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The Enduring Logic of Withdrawal

By Robert Parry
July 10, 2006

Predicting the future is never an exact science, but one technique is to establish an arc of past events that points toward what is likely to happen next. If one were to apply that approach to Iraq now, alarmed U.S. policymakers might be speeding to pull American troops out as fast as possible.

Another way to judge whether a policy is heading in the right direction is to go back to earlier milestones and ask whether a change of course then would have been a smart idea. If the answer is yes, it’s fair to assume that the wrong direction before won’t suddenly transform itself into the right one.

Except for die-hard neoconservatives and George W. Bush’s staunchest followers, most Americans – if allowed to turn back the clock to March 2003 – would happily agree to give the United Nations weapons inspectors more time to complete their search for Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.

Though it’s a bitter pill for the Bush team to swallow, even with a swig of fine Bordeaux, the French were right. If their advice had been taken, more than 2,500 U.S. soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqis might be alive today – and the United States might have averted a strategic disaster.

Even looking back at post-invasion high points, like Saddam Hussein’s capture, many Americans might wish the Bush administration had opted for a “declare victory and leave” approach. But Bush saw each positive development as encouragement to press on toward a more total victory.

In retrospect, Bush’s policy might be summed up by the slogan, “Who knows? We might get lucky.”

Grim and Grimmer

But, as the Iraq news grows grim and grimmer, the U.S. occupation of Iraq shows no sign of getting lucky.

Sectarian strife between Sunnis and Shiites continues to inflict widespread bloodshed, while some U.S. troops have been fingered as trigger-happy participants in the slaughter of Iraqis.

It also doesn’t help that the Bush administration – by lowering standards to meet U.S. military recruitment goals – has been sending unfit soldiers and even sociopaths into the baking-hot tinderbox that is today’s Iraq.

In 2004, many military strategists shook their heads at the notion of putting the likes of Lynndie England and Charles Graner in positions of authority over detainees inside Abu Ghraib prison. But now the U.S. military is grappling with even worse scandals, the alleged murders of Iraqi civilians by out-of-control soldiers and Marines.

On July 9, the U.S command accused five soldiers of complicity in the rape/murder of an Iraqi girl and the slaying of three members of her family in Mahmudiya, 20 miles south of Baghdad. The atrocity allegedly was carried out on March 12 after the girl had complained about advances from U.S. soldiers at local checkpoints.

A sixth American, Steven D. Green, was arrested in North Carolina on June 30 and accused in civilian court as the leader of the rape-murder. The former private first-class had been discharged from the Army over an unspecified “personality disorder.”

U.S. officials initially said the rape victim was 20 years old, but relatives identified the victim as Abeer Qasim Hamza al-Janabi, whose passport put her age at 14. The rape-murder case, which has further stoked anti-Americanism in Iraq, comes on the heels of an alleged massacre of 24 Iraqi men, women and children at Haditha and a spate of other accusations against U.S. forces.

Neo-Nazis

The Mahmudiya case also coincides with reports that pressure to relax enlistment standards has opened the door to the U.S. military for white supremacists, “skinheads,” neo-Nazis and a variety of other misfits.

In a report entitled “A Few Bad Men,” the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has long kept an eye on violent right-wing extremists, said “military recruiters and base commanders, under intense pressure from the war in Iraq to fill the ranks, often look the other way” as white supremacists enter the military.

The report, written by David Holthouse, quoted Defense Department gang detective Scott Barfield as saying that neo-Nazis “stretch across all branches of service, they are linking up across branches once they’re inside, and they are hard-core. … We’ve got Aryan Nations graffiti in Baghdad. That’s a problem.”

Indeed. Violence-prone white racists might not be the best envoys of American values to send into the 100-plus temperatures of Iraq where U.S. forces must deal daily with a myriad of complex and lethal threats. Even the best of the U.S. troops must cope with language difficulties and a foreign culture divided by centuries of hostilities between Shiites and Sunnis.

The fighting in Iraq also has become multi-sided. In recent days, the U.S. military has hit both Sunni and Shiite factions, a development that recalls the bloody fighting in 2004 when American casualties spiked amid street battles that sometimes pitted Sunnis and Shiites against Americans.

Like then, the U.S. military is mounting operations against the powerful Mahdi Army, allied with militant Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr. On July 7, Iraqi government and U.S. forces captured two Mahdi Army leaders and launched a raid on a militia bastions on July 8. [NYT, July 10, 2006]

The arc of recent events is clearly pointing in a troubling direction.

