A U-Turn in Iraq?

Christmas is coming early this year, with a gift from Robert Novak, the cantankerous and fearless conservative columnist and veteran reporter, whose connections inside the Bush administration and the GOP are as myriad and various as his many enemies:

"Inside the Bush administration policymaking apparatus, there is strong feeling that U.S. troops must leave Iraq next year. This determination is not predicated on success in implanting Iraqi democracy and internal stability. Rather, the officials are saying: Ready or not, here we go."

The news has the War Party reeling, and in denial. Glenn Reynolds doesn’t believe it, and sniffs at Novak’s "shaky sourcing." This from some law professor at Hicksville U, aimed at a crack reporter who was harvesting Washington’s secrets long before the "Instapundit" was even an ugly possibility. Boy, these imperialists sure are … imperious!

Andrew Sullivan is in a perfect tizzy, and stumbled about confusedly, until he must’ve taken a fresh draught of Kerry Kool-Aid, and managed to pull himself together, but not before he had completely inverted the meaning and import of Novak’s reporting:

"The question lingers: why would anyone in the administration want to leak to Robert Novak that Bush is contemplating a quickish exit from Iraq? An obvious thought is that the leak comes from someone diametrically opposed to such a stance. An admission of any plan of that kind would demoralize the president’s supporters (and war supporters) and probably prompt a question in the debates or upcoming news conferences. The president might then be forced to dismiss such an idea, boxing himself into the neoconservative position before the election. Tada! You scotch the withdrawal idea by raising it. The beauty of this is that it uses that anti-war curmudgeon, Novak, to bolster the president’s resolve."

The "beauty" of this concept is not even skin deep. Why would Novak, "that anti-war curmudgeon," allow himself to be so used by his declared enemies? That Sullivan thinks it "obvious" the leak is not really a leak at all, but a complicated plot by unnamed neocons to salvage their own position, is typical of his ideologically-inspired delusions. Hallucinations induced by psychosis are "obvious" – to the psychotic who suffers from them.

In a pyrotechnic display of his ability to spin anything to suit his preconceived notions, Sullivan manages to weave an entire scenario from this simple inversion of what Novak actually wrote, imagining it’s all a ploy by the Wolfowitz-Hagel-McCain-[Sen. Bob] Graham axis of escalation, to "wake up" Bush up to the alleged need for more troops, more resources, and more large-scale brutality.

But Sullivan’s bitterness over the gay marriage issue has impaired whatever judgement he may have once had where this president is concerned, just as the partisan bias of the liberal-leftie bloggers blinds them to the significance of Novak’s startling news.

Joshua Marshall sourly suggests the Bushies are talking out of both sides of their mouths: – "The campaign will leave to individual voters which message suits their needs" – but doesn’t say which one expresses the truth. Novak’s news suggests that many in the administration agree with the merciless critiques of the Iraq War and the occupation penned by Marshall and other critics of the neoconservatives at the helm of our foreign policy, and Marshall isn’t the only left critic of Bush’s foreign policy who apparently finds this disturbing.

Writing in the blog of The American Prospect, house organ of Clintonian liberalism, Matthew Yglesias disdains the Novak story as

"Disinformation, aimed at placating Novak and other anti-war conservatives. Anti-war conservatism is, at this point, primarily an elite, inside-the-beltway phenomenon, so the trick is to convince the rank and file out there that all is well with Iraq while quietly reassuring skeptical elites that Bush is on their side so they don’t go publicly off the reservation before the election."

Yet he admits that the Novak scenario has some credibility when he avers that everything depends on the January elections. Yglesias seems to believe that Allawi and his minuscule party, the Iraqi National Accord, will somehow come out on top, but seems unaware that two mass-based pro-Iranian Shi’ite parties, SCIRI and the Dawa party, are likely to turn out en masse. A government dominated by these groups would surely demand a quick U.S. exit.

