Iraq, R.I.P.

by , June 01, 2004

Retired three-star general William E. Odom, who once headed the National Security Agency during the Reagan administration, is no peacenik. Nor would anyone outside the David Horowitz wing of the War Party call him “anti-American,” but General Odom believes the time has come to call a spade a spade. “We have failed” in Iraq, he says, and “the issue is how high a price we’re going to pay — less by getting out sooner, or more by getting out later.”

The logic of Odom’s proposal is unassailable, which is why the War Party is in a panic to refute it, in spite of the unwillingness of politicians in either party to so much as mention the possibility of pulling out. In an interview with Odom on the Today Show, the clueless Katie Couric threw the “what will it do for the reputation of this country” question at him, invoking “stick-to-it-ness” as some kind of sacred American principle, to which the General replied:

“I think you’ve misunderstood what I said. We have already failed. Staying in longer makes us fail worse. If we were a small power, we might have to worry about our so-called credibility. I don’t think that’s the issue. The issue is how effective we were going to use our power. The longer we st- … if we blindly say we should stick to it, we’re misusing our power and we’re making it worse. Let me put it more bluntly. Let’s suppose you murdered somebody, and you suddenly look and say, `We can’t afford to have murdered this person, so therefore let’s save him.’ I think we’ve passed the chances to not fail. And now we are in a situation where we have to limit the damage. And the issue is just how much we are going to pay before we decide to limit the damage, not rescue ourselves by throwing good money after bad.”

It seems like only yesterday that we were vowing to capture and, if necessary, kill Moqtada Sadr and his fellow Sadrists – today, we are negotiating with him, and his popularity is hitting new heights with the Iraqi people. Fallujah has yet to fall, and the Ayatollah Sistani has warned us off Najaf. We have the firepower, but our opponents have people power: the Iraqis want us out, and, with the level of hostility rising, by some estimates it would take up to half a million soldiers to “pacify” the place. We cannot ensure the security of the “Green Zone” where our commanders and assorted bureaucrats sit huddled in their bunker, never mind the rest of Iraq, which is rapidly breaking up into clan-based ethno-religious enclaves.

When we invaded Iraq we smashed the state apparatus and dismantled the Ba’athist military machine. That’s what our military is surpassingly good at: destruction. But we cannot create a state – or, as they’re presently trying to do with the imposition of “ex”-Ba’athist Iyad Alawai, recreate one – by fiat. All governments, even the worst dictatorships, depend on some form of popular support, even if that only amounts to passive resignation. But passivity is not what we’re seeing in the response to the American presence.

It is the insurgents, rather than Washington’s handpicked servitors, who enjoy popular support – and, increasingly, legitimacy – in the eyes of the Iraqi people. This perfectly illustrates what may be codified as a general principle: U.S. intervention, in theory launched to support Iraqis who advocate “democracy” and the American system of constitutionally limited government, in practice empowers the bad guys – the Sadrists, Shi’ite mullahs, and various other militias and bandit gangs feeding on the dismembered corpse of the Iraqi nation-state.

Faced with the paradox of American military power, the President, some aver, is sounding the call to retreat, even as he vows to “stay the course.” The neoconservatives who dragged us into this conflict – those who haven’t recanted – are now criticizing Bush for going wobbly. But that is confusing fluctuations in rhetoric with troop movements: politically, the President is moving toward John Kerry’s non-position, calling for internationalizing the occupation even as he vows to send more American soldiers over there. Seeking a UN resolution, handing over the trappings of power to an “interim” government on June 30, it looks very much like we are seeking an exit from the Iraqi quagmire. The “utopian vision” of the neocons “has vanished,” says Pat Buchanan, and “President Bush has rejoined the realist camp. We are not going deeper in. We are on the way out.”

Not so fast. Politically, it may be advantageous for Bush to give that impression, but the reality is that this war could very well widen before it begins to contract. The recent incident near the Syrian border, in which a wedding party – or, if you believe the Pentagon, an incursion of foreign fighters – was bombed, illustrates where we are headed. It wouldn’t take much to drag the Syrians into this war, and many in Congress – which just approved sanctions on Syria – are itching for just that.

Yes, the vision of “democracy” spreading throughout the Middle East was a utopian fantasy, but it was never meant to be taken seriously: that’s just rhetorical window-dressing. Don’t bother to examine a folly, as Ayn Rand once put it: ask yourself only what it accomplishes. The answer, in this case, is: We have destroyed Iraq as a unitary state, pulverized it into at least three parts, probably more, and this particular Humpty Dumpty is not going to be put back together again.

Iraq was never a real nation to begin with, but just lines on a map drawn by the British Foreign Office. It was only Saddam Hussein and the Ba’athist terror that managed to keep it all together: when that passed into history, so did Iraq.

At least two successor states seem to be emerging from the wreckage: Kurdistan, and a Shi’ite Islamic “republic” in the south, with the infamous “Sunni Triangle” becoming an ungovernable No-man’s-land. Every ethnic and political grouping is armed to the teeth and in combat mode, and no one has a monopoly on coercion: as a nation, in any meaningful sense of the word, Iraq is effectively dead.

General Odom is right. Judged by our publicly declared war aims – establishing security, “democracy,” and peace in the region – we have already failed in Iraq. But anyone who takes these at face value is simply deluding themselves. Washington’s real war aim was only to make the next war inevitable, and, I fear, they are practically on the brink of “success.” It would take very little to escalate the conflict beyond Iraq’s borders: we are that close to an invasion of Syria, or even, given the developing crisis over Tehran’s nuclear program, with Iran.

One cannot but agree with General Odom’s logic: the longer we stay in, the greater our losses. But I would add a note of urgency to his call for a U.S. withdrawal. If we don’t get out nowlike Ralph Nader, I would set a date certain – then we shall likely find ourselves embroiled in a far larger conflict than we ever imagined. It is not merely a matter of cutting our losses, but of preventing a catastrophe – and the clock is ticking. We either quit Baghdad, or we’ll soon find ourselves fighting to hold Damascus. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld recently declared that we’re closer to the beginning of the “war on terrorism” than the end, and there you have it straight from the horse’s mouth.

NOTES IN THE MARGIN

I note, with sadness, that the Libertarian Party has chosen to commit suicide rather than grow up and become relevant. As a former member, I watched their recent national convention on CSPAN with growing horror as it became plain as day that they were going to reject a strong antiwar presidential candidate, Aaron Russo (who also used to be Bette Midler’s manager, and made it big as a Hollywood director/producer), in favor of somebody I never heard of — and, given what I saw at the convention, hope to never hear of again. Nor do I expect to be disappointed in that hope. The media is going to totally ignore the LP, Nader is going to suck up all the third party attention, and this CBS story will have turned out to be the journalistic equivalent of vaporware. If I were Karl Rove, I’d be celebrating about now.

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