Washington View

Yet, while the Iraq military situation seems to be swirling into a downward spiral, U.S. policymakers in Washington appear relatively safe from the consequences. Republicans even believe they can use the war, again, as a partisan club for beating back any Democratic challenge to Bush’s authority in Election 2006.

Any talk of a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq is confronted with charges of “cut and run,” cowardice or treason.

Republican political strategists also believe they have succeeded in stabilizing Bush’s political decline by sharpening the rhetoric against Democrats, the New York Times and other critics of the President.

Both Democratic and Republican strategists have told me in recent days that they see GOP prospects for Election 2006 brightening, largely because the Democrats have failed to offer a coherent alternative on Iraq and the Republicans have swung onto the offensive.

Reinforcing that point, Democratic strategists offered me two diametrically opposed views of why the Democrats were floundering and what they should do on Iraq.

One school held that Democrats needed to tilt more to the right and select more conservative candidates; the other faction blamed Democratic leaders for demoralizing their base with mealy-mouthed positions on Bush’s abuse of constitutional power at home and the Iraq War abroad.

In official Washington, the notion of an Iraq withdrawal is still not supported by many policymakers or opinion-leaders. The exceptions are mostly Democrats, such as Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin.

But Republicans and their right-wing allies remain eager to pound anyone who advocates an Iraq pullout. Meanwhile, most centrist Democrats and many mainstream pundits argue that while the invasion may have been a mistake, the U.S. now has a moral obligation to stay in Iraq until the violence settles down.

There’s also the question of the United States losing face if a withdrawal is seen around the world as a defeat. Bush and other war defenders argue, too, that a U.S. pullout would turn Iraq into a base for international terrorism.

Some war critics counter that the war’s supporters should have thought of those possibilities before plunging into the quicksand of Iraq.

At Consortiumnews.com, in 2002, we questioned Bush’s “preemptive war” strategy [“Bush’s Grim Vision”] and his specific case for invading Iraq [“Misleading the Nation to War”]. In the days after the March 19, 2003, invasion, we cited ominous signs from tougher-than-expected Iraqi resistance [“Bay of Pigs Meets Black Hawk Down”].

Withdrawal Logic

Almost a year ago, in August 2005, we laid out the arguments for a prompt U.S. military withdrawal [“Iraq & the Logic of Withdrawal”]. That article noted that Washington has yet to conduct a clear-headed examination of the worsening military situation, with Bush supporters simply saying “stay the course” and former war critics intoning “we must get it right.”

“But,” the article stated, “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.”

Basically, the logic behind withdrawal was that the removal of U.S. troops would undercut the al-Qaeda-connected foreign jihadists who represent a small but violent part of the Iraqi insurgency. An American pullout would remove the incentive for many young Muslims to go to Iraq and for those already there to stay.

Meanwhile, the Sunni resistance might lose any tolerance for the outside extremists. With the U.S. occupation ended, the usefulness of the jihadists would be diminished. Plus, many Iraqi Sunnis, like Iraqi Shiites, are deeply offended by the horrific brutality of the al-Qaeda faction.

So, rather than Iraq becoming an al-Qaeda base if U.S. forces withdrew, there is an argument for the exact opposite – and for the belief that the longer U.S. troops stay in Iraq, the more likely al-Qaeda operatives will put down roots and will be harder to weed out.

There is also recent evidence that al-Qaeda shares that analysis. The terrorist group sees its goals advanced by Bush’s interventionist strategies and threatened by a prompt U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.

Overreaction

As far back as summer 2001, U.S. intelligence knew that al-Qaeda was disappointed by the restrained U.S. reaction to its bombing of the USS Cole in 2000 and was determined that the next attack – the one on Sept. 11, 2001 – would compel a much more aggressive U.S. response. If it were clumsy enough, that would help al-Qaeda.

This al-Qaeda strategy was revealed by New York Times reporter Judith Miller in a 2006 interview with Alternet. Miller said a well-placed CIA official briefed her on an al-Qaeda intercept over the July Fourth holiday in 2001.

 “The person told me that there was some concern about an intercept that had been picked up,” Miller said. “The incident that had gotten everyone’s attention was a conversation between two members of al-Qaeda. And they had been talking to one another, supposedly expressing disappointment that the United States had not chosen to retaliate more seriously against what had happened to the [destroyer USS] Cole [which was bombed on Oct. 12, 2000].

“And one al-Qaeda operative was overheard saying to the other, ‘Don’t worry; we’re planning something so big now that the U.S. will have to respond.’”