In any case, critics of the war will have to agree with Novak that the rising crisis in Iraq has reached a turning point:

"Whether Bush or Kerry is elected, the president or president-elect will have to sit down immediately with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The military will tell the election winner there are insufficient U.S. forces in Iraq to wage effective war. That leaves three realistic options: Increase overall U.S. military strength to reinforce Iraq, stay with the present strength to continue the war, or get out.

"Well-placed sources in the administration are confident Bush’s decision will be to get out. They believe that is the recommendation of his national security team and would be the recommendation of second-term officials. An informed guess might have Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state, Paul Wolfowitz as defense secretary and Stephen Hadley as national security adviser. According to my sources, all would opt for a withdrawal."

Sullivan quips "Et tu, Wolfie?", and the New York Post cites Condi denying it, but there’s no denying the cold logic of Novak’s equation: If the U.S. military cannot defeat the growing guerrilla insurgency without a substantial increase in force levels, expended resources, and, inevitably, American casualties, then there are really only two credible options remaining, given the intolerable status quo: escalate, or get out.

While John McCain and the neocons are eager for "more boots on the ground," this means more bodybags shipped home and more political trouble for the president. Karl Rove has doubtless seen the Pew poll that shows 51 percent of Americans fear another war if Bush is given a second term, and these fears could flare up to new heights just before November, consigning his presidency to the ash-heap of history.

That danger is taken seriously by the Bushies because we really have lost control of events in Iraq. This leaked prognosis by the CIA – which holds out three scenarios: a tenuous stability, barely controlled chaos, and all-out civil war – seems relatively restrained in its palpable sense of panic compared to an unmentioned fourth, and far more likely, possibility: a regional conflagration.

The dogs of war, once unleashed, range as far and wide as possible, barreling through boundaries both moral and political: the insurgency is being fed by every Arab nation in the region, and is fast taking on a regional character. The neocons wanted "World War IV" – a war, in short, against a billion-plus Muslims – and now they have it. The question is: does George W. Bush want it?

Novak says no, and if we look at his scoop in context, we can see how two events foreshadowed a seismic shift in the foreign policy councils of this administration: the raid on Ahmed Chalabi’s headquarters in Iraq, and the news that a cabal of Israeli spies had been uncovered in the Pentagon, which the authorities have been tracking for over two years.

The raid was the first substantial sign that the neocons were not only out of favor in the Bush administration, but that the Bushies were moving to actively distance themselves from neoconservative causes: Chalabi, the neocons’ longtime Iraqi poster boy, found himself confronted with charges of embezzlement and even espionage. Quite a comedown for Ahmed the Liberator, the War Party’s anointed favorite, who was flown into Iraq by the Pentagon at U.S. taxpayers’ expense. If there was any justice in this world, he would be flown out of Iraq also at taxpayers’ expense – in custody of U.S. law enforcement, and under arrest for theft, fraud, and espionage. Feeding lies packaged as "intelligence," Chalabi and his neocon allies fibbed their way into seizing control of the mighty U.S. war machine, and running it to ground in Iraq – leaving George W. Bush alone amidst the wreckage.

The Pentagon spy scandal involves the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) – the pro-Israel lobby in Washington, and one of the biggest powerbrokers in the Imperial City – acting as a conduit through which classified information was passed to Israel from their moles in high places. That this investigation has been ongoing for over two years, and is just now surfacing, with a grand jury empaneled and evidence being examined, could be purely coincidental. Just as it could mean that the White House is going for the throat as far as the neocons are concerned, before they can jump ship and cry "betrayal!," as some, including Michael Ledeen and Michael Rubin, already have.

Pat Buchanan predicted that the American Empire had reached its apogee at Fallujah, and the stand-off at Najaf only confirmed his analysis:

"The neoconservative dream was to create a pro-American, free-market democracy in Iraq to serve as a model and catalyst for Arab peoples and convert Iraq into a base camp of American Empire, flanking Iran and Syria. It was to bring to power an Iraqi DeGaulle named Ahmed Chalabi, who would recognize Israel, build a Mosul-to-Haifa oil pipeline and become the Simon Bolivar of the Middle East.

"That utopian vision has vanished. President Bush has rejoined the realist camp. We are not going deeper in. We are on the way out."

