For Immediate Withdrawal

President Bush’s speeches this week before a couple of carefully selected military audiences indicate that even the administration is becoming aware that in terms of domestic opinion we may be getting close to a tipping point in terms of support for the Iraq war. Polls show that a majority of Americans now believe the invasion was a mistake, and despite the administration counseling patience, the failure of the Iraqis – twice – to come up with a draft constitution by the American-imposed deadline is widely seen as a signal of things not going well in Iraq.

When David Frum is dismayed, as he clearly is in a posting on National Review online this week, then we – the growing coalition of people who oppose this war and want it ended as quickly as possible, regardless of how we might disagree about other issues, especially domestic issues, should be heartened. "By now it should be clear," he wrote on Aug. 23, "that President Bush’s words on the subject of Iraq have creased connecting with the American public.” After noting that President Bush is the biggest and potentially most effective megaphone war supporters have, Frum, the former Bush speechwriter who supposedly coined the "axis of evil" phrase, laments:

"He is using it very badly indeed.

"Let me mention just one single but maybe decisive problem. Again and again during the Bush presidency – and yesterday and most recently – the president will agree to give what is advertised in advance as a major speech. An important venue will be chosen. A crowd of thousands will be gathered. And after these deliberate preparations, the president says – nothing that he has not said a hundred times before."

After making a couple of suggestions about improving the speechwriting, Frum writes, "as it is, though, he says nothing, and is perceived to say nothing, and soon nobody will be listening at all, if anybody still is."

Frum got all kinds of feedback, most of it positive and much of it adducing new examples of presidential fecklessness, from mostly conservative and pro-war readers.

Real Peace Movement

In a fascinating piece called "The Incredible Shrinking President," former Nader campaign operative and longtime drug-law reformer Kevin Zeese claims, "Not reported in the media is that a cadre of Republican legislators in the House of Representatives has been meeting regularly to discuss how to get out of Iraq. No doubt through backchannels the Bush administration is hearing from these Republicans. If this group decides to go public, momentum against the war could escalate significantly." Other Republican leaders are displaying public concern about the effects on the 2006 midterm elections if things don’t start looking up significantly in Iraq.

We have the makings, then, of a genuine, broad-based peace movement – or at least a pro-withdrawal movement – stretching across the ideological spectrum. It has always included libertarians, paleoconservatives, and various leftist groups, including many with significant influence in the Democratic Party, although most Democratic elected officials are still dismayingly timid. Even traditional Roman Catholics, a key target and key constituency for the Bushies, are beginning to contend with the fact that the new, highly conservative Pope Benedict XVI is as unflinchingly committed to peace and to opposition to unjust and unjustified wars as his predecessor, as detailed in a recent article in The American Conservative (which has been staunchly antiwar since its launch).

How to reach beyond Cindy Sheehan to build the movement? (And thanks to all who wrote about last week’s column. I won’t deny that I enjoy getting the "Attaboy, keep it up" letters, but I usually learn more from those that are critical.) It seems to me that we have to start building a sustained, coherent case for withdrawing American troops from Iraq as soon as possible. Many of those who are getting edgy about the war, and even many who opposed it at the outset, are falling – understandably in many cases – into the Pottery Barn syndrome – "You break it, you own it" – and reluctantly conceding that we can’t withdraw American troops until we have fixed things in Iraq sufficiently that we can virtually guarantee there won’t be chaos, however defined.

(Incidentally, although I have read from some commentators that that is not really the Pottery Barn’s policy these days, when I was a kid in the 1950s we used to go to the original Pottery Barn in Laguna Beach fairly regularly, and they did have such a sign back then.)

Making the Case

The argument that now that we’ve intervened we have an obligation to stick around until we’ve made things better has a certain superficial attraction. However, it is almost as certain as that the sun will rise tomorrow that there will always be something imperfect in Iraq – and a strong case can be made that things won’t really start to get better until the U.S. occupation is ended. So it is important for us to attack this line of thinking head-on and make the case persistently that removing U.S. troops from Iraq as soon as possible is the best course available and is not tantamount to surrender and retreat but the counsel of wisdom.

Herewith a beginning of my contribution to that effort, which I expect to expand and refine over time. I invite others to find ways to make the case more persuasively.

Defining the Problem

The most important thing, it seems to me, is to understand why the Iraq occupation has not been working as well as the rosy-scenario artists had envisioned. There are reasons endemic to Iraq itself, of course, mainly the fact that the country was cobbled together by the British after World War I from three ethnically distinct provinces that were governed separately by the Ottoman empire. The Future of Iraq, an under-celebrated book by Liam Anderson and Gareth Stansfield, explains this historical background rather well and argues for a managed partition of Iraq. Whether that’s the solution or not, it’s not a solution that can be imposed unilaterally by an occupying outside power – and neither is any other solution.

