could be outstanding.

But again – seriously – I could be full of crap.

What the GOP’s senators will do is an interesting question, and I like the way you ask it here better than in your post. I still am skeptical, however, because I am afraid it doesn’t matter what party the senators are part of: what comes out of Congress will henceforth be anathema to the administration. I mean, at what point in respect to strategic planning does the White House need to meet with congresspeople? Even before this last election, when he had a bunch of friendlies there, the president was poor at meeting with congress; he’s asserted the executive power of signing statements more brashly than any other president; he’s already got counsel arguing that he doesn’t even need to consult Congress to expand the war to Iran or Syria: in other words, I don’t see that Congress will have any option to work with the executive other than to hold the government’s purse more tightly to its chest.

Would that I could be proved wrong and shown that the U.S. can be a benign occupying power, one that invades, deposes, rebuilds, and goes home, leaving a happier world in its wake. In the same issue of the Atlantic that has the Carl Cannon essay is another by Bing West, a longish survey of what it takes to make police effective and how far Iraq’s police are from being effective. It’s an article that’s long on tactics and short on political possibility. West cites one success story at length:

For two years, the Americans had fought al-Qaeda inside Al Qaim, a transit point for foreign fighters who followed the Euphrates Valley to Ramadi and Fallujah. By the summer of 2005, members of the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s Sunni force, Al Qaeda in Iraq, had taken control of Al Qaim, while the locals stood on the sidelines. In the late fall, [Lieutenant Colonal Julian] Alford’s battalion swept into the city from the west, battled the insurgents block by block, and drove most of them from the town.

Alford then broke his battalion down into smaller units to live alongside Iraqi soldiers, operating from austere combat outposts. He struck a bargain with the Abu Mahal, a local tribe that was feuding with al-Qaeda, and the tribespeople agreed to form a police force.

When I visited in October, the streets were teeming with shoppers. It was the only city in Anbar province where I could walk through a bustling market and listen to merchants complain about commerce, not security. The local bank, with $100,000 in dinars, had no armed guards. The Abu Mahal tribe was expanding its influence, providing recruits for the police in Rawah, the town to the east. The American civil-affairs colonel told me he had five times more projects in Al Qaim than in any other city in Anbar.

“My microfinance projects took off in Qaim,” Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Roberto said. “We used Qaim as an example to other city councils. They even have soccer matches in Qaim.”

When I accompanied a foot patrol downtown, I noticed that none of the police wore masks to hide their identities. We walked together down a side street, where several policemen proudly pointed out their houses. On one street corner, the balcony of a house had been demolished and the walls gouged by bullets. I asked the police whether they had done that. “No,” they laughed. “Irahibeen [terrorists] were hiding there, so we brought marines.”

The Corps had provided a Marine squad for every police patrol. When police and other tribal members pointed out al-Qaeda hideouts, the marines attacked. The insurgents, stripped of anonymity, were driven from the city. The combination of aggressive Marine grunts with Iraqi forces who possessed local knowledge had worked. If there is a way forward in Iraq, Al Qaim and cities like it are the model.

The article reserves its last 10% for a discussion of whether anything like this would be possible to begin large-scale in the country as a whole—entirely too little space, in fact, since tactics have never been the problem: strategy and political aims have. West is not enthusiastic at the prospects.

I am enthused by such stories of commerce and peace. It is the way public society should be, and I want very much for all of Iraq to be like so. But I do not believe my government has ever had that as its aim, for the very reason that its aims have always been conflicting and never at all clear.

I’m going to write more at my place, but Greg, you identified the ultimate problem in this experience since the beginning, since Colin Powell, addressed the UN, we never have had a clear, rational objective. This is the fundamental problem agains the “GWOT” and in Iraq. Since the President kept moving the goals to suit the justification de jour, we have no way of ever winning. It’s aims have always been conflicting and never at all clear, as you cite, so we cannot agree on the end game. If we could agree on the desired outcome, then strategy could be brought to bear, but how do you strategize to win an irrational game?