With elections scheduled for January, and the U.S. adamantly holding to this schedule, one can easily foresee how Buchanan’s scenario would unfold. In an election in which all major parties would compete over who would kick out the Americans the fastest, the results could only lead to Iraq’s newly-installed "democratic" government politely but firmly asking us to leave.

At this point, George W. Bush has every reason and incentive to accept the invitation, but, in any case, how could we refuse?

We are good at nation-smashing, but lousy at nation-building. That’s the lesson the Republican foreign policy establishment seems to have learned, so far, from the Iraqi misadventure. It is a good and necessary part of the syllabus, but they have a long way to go before they finally discover – or rediscover – the wisdom of the Founders, who counseled against going abroad "in search of monsters to destroy."

Although I certainly hope Novak is correct in his assessment, being a pessimist by temperament, I tend to doubt it. But I don’t doubt that it’s possible he and Buchanan are right about the administration desperately wanting to pull itself up out of the Iraqi quagmire. The question is, though: can they do it? Or are we so mired down at this point that there’s no escape from being sucked into the Mideast maelstrom?

The neocons have already hedged their bets with the creation of the Committee on the Present Danger, a bipartisan group of war-hawks co-chaired by Senators John Kyl and Joe Lieberman and headed up by R. James "World War IV" Woolsey. The moment the White House shows signs of wavering, the neocons are ready with their battalions of laptop bombardiers, primed to rain down imprecations of "appeaser" and worse on the retreating Bushies. The Kerry crowd is also ready and waiting to pounce, with charges of "irresponsibility" and their own gradualist program of withdrawal in four years, possibly more, as outlined in Kerry’s most recent pronouncement.

This means it’s the Democrats who want to stay and fight, sacrificing more lives in pursuit of the futile crusade to make Iraq into a Middle Eastern version of Iowa, and the Republicans who want to declare victory and bring our troops home.

A recent David Brooks column tried to frame the Iraq War debate in terms of "hawk vs. hawk," pitting "gradualists," who want to win by making incremental gains, against "confrontationalists," who want to climb over piles of bodies in pursuit of "victory." As usual, the neocons seek to define their opponents out of existence: nonintervention, according to their parameters, is completely beyond the pale. But Novak’s reporting shows that the Brooksian analysis is the complete opposite of the facts. The real debate is between those who want to gradually disengage from Iraq, a la Kerry, and those – like the Bushies, according to Novak – who want "out now," as we used to say in the antiwar movement of the 1960s.

In the ultra-partisan, highly personalized world of post-imperial politics, it won’t seem at all odd when the same people who hate Bush because they’re supposedly against the war will suddenly rediscover the joys of staying the course. The same do-gooder emotionalism that led them to oppose the war in the first place will lead them, inexorably, into the trap of opposing U.S. withdrawal – in the name of our alleged obligation to rebuild the nation we destroyed. Aside from the utter impossibility – not to mention the sheer cost – of such a task, these sentimental interventionists ignore the reality that our very presence in Iraq is a destabilizing factor: the occupation is the cause of the insurgency, which won’t abate until we leave.

Yes, we will have handed de facto control of Iraq to Iran, the next target in the neocons’ sights, but that was easily foreseeable: Seymour Hersh believes that the phony "intelligence" piped into the White House and Congress is traceable to Iran, via Chalabi, and that may have been the War Party’s strategy all along: create a Shi’ite super-state to counterbalance the prestige of Osama bin Laden and the Sunni fanatics of al-Qaeda.

A U-turn on the road to empire, going at this speed and at this late date, is bound to have some negative repercussions, but that’s the price one pays for making mistakes. An orderly and honorable withdrawal from Iraq is far preferable to a forced retreat under fire, or a rebellion led by the government we helped bring to power.

Novak’s glad tidings of a coming Bush withdrawal, if true, would certainly trim the sails of the anti-Bush bandwagon. Even these simple but well-meaning folk will surely see the absurdity of being able to accept the prospect of peace from anybody but Bush. And that’s just one more reason to hope Novak’s right.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of Antiwar.com, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].