Iraq: The Phony ‘Withdrawal’

Last September, conservative columnist Robert Novak predicted the Bush administration would soon start withdrawing from Iraq:

“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.”

Pat Buchanan, too – like Novak, a conservative opponent of this war – saw the battle for Fallujah and the siege of Najaf as turning points that signaled a U-turn on the road to Empire:

“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.”

Now it appears their predictions have been confirmed. A leaked memo by British Defense Secretary John Reid detailing plans for an Anglo-American drawdown is making the rounds: the various news accounts, while stressing that the document is based on a number of contingencies, contain no strong denials from government officials on either side of the Atlantic. It’s a matter not of if we begin withdrawing American troops, according to Pentagon officials, but when and how many.

Professor Juan Cole, of the University of Michigan and an Iraq expert of note, gives voice to the bewilderment of many – both pro- and antiwar – when he asks: “What in the world, then, is actually going on?”

Cole foresees the de facto abdication of a unitary state in Iraq, with the Kurds achieving something more than mere autonomy and the nine southern provinces handed over to the Shi’ite party militias and the nascent U.S.-trained Iraqi military. “Ironically,” he writes,

“The peace groups who have been demanding a rapid U.S. withdrawal have in recent months been closer to Pentagon thinking than they could have imagined.”

Not quite, unfortunately.

It is true that the locus of opposition to this war within our government was concentrated, first of all, in the top echelons of the military, as well as in the CIA: the largely involuntary retirement of General Eric Shinseki, who was personally and publicly taken to task by Paul Wolfowitz for saying that the occupation of Iraq would requires a force upwards of 200,000, made the split between the suits and the uniforms so public that the neocons began calling on the generals to pipe down, hypocritically citing the alleged danger to our republican institutions if a man (or woman) in uniform was so impertinent as to believe that their opinions mattered. After all, who is better qualified to plan the execution and aftermath of a complex military operation – some policy wonk with delusions of grandeur, or the military professionals? To the neocons, this question answered itself – an exhibition of comic-opera conceit that gave rise to the “chickenhawk” meme.

So, yes, the thinking of many high-ranking officers has paralleled that of peace groups, a seemingly odd confluence covered more than once in this space. Yet it is important to understand that, short of a military coup, the job of the generals is to implement policy, not make it. They are the instruments of those who hold the real power. When it comes to foreign policy, this means the White House, and there can be little doubt as to what the preferred policy is there.

What the Bush administration has said time and time again is that they seek nothing less than the “democratic transformation” of the Middle East – nay, the world. Like some Bolshevik orator of old, the president has declared his revolutionary intentions:

“Because we have acted in the great liberating tradition of this nation, tens of millions have achieved their freedom. And as hope kindles hope, millions more will find it. By our efforts we have lit a fire as well, a fire in the minds of men. It warms those who feel its power; it burns those who fight its progress. And one day this untamed fire of freedom will reach the darkest corners of our world.”

What could be clearer? The neo-Jacobin spirit that animates those who relentlessly agitated for this war, far from being humbled by apparent failure, is instead emboldened. Having lied us into war, they are eager to do so again – and this ambition is not necessarily inconsistent with a general drawdown in Iraq. Aside from that, however, the War Party has succeeded in winning a Middle East beachhead. The troop numbers may be reduced, but those remaining will retreat to permanent bases that are already being built.

The American goal of establishing permanent bases in Iraq has not received the degree of attention required by the relative importance of the subject. Matt Yglesias, a writer for The American Prospect now blogging over at Talkingpoints Café, trenchantly described this project as “the elephant in the corner of American Iraq policy.” Kevin Drum, of the Washington Monthly, concurred:

Of course the White House wants permanent military bases in Iraq. Just look at a map. As long as we have bases in Iraq and Afghanistan we have easy access to all of the Middle East and Central Asia – and of the two Iraq is by far the most central and most critical.

“Like Matt, I’m also a little surprised this doesn’t get more attention. You can argue all day long about whether permanent U.S. bases in Iraq are a good idea or not, but the Bush administration has made it plainly obvious that they want them. Why then does there seem to be an underlying assumption in press accounts that as soon as everything calms down we’ll pull out our troops and leave? The odds of that happening are slim and none.”

