Letting Go of Iraq

by Stanley Meisler

April 11, 2007

The enthusiasts who stormed into Iraq are incapable of letting go. It is not so much that President Bush and Vice President Cheney cannot face defeat. Far more important, they cannot face the enormity of the mindlessness that powered them to war. So they are hanging on with a stubborn show of honor and even political courage, persuaded that, despite their mistakes and misadventures, history will absolve them.

To keep on in the face of congressional harassment and public discontent, they are spewing a lot of cant about terrorism, micromanagement, chaos and patriotism. It is not easy to see the awful situation clearly.

There is no doubt that deadlines set by Congress smack of micromanagement. Ideally, Congress should leave war to the commander in chief and his generals. Try to imagine Congress passing a bill during World War II with a deadline for getting out. The thought is monstrous.

Yet I think members of Congress, while passing the war-funding bills, were wise to set dates for an Iraq pullout — even in the face of a sure presidential veto. The war in Iraq is not World War II. It is a military adventure launched on lies. Americans are tired of it, and the debate is really about how and when to get out.

Dates change the psychology of the debate. It is not enough for Congress to call vaguely for a pullout “as soon as possible” or “with all deliberate speed.” The President, after all, insists that he, too, wants to pull the troops out. As he told the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association on March 28, he has augmented the number of American troops in Iraq only to give the Iraqis “breathing space to get on the path of reconciliation so that this young democracy could survive.” But he is unclear how long this breathing space will be needed. He has cautioned in the past that it may take months, not weeks, for the troops to accomplish whatever they have to accomplish, and I suspect he wants to dither long enough to dump the mess into the next president’s lap. A dearth of dates makes dithering easier.

In a funny way, the withdrawal dates in the bills — the end of March of next year in the Senate and the beginning of September of next year in the House — weaken one of the President’s arguments. Without dates, he and his lieutenants insist that the only alternatives for the US in Iraq are victory or running away. With dates, proponents of withdrawal can counter that they are not running away but instead preparing an orderly process. Dates make withdrawal seem reasonable rather than treasonable. Everyone knows, moreover, that the dates are flexible. Deadlines can be adjusted to ensure order. After withdrawal, some troops will be left behind to train Iraqis and hunt down leaders of Al Qaeda. The date in the Senate bill, in fact, is a goal, not a deadline. With the pressure of dates, wise politicians can work a way out.

The administration has issued dire warnings about a withdrawal. America’s prestige will plummet, forced to play second fiddle to Iran in the Middle East. But our prestige has already suffered crippling blows. Further blows will not make much difference. The insurgents have made fools of us for more than four years.

George W. Bush’s decision to increase the number of troops with his Baghdad surge demonstrates that he has been seduced by an insidious fallacy. A lot of people believe that the invasion would have worked with more troops and wiser management. If only experienced Middle East hands had been allowed to run things instead of aggressive, young Republican ideologues. If only Donald Rumsfeld had not been so arrogant and stubborn and Jerry Bremer so obtuse and insensitive. These are comforting thoughts for Bush as well as for Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, and the other zealots who came up with the scheme to invade Iraq. Their plan of transforming Iraq into a peaceful democracy that would serve as a model for the Middle East was so naive and hare-brained that it is sure to astound historians for many decades. More troops and abler managers might have eased some of the occupation woes, but the scheme was doomed at conception.

The White House will try to lull us from time to time with claims of limited success. But the White House lost its credibility about Iraq a long time ago. The early profiles of General David Petraeus made me think that he was a savvy, sensitive straightshooter who would not distort the truth. But this image was shattered on April Fool’s Day when he led Senator John McCain and other Republicans on a tour of the bomb-plagued Shorja market in Baghdad. McCain was impressed with the progress of pacification. “Never have I been able to go out into the city as I was today,” he told a news conference later. General Petraeus managed the show of calm by assigning a company of a hundred American soldiers and their armored Humvees to the market. Combat helicopters hovered overhead while the soldiers prevented all vehicles from approaching. US snipers guarded the rooftops to help the general persuade the senator that there are now happy market days in Baghdad. Perhaps Petraeus Markets will take the place of Potemkin Villages in future dictionaries.

