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Iraq & the Logic of Withdrawal

By Robert Parry
August 17, 2005

Washington’s conventional wisdom on the Iraq War is roughly divided into two camps: those who still think George W. Bush’s invasion was a good idea and want to “stay the course” – and those who opposed Bush on going to war but now say “we must get it right.”

Both sides – representing nearly the entire political spectrum in Washington – rule out a prompt U.S. military withdrawal because that supposedly would turn Iraq into a “failed state” and a “breeding ground for Islamic terrorism.” Therefore, the thinking goes, U.S. troops must remain while Iraq builds a democracy that can stop the extremists.

But there is a case to be made for U.S. withdrawal as the best option for both resolving the conflict and neutralizing the foreign Islamic extremists in Iraq. A corollary of this thinking holds that the continued U.S. military presence does more harm than good.

The logic of withdrawal goes like this:

First, a distinction must be made between the Sunni-led insurgency, which is fighting out of a sense of Iraqi nationalism and to protect the Sunni minority’s interests in Iraq, and the al-Qaeda-linked terrorist network of Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. It is engaged in a jihad to drive Americans and other Westerners out of the Middle East.

While the interests of the Sunni-led insurgency and the Zarqawi-led terrorists may overlap under the present circumstances, that is primarily because an American force of 138,000 troops remains inside Iraq.

The Sunni insurgents see the U.S. army as the enemy because it invaded Iraq and is now protecting a government dominated by Iraq’s Shiite majority. Zarqawi’s group has made itself somewhat useful to the Sunnis by recruiting Islamic extremists to come to Iraq and undertake suicide bombings that kill Americans and wreak havoc.

Undercutting Zarqawi

If the Americans and other Western forces weren’t in Iraq, however, two changes would likely occur: first, the draw for radicalized Islamic youth to infiltrate into Iraq and become suicide bombers would have disappeared; second, Zarqawi’s limited usefulness to the Sunnis would soon dissipate.

There would no longer be Americans for Zarqawi and his terrorist band to target and the loss of new recruits would minimize any value his organization would have in battling the Shiites. Zarqawi’s remaining terrorists would quickly become more a liability than an asset – and thus a target of Iraqis from all religious sects.

Many Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq already are fed up with the indiscriminant devastation inflicted by Zarqawi’s militants. Despite religious differences, which date back 1,400 years, there even have been reports of Iraqi Sunnis turning their guns on Zarqawi’s fighters to protect Shiite neighbors.

For instance, on Aug. 13 in the western city of Ramadi, Sunni members of the Dulaimi tribe set up protective perimeters around their Shiite neighbors and reportedly fought Zarqawi’s forces who were trying to dislodge the Shiites from the Sunni-dominated city. [Washington Post, Aug. 14, 2005]

Without the presence of U.S. troops, Zarqawi could lose his raison d’etre, his manpower and his protection from Sunni insurgents who tolerate him now only because they’re in a desperate struggle against both the powerful American military and the Shiite majority.

Political Strategy

But the Bush administration’s political strategy at home has been to treat the Sunni-led insurgents and the Zarqawi-led terrorists as the same enemy.

Few distinctions are made even though the two groups employ different tactics. The Iraqi insurgents fight primarily with small arms and roadside bombs aimed at U.S. troops, while the foreign terrorists rely heavily on suicide bombers to kill Iraqi civilians and police as well as American soldiers.

By lumping the two forces together as “terrorists,” Bush again has shaped the Washington debate much as he did in 2002 and early 2003 when he and Vice President Dick Cheney morphed Iraq’s secular dictator Saddam Hussein into al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

That strategy worked so well that many Americans said they supported the invasion of Iraq as revenge for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, even though no Iraqis participated in the Sept. 11 attacks and Hussein’s regime brutally repressed Islamic extremists.

Another argument for American withdrawal is that it could push the Shiites and their Kurdish allies into compromising with the Sunni minority on an overall settlement.

As the current impasse over a new constitution shows, the Shiites and Kurds see little reason to make significant concessions to the Sunnis because the American military continues to tilt the power balance in favor of the Shiite-Kurdish side.

The Shiites and Kurds want broad autonomy over the oil riches of Iraq’s south and north, respectively, and feel they can get that. So, when U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalizad entered the Iraqi assembly for some eleventh-hour arm-twisting before the Aug. 15 deadline for completing work on the new constitution, the intervention had little effect.

Corner Painting

In part, that’s because Bush has left himself little maneuvering room for pressuring the Shiites and Kurds, since he has effectively ruled out any sudden U.S. military withdrawal. Rather than looking for an exit, which might at least worry the Shiites and Kurds, Bush continues to paint himself – and the United States – into a corner.

“Pulling the troops out now would send a terrible message to the enemy,” Bush declared on Aug. 11 at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.

By tying American “credibility” to the outcome in Iraq, Bush has locked the United States in even tighter. His comment also recalled Richard Nixon’s warning that the United States would be a “pitiful, helpless giant” unless it held tough in Vietnam.

But Nixon’s predictions of a geopolitical catastrophe that would follow the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam did not come to pass – despite the continuation of horrific violence, especially in Cambodia, for several more years.