Even beyond the ethnic complexities – and they go well beyond the three generally acknowledged divisions of Sunnis, Shi’ites, and Kurds – it should be becoming apparent by now that a major deterrent to security and peace in Iraq is the fact of U.S. occupation itself.

William R. Polk – who made the case for immediate withdrawal back in January founded the Middle Eastern Studies Center at the University of Chicago after a stint with the State Department, and has explained the U.S. failure to confront terrorism effectively in a series being featured on the History News Network. He starts with what should be obvious but is widely misunderstood when supporters of the president seem to view it as loyal to mimic his "war on terrorism" mantra.

Terrorism, Polk explains, "is not a thing, a place, or a group. To speak of waging war on it is vacuous. It is simply a tactic which is used in desperation by those who do not have power comparable to those they regard as their enemies. It is the weapon of the weak." It is probably the oldest form of conflict, used (arguably) by American colonists against the British, by the Irish against the British (for centuries), and by the Resistance in France against German occupation during World War II.

What the U.S. is facing in Iraq can also be understood as a guerrilla war. As Polk explains, Mao Zedong, the master of guerrilla war, explained long ago that it can be sustained by a relatively small number of active combatants so long as other conditions are in place. Mao called the active combatants the "fish," noting that they must operate in a "sea" of a much larger number of people who go about outwardly normal lives but cooperate with the guerrillas when possible by supplying them, hiding them, or giving them information. The "sea" is also a recruiting ground for more active combatants. Whether they are recruited depends on a number of factors, but the most important seems to be the development of grievances they believe cannot be ameliorated by cooperating with the authorities.

Attacking Symptoms – or Worse

Polk continues:

"In Iraq, the major American thrust has been against the combatants. This tactic has never worked. As individuals are put out of action, jailed or killed, others replace them. Consequently, terrorism or guerrilla warfare can last for centuries (as it did in Ireland and has in Cecnya [Chechnya]. America and other powers have been operating at the wrong end of the challenge. Even if repression is absolutely brutal, as practiced by the British in Kenya, the French in Algeria, the Russians in Chechnya, and the Israelis in Palestine, the more hatred is generated and the more people move from the group that is passive to the group that is supportive of the combatants."

In other words, President Bush is correct, in a way, when he says Iraq is a central front in the "war" on terrorism. But it was not so before the U.S. invasion. It has become a central front since the U.S. occupation, and even the CIA has acknowledged that it is becoming a training ground for terrorists who will undoubtedly be better prepared to create havoc in places where they move after being "blooded" and gained experience in Iraq. There’s fairly solid evidence that at least a couple of those who pulled off the London subway bombings had spent some time in Iraq gaining experience and training in terror or guerrilla tactics.

"History shows that the only way to stop the fighting is to dry up the ‘sea.’" Polk continues. "That is, when enough of the society believes that it has achieved a satisfactory result of the struggle, it ceases to support the combatants. That is not the result of such gimmicks as ‘civic action’ or even of genuine aid projects but only when the irritant, the outside power, leaves. The sequence is: sovereignty comes before security, not, as we are attempting in Iraq, to achieve security before according sovereignty. That is what happened in Ireland in 1921, in what became Israel in 1958, In Algeria in 1962. Northern Ireland, Chechnya, Occupied Palestine, and Iraq illustrate what happens when the dominant power attempts to reverse the order: the war continues."

The upshot? U.S. forces are more of an irritant, a destabilizing force, than a stabilizing force in Iraq. The guerrilla war might ebb and flow depending on tactics and opportunities on all sides. But it won’t end until the occupying force leaves. Even then – we should be honest enough to admit – conflict could continue for a while in Iraq or whatever the area becomes when things finally shake out. But it will be conflict among Iraqis about the future of Iraq. And however it plays out, the resulting political entity or entities will not pose anything remotely resembling a genuine threat to core American interests, even if part of it is a theocratic regime.

The longer the U.S., the occupying force, remains in Iraq, the more long-term will be the effects. So the best thing for the United States and Iraq alike is to bring U.S. troops home as quickly as possible.

Policies are seldom the result of a strictly rational process, but of the tug and pull of various interests and constituencies. If I were to guess, I’d guess that the U.S. will end its occupation of Iraq (if it does) through a phased, gradual withdrawal. But even that is unlikely to happen unless there is a persistent, coherent, and intellectually respectable group making the case for immediate withdrawal in ways that go beyond slogans. I’ll continue to do so – there are plenty of other arguments, some relating to the particular circumstances in Iraq. I invite others to do so and to do it better.

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Author: Alan Bock

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Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).