The bipartisan Iraq Study Group led by James Baker and Lee Hamilton proposed a way out of Iraq last December but called it a “way forward” to avoid scaring off the zealots. The study group envisioned a gradual exodus of American combat troops as the Iraqi army increased and improved under American tutelage. As large numbers of US troops left, a smaller number of US trainers and advisers would remain. More arms would flow to the Iraqis. The study group did not like the word deadline, but its report hoped for an end to “the training and equipping mission” by April 1 next year. Some American military would still be on hand to help the Iraqi army, but the American occupation would be over.

On the diplomatic side, the Iraq Study Group proposed organization of an “Iraq International Support Group” of outside countries willing to help Iraq solve its internal problems. Working with such a group would force the US to confer with the “evil” neighbors of Iran and Syria. While the report does not say so, an organization like that might also lead to an internationalization of the problem, taking the hot potato out of our hands.

My own feeling is that the study group did not go far enough on the diplomatic side. I think a solution to the civil war in Iraq might be ironed out in a grand international conference of all interested outsiders and insiders including the Sunni insurgents. But it would have to be organized by some country or body other than us to have validity.

In any case, Bush rejected the report except for one sentence on p. 73. That sentence accepts a temporary surge in the number of troops if the US commander in Iraq believes it would stabilize Baghdad or speed up the training and equipping of the Iraqi army. The Baker and Hamilton report , of course, did not anticipate a surge without acceptance of its more sweeping proposals. Nor did it expect President Bush to replace an anti-surge commander with a General Petraeus gung-ho for more troops.

Does the White House really believe this will bring victory? “Victory will not look like the ones our fathers and grandfathers achieved,” President Bush said in his talk to the national last January 10. “There will be no surrender ceremony on the deck of a battleship. But victory in Iraq will bring something new in the Arab world — a functioning democracy that polices its territory, upholds the rule of law, respects fundamental human liberties, and answers to its people.” It is hard to believe that this kind of victory can be achieved anytime soon.

But the White House has been talking far more about success and failure lately than about victory and defeat, and I suspect the Bush Administration would declare “success” if it could make a case, no matter how flimsy, that Iraq was on its way to “victory.” But it can’t do that, of course, if Baghdad is in near civil war. That is the reason for the surge.

In the long run, I suspect that military government is just as likely in Iraq as a thriving model democracy. There are precedents. American colonial forays led to long-term military and dictatorial rule in both Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic in the first half of the twentieth century. The Iraqi institution getting the most support and money from us is the Shia-run army. The army would become even more powerful if it coopted the Shia militias. After the Americans leave, a coup might be tempting.

When we finally do let go of Iraq far short of victory, there will be a lot of finger pointing. The Iraqis will make an easy target. If they had only learned to reconcile antagonists, share wealth, avert war, end corruption, police cities and practice democracy, we would have seen victory. Even the Baker-Hamilton report, making the case that our commitment to Iraq must have a limit, chides the Iraqis. “Iraqis have not been convinced that they must take responsibility for their own future,” it says. Much of this may be true, but it still smacks of a blatant blaming of the victim. Most Iraqis, after all, did not invite us in. We came because of our own ignorance and deceit.

April 11, 2007
Washington DC

Stanley Meisler is the author of Kofi Annan: A Man of Peace in a World of War and United Nations: The First Fifty Years.

see also:

Removing Tyrants
October 4, 2004

The Chaos of Iraq
June 7, 2004

Democracy: One Man, One Vote, Once
November 14, 2003

Depressing Thoughts on Our Victory
April 29, 2003

Badgering the United Nations
March 2, 2003

A Frightening Performance on Iraq
October 16, 2002

Impasse in Iraq
December 11, 1998

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