In the Alternet interview, published in May 2006 after Miller resigned from the Times, the reporter expressed regret that she had not been able to nail down enough details about the intercept to get the story into the newspaper.

But the significance of her recollection is that more than two months before the 9/11 attacks, the CIA knew that al-Qaeda was planning a major attack with the intent of provoking a U.S. military reaction – or overreaction.

The CIA tried to warn Bush about the threat on Aug. 6, 2001, with the hope that presidential action could energize government agencies and head off the attack. The CIA sent analysts to his ranch in Crawford, Texas, to brief him and deliver a report entitled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US.”

Bush was not pleased by the intrusion. He glared at the CIA briefer and snapped, “All right, you’ve covered your ass,” according to Ron Suskind’s new book, The One Percent Doctrine. Bush then returned to a vacation of fishing, clearing brush and working on a speech about stem-cell research.

The 9/11 Attacks

When the 9/11 attacks occurred, the United States did hit back against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. But after Osama bin-Laden and other leaders escaped, Bush quickly turned the U.S. military’s attention to the Iraq invasion, which followed in March 2003.

After the U.S.-led invasion ousted Saddam Hussein in April 2003, al-Qaeda operatives, including Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, flooded into central Iraq bringing along a generation of new recruits. Soon, the group’s signature suicide-bombings were killing Iraqis and Americans alike.

Though al-Qaeda’s brand of terrorism appeared to be making a comeback in Iraq, bin-Laden apparently saw a danger in fall 2004 – the potential defeat of George W. Bush and the possible start of U.S. withdrawal under John Kerry.

So, according to CIA analysts, bin-Laden timed his release of a videotape denouncing Bush to the Friday before the Nov. 2, 2004, election. CIA analysts concluded that bin-Laden’s tirade had the desired effect, giving the Bush campaign a last-minute boost and ensuring the continuation of Bush’s policies. [As reported in Ron Suskind’s The One Percent Doctrine, or see Consortiumnews.com’s “CIA: Osama Helped Bush in ‘04.”]

By summer 2005, despite Bush’s victory over Kerry, al-Qaeda leaders were still fretting about the dangers of a prompt U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. A 6,000-word letter purportedly written by bin-Laden’s deputy Ayman Zawahiri on July 9, 2005, to Zarqawi suggested tactics for keeping the jihadists from quitting if the U.S. forces did pull out.

“The mujahedeen must not have their mission end with the expulsion of the Americans from Iraq, and then lay down their weapons, and silence the fighting zeal,” the “Zawahiri letter” said. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Al-Qaeda Letter Belies Bush’s Iraq Claims.”]

Compromise

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 and rewriting the constitution to grant the Sunnis a larger share of the oil revenues.

Throughout the U.S. occupation, the Shiites and Kurds have had little reason to make significant concessions to the Sunnis because the American military tilted the power balance in favor of the Shiite-Kurdish side.

As for the issue of whether a U.S. withdrawal would strengthen American enemies, Bush has argued that a U.S. pullout from Iraq would open the way to Islamic extremists controlling a vast empire from Spain to Indonesia.

The claims are reminiscent of the Vietnam War, when U.S. policymakers warned of a “domino effect” of country after country falling to communism and when Richard Nixon said the United States would be viewed as a “pitiful, helpless giant” if it caved on Vietnam. In reality, the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam did not have the dire consequences that were predicted.

With an Iraq withdrawal, Washington also might be able to capitalize on a resurgence of Muslim good will, especially if a pullout is followed by a renewed commitment to seek a fair resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and to support political reform in repressive Arab states.

On a more tactical level, 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.

Without doubt, there are serious risks from whatever course of action the United States follows in Iraq. A bloody civil war could occur whether the U.S. military is present or not; U.S. enemies might be emboldened whether the United States is bogged down in Iraq or has repositioned its troops outside the country.

One reading of the intransigence from Iran and North Korea is that those other “axis of evil” countries learned a lesson from Iraq, which stopped developing WMD and trusted that the U.N. could fend off a U.S. invasion. Hussein’s defeat demonstrated that only fearsome weapons could give pause to Bush’s “preemptive war” strategies.

Neither Iran nor North Korea senses any great benefit from compromising on matters of their own national security. Plus, with U.S. forces tied down in Iraq, Washington’s ability to enforce any ultimatums is much weaker than it normally would be.

Iran knows, too, that it can retaliate against any U.S. attack simply by unleashing its Iraqi Shiite allies against vulnerable U.S. troops in Iraq.

So, there remains a compelling logic for withdrawal. But it is a complicated argument to make, while the other side can simply yell, “cut and run.”


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest 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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