Quitting Is an Exit Strategy

While George Bush explains his “victory strategy” for Iraq to the American people, his Pentagon chief has already thrown out the most obvious option. There will be no immediate troop withdrawal, cautioned Donald Rumsfeld, because “quitting is not an exit strategy.”

But why not? What’s wrong with cutting and running? It’s time for the U.S. military to leave Iraq.

It’s not just the increasing death toll and the still-missing stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. It’s not even the tens of billions of dollars in handouts to giant corporations like Bechtel and Halliburton. We need to leave Iraq because we’re not wanted there.

Rumsfeld, Bush, and their defenders say the American military needs to stay in Iraq to keep the country from completely exploding. Some talk about the possibility of civil war in Iraq, with Sunni Arabs, Shi’ites, and Kurds in a kind of Wrestlemania free-for-all. Others say they’re concerned about the emergence of a Shi’ite Islamic state along the lines of Iran under the ayatollahs. Still others worry that Iraq will become a safe haven for al-Qaeda-type terrorists if America leaves. These concerns may be valid, but we have to ask how a continued U.S. troop presence would prevent the feared outcomes.

By its very presence, America exacerbates each of the disasters we seek to avoid. After all, it is America that is taking Kurdish peshmergas in Iraqi army uniforms to fight Arabs in the Western desert, and it is America’s constant Humvee patrols and mass incarceration at Abu Ghraib that make armed resistance an attractive option to regular Iraqis. As for the possibility of a fundamentalist Shi’ite state, we have to understand that at some point America will be forced to leave, and the will of the people will prevail in some form or another. In the meantime, the occupation will make Iraq more dangerous, and those looking for protection will find it in the most bellicose of their religious leaders.

A little humility is in order. What kind of arrogance is it that says that only America can solve the problems of Iraq?

Less than a week before last November’s election, an article appeared in The Lancet, the United Kingdom’s most prestigious medical journal, titled “Mortality Before and After the 2003 Invasion of Iraq: A Cluster Sample Survey” [.pdf]. The survey represented the work of a team of doctors from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore who sent researchers door to door throughout Iraq, visiting 30 neighborhoods in nearly every province of the country to ask who died and how.

Their result: 100,000 Iraqis – many of them women and children – had died prematurely since the start of the U.S.-led invasion. As CNN summarized the report:

“While the major causes of death before the invasion were heart attack, stroke, and chronic illness, the risk of dying from violence after the invasion was 58 times higher than in the period before the war.”

(Most of Saddam’s worst atrocities – including the gassing and forced relocation of the Kurds – occurred in the 1980s, when the U.S. government backed his regime, or after the 1991 Gulf War, when George Bush Sr. urged the Iraqi people to rise up and then withheld support for their revolution.) After the invasion, about the same number of people had died from these “usual” causes, but there had been a massive increase in the number of violent deaths.

Indeed, since the invasion, Johns Hopkins’ Dr. Gilbert Burnham told me, occupation troops had become the number one cause of death. “Women and children were the most common group for the death,” he added, “and houses that said the deaths were due to coalition forces mentioned that these were primarily due to aircraft.”

What happened to this important piece of information released days before the presidential election, deemed by many “the most important in a generation”? Neither candidate spoke about it, and the issue of Iraqi civilian casualties stayed out of our national dialogue.

Now a year has passed and we’re still getting the same blather about staying the course from both parties in Washington. It’s time for humanity, humility, and honesty to take root. Quitting isn’t a bad exit strategy.