Likewise, it’s not at all certain that a U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq would bring the dire consequences for the United States that Bush foresees. Indeed, if combined with U.S. support for a fair resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and a genuine commitment for political reform in repressive Arab states, an Iraq withdrawal might strengthen overall American relations with the Islamic world.

It still can’t be ruled out that a messy civil war in Iraq will follow, but that could happen whether U.S. forces stay or go. It already appears that a civil war is underway, with militias and death squads from various factions eliminating perceived enemies.

Now, however, the Shiites can rely on Americans to do much of the hard fighting in Fallujah and other Sunni strongholds. A U.S. withdrawal at least would give the Shiites and the Kurds an incentive to show more flexibility in compromising with the Sunnis.

A U.S. withdrawal also would free up Special Forces to concentrate on tracking down and eliminating al-Qaeda’s leadership, an operation that was disrupted by Bush’s hasty decision to focus on Iraq in 2002.

Spreading Democracy

But what about the spread of Western-style democracy, another central argument underpinning Bush’s Middle East strategy?

While it’s impossible to predict what type of government Iraqis might produce on their own, Bush’s theory that “democracy” automatically creates more moderate behavior has always rested on dubious logic.

Dating back to ancient Greece, many democracies have veered off into reckless behavior – falling under the sway of charismatic leaders, getting swept up by ethnic hatreds or becoming consumed by war fever.

Democracy also doesn’t ensure that a country’s policies will be liked in Washington.

Since the end of World War II, the U.S. government has intervened time and again when populations have elected leaders who were viewed as hostile to American interests. In the Western Hemisphere alone, think of Arbenz in Guatemala, Allende in Chile, Ortega in Nicaragua, Aristide in Haiti, Chavez in Venezuela.

In the Islamic world, Western powers have shown a similar selective respect for the democratic process – embracing it as long as their favorites win the elections.

In 1953, for instance, the CIA instigated a coup in Iran that ousted elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh after he tried to nationalize Iran’s oil. In 1991, Western governments looked on sympathetically when the Algerian army nullified elections after it became apparent that an Islamic fundamentalist party would win in a fair race.

Just last month, Washington expressed dismay when Iranian voters shocked the political establishment in Tehran by choosing a populist hard-liner, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as Iran’s new president. Ahmadinejad pulled off the upset by vowing to stand up to Western pressure over Iran’s nuclear program.

Irrational Actions

Other times in recent history, Western democracies have themselves demonstrated a susceptibility to extreme or irrational actions.

One only has to remember the Iraq War hysteria that swept the United States in 2002 and 2003 as Bush whipped up the American public with false claims about the grave threat posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. In hyping that danger, Bush had the aid or acquiescence of Congress and the major U.S. news media.

Another dubious argument against U.S. withdrawal is the notion that the United States has an obligation to repair the damage already inflicted on Iraq. The idea was pithily expressed by former Secretary of State Colin Powell in what he called the “Pottery Barn rule” that “if you break it, you own it.”

Though Powell’s comment has some earthy wisdom to it (even if Pottery Barn really doesn’t have such a rule), there is a contrary saying that could apply better to Bush’s responsibility for the disaster in Iraq: “Haven’t you done enough damage already?”

Sometimes the person who created a mess is not the right person to clean it up. There are times when the practical – as well as the moral – action is to step back and let others do their best to pick up the pieces.

Any debate about the wisdom to “stay the course” must include whether there’s a realistic prospect for the U.S. policy to succeed in Iraq. If that judgment is negative, then extending the war is both impractical and immoral.

Some American military analysts already are warning that the political imperative to hold down U.S. casualties has limited “civic action” and other hearts-and-minds tactics that are vital to any counterinsurgency war. Instead, the U.S. military often hunkers down in air-conditioned bunkers, venturing out for specific operations against enemy forces.

Only recently has the Bush administration begun to adjust to the facts on the ground. On Aug. 14, the Washington Post reported that “the Bush administration is significantly lowering expectations of what can be achieved in Iraq, recognizing that the United States will have to settle for far less progress than originally envisioned.”

One senior official told the Post that “we are in the process of absorbing the factors of the situation we’re in and shedding the unreality that dominated in the beginning.” [Washington Post, Aug. 14, 2005]

A debate about U.S. military withdrawal might offer a measure of accountability for the war’s architects who have sent almost 1,900 American soldiers to their death – along with tens of thousands of Iraqis – while Washington lived in a world of “unreality.”

Plus, the debate could define the political stakes of the congressional elections in 2006. If Bush refuses to reconsider his war policies and the dying goes on indefinitely, the Iraq withdrawal debate – and next year’s election – might finally give the American voters a chance to express an informed judgment on the war.

[For a detailed examination of how the United States reached this curious political juncture, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq. For a selection of Consortiumnews.com stories as Bush’s war policies evolved, see “Bush’s Grim Vision”; “Misleading the Nation to War”; “Bay of Pigs Meets Black Hawk Down”; “Bush’s Grimmer Vision”;  and “Iraq War’s Two Constants.”]


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His new book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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