There’s been a distinct shift in the way U.S. officials talk not only about the war on terror, but about the "mission" in Iraq. As the International Herald Tribune noted in a story Wednesday, the "global war on terror" has been transmogrified into "a global struggle against violent extremism," as Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Richard Myers tried to make clear in a Monday appearance before the National Press Club. And on Tuesday, at a joint press conference in Baghdad, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld practically beamed as Iraq’s transitional prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, called for a speedy withdrawal of U.S. troops, and Gen. George Casey, now the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said he believed a U.S. troop withdrawal could begin by spring 2006.
All of a sudden, the idea that seemed too radical for conventional political opponents or skeptics of the war in Iraq to call for a few months ago a reasonably firm date for the beginning of a substantial and eventually perhaps complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq seems to have become something close to administration policy. As nearly as I can make out, this is less because of any increase in effectiveness or pressure from opponents of the war although polls show increasing skepticism among the general public. Instead, the administration, to a great extent led by the military, seems finally to have begun to recognize the reality that the U.S. occupation of Iraq, while it may yet lead to something roughly definable as democracy or at least a reasonably stable regime that doesn’t threaten its neighbors much, is costing more than it’s worth.
The question for those who look beyond Iraq to the larger policy of empire-building and -maintenance, is whether this is the first stage in scaling back U.S. imperial ambitions, or even gradually abandoning the idea of empire as a desirable U.S. policy.
Was it only a month ago that Dubya, at Fort Bragg, was urging Americans not to lose faith in the war, that the sacrifice "is worth it, and it is vital to the future security of our country," and that "the proper response is not retreat"? In retrospect, that speech may come to be seen as the high point of imperial ambition and self-confidence during the moments (in terms of history) of imperial expansion and hubris surrounding the second Iraq war. Even that speech was laced with acknowledgment that "Every picture is horrifying, and the suffering is real," but the president also explicitly rejected the idea of a deadline for beginning troop withdrawal.
It would be silly to expect an open acknowledgment of failure in Iraq, or even to acknowledge that the governments strategy or tactics are changing. As they did in Baghdad, when Rumsfeld and Jaafari changed course abruptly, they will speak of the growing effectiveness of Iraqi security forces, of the taming of the insurgency. They will say this is the culmination of what has been U.S. policy all along. Speaking of spring 2006 will not be construed as setting a deadline, but as simply acknowledging that conditions are improving enough to speak of drawing down U.S. forces, and this is a likely estimate which could change if conditions change of when it will be "responsible" to start the withdrawal.
It would be foolish to try to parse all the sanctimony and hypocrisy that will accompany this shift in policy. I would just as soon let them have their hypocrisy, let them pretend that nothing has changed in their devotion to democracy and fighting terrorism, so long as they do what they seem to have decided to do begin extracting U.S. resources from the quagmire, or sand trap, or whatever.
If we’re reasonably adept, this could prove to be the moment at which the United States begins what is likely to be a long, slow, and officially unacknowledged retreat from the policy and even the idea that the U.S. bears a deep responsibility to manipulate political outcomes in the rest of the world through military threats and interventions. This is probably not because the anti-imperial movement has been uncannily effective in making the case against empire, but because the realities of trying to maintain and extend the global reach of the United States have begun to obtrude in ways that even official policymakers can no longer ignore.
Setback After Setback
There’s the ongoing insurgency, of course. It’s virtually impossible to say within a range of weeks or months what the trends are Gen. Casey on Tuesday dutifully predicted something like victory soon but it hasn’t gotten any less vicious than it was a year ago. There’s the proposed Iraqi constitution, which at this stage of drafting "proposes an explicitly Islamic state with a strong Shiite Muslim identity and less progressive laws for women that existed under Sadism Hussein. It would also give sweeping powers and potentially considerable oil revenues," according to a story in the L.A. Times, to newly created federal regions to use as they see fit. These provisions, critics say, could deepen the country’s ethnic and sectarian divides.
Maybe it’s best to get that document slapped together in whatever form can be accomplished by Aug. 15, as Rumsfeld urged, and get out of town before all the implications, which could include a de facto alliance with Iran, formerly one of the pillars of the Axis of Evil, become apparent. Then U.S. officials can say we gave it our best effort, and while the regime has some growing pains it still doesn’t pose a threat to the U.S., and at least Saddam is gone.
There’s also the growing, perhaps even looming, possibility of an outright civil war in Iraq that U.S. military officials on the ground simply have to know the U.S. would not be able to control. It’s even possible that top officials have come to understand that continued occupation could make ongoing violence that could escalate into civil war more, rather than less, likely.
Then there’s the recruiting problem. As Daily Kos explained this week: "The Army, which expects to miss its 2005 recruiting goal by about 12,000, already is falling behind for next year."
"The pool of recruits who sign up as much as a year before they report for training is dwindling. So far, 3,100 have signed up for 2006, according to Army Recruiting Command at Fort Knox, Ky. The Army says it hopes to have about 7,200 recruits in the pool by Oct. 1." But it started its 2005 recruiting year with 14,700 recruits in the delayed entry pool. In 2004, it had more than 33,000 in that ahead-of-time pool.
Obviously, the Iraq war has not been good for enlistment. It’s hard to see how this situation will improve much they’ve already raised the age ceiling for recruits and sweetened enlistment incentives and a draft still seems politically unlikely. So they simply have to scale back imperial ambitions.
Whether what is happening in Iraq assuming it leads to significant troop reductions next year, which is hardly certain given politicians’ capacity for switching policies on a dime while claiming they haven’t changed at all will be a brief respite before another effort to achieve imperial overstretch, or the beginning of a turn away from imperialism, could depend on what critics of imperialism do and how effectively they make their case. I would suggest that we go easy on the "I told you so"s and emphasize the benefits to every American of deciding not to intervene in every local dispute that tangentially affects U.S. marginal interests or offends our sensibilities.
The Iraq war has demonstrated to the American people some of the costs of imperial hubris and eagerness to seek military solutions to complex problems. As disillusionment sets in, we can reinforce it with gentle reminders and realistic estimates of the benefits of pursuing polices oriented to domestic freedom and international peace. The meltdown of the Iraq adventure has given us an opening we should not ignore.