The elephant is due to come out of its corner soon enough – and this is the real issue, not the troop levels., a useful resource for researchers in this field, has identified 106 American bases in Iraq as of mid-May: the plan is to consolidate U.S. forces in anywhere from 14 to 4 “enduring” bases, as part of a strategy involving a less visibly intrusive American presence. Remaining troops would reside in hardened facilities, meant to last many years. Congress appropriated the money for this in the May 2005 supplemental requested by the White House, with little debate as to the implications. Also included in this package: the construction of the world’s largest embassy, occupying 104 acres, housing 1,020 staff and 500 guards, and commanding a budget of some $20 billion.

What’s all this talk about a pending American withdrawal from Iraq? It doesn’t look to me like we’re going anywhere – except deeper into the Middle East. As Thomas Donnelly, Clausewitz-in-residence over at the American Enterprise Institute, so subtly put it:

“The operational advantages of U.S. bases in Iraq should be obvious for other power-projection missions in the region.”

Once these put down roots so deep that – as Chalmers Johnson points out in his critique of our “empire of bases” – they take on a self-sustaining economic and political dynamic that ensures their enduring character, these outposts of Empire become like rocks in the rushing stream. Leaping from the homeland to American bases in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the Horn of Africa, U.S. military units can project American power anywhere on earth.

This is no longer just about Iraq. Think of that shattered country as a launching pad, and our policymakers as scientists involved in a great experiment. They are tinkering with the rocket design, experimenting with different fuels, and just beginning to build the facilities they need to make their project soar.

Forget the war we are losing – the guerrilla war that is now tearing Iraq apart, threatening to initiate a three-sided (at least) civil war and a descent into ungovernable chaos. The problem these neoconservatives – erm, I mean scientists – have set out to solve is how to fuel the next war.

Forget about the number of American soldiers stationed in Iraq. The regional troop level may rise, even as the numbers in Iraq sink. American bases are strung along the sultanates and emir-doms of the Gulf, in Oman, Qatar, and Kuwait, with plenty of room to accommodate forces brought in from other theaters. The withdrawal of troops from Iraq, far from being a sign that peace is about to break, could augur a fresh conflict.

As an unsigned analysis coming out of put it in May of last year, the “strategic goal” of the Bush administration wasn’t to implant “democracy” or even to ensure the stability and unity of Iraq, but “to acquire projection capabilities from within Iraq that would allow Washington to pressure the entire Middle East, from Iran to Saudi Arabia to Egypt.”

These future wars would never come off, however, “if U.S. troops were bogged down in a guerrilla war with no end in sight.” No, that would never do. The present situation is “untenable,” which is why it is thought necessary to move troops “out of harm’s way” – without, of course, Washington “abandoning its broader goals in the Middle East.” Yes, the Iraqi state midwifed by American troops seems to be stillborn, or perhaps fated for an early death, but we’ll muddle through somehow if we keep our “broader goals” in mind. Besides which, we never really cared that much about building “democracy,” in the short term at least. Or, as the Stratfor analyst put it:

“The United States does not want – and it has no interest in – policing Iraq, day in and day out. The U.S. goal is to be able to pressure Iraq’s neighbors, not to babysit the Iraqis.”

So, what to do? Stratfor lays out three options, one of which – complete withdrawal – is “unrealistic.” How so? “Not only would it be an embarrassment, it would be a strategic failure of mammoth proportions.” Yeah, that sounds pretty bad, until one asks: why is that an undesirable outcome? After all, it depends on what sort of policy our strategy has been founded on: the “strategic failure” of a bad policy – a murderous, costly, and immoral policy of conquest and the pursuit of Empire – would be a good thing, provided that failure is acknowledged and the right lesson learned.

In any case, withdrawal was rejected out of hand, and that left two options: should we base our new “on the downlow” occupation, otherwise known as Occupation Lite, in a lot of mid-sized “enclaves” clustered around the major cities, or ensconce ourselves in a few humongous fortresses stuck way out in the boondocks, completely isolated from the civil war sure to break out? In Washington they favor the “enclave” option, but the officers in the field are opposed: if we’re going to take cover and await further orders – perhaps a move into Syria, or even Lebanon, and surely a clash with Iran somewhere down the road – then let’s do it in impregnable fortresses, where we don’t have to engage the insurgency.

Look at the Big Picture through the perceptive eyes of foreign policy analyst Chalmers Johnson, who notes in his book, Sorrows of Empire, that conquerors of all eras have built encampments and forts in subject provinces, but there is something unique about the Americans:

“What is most fascinating and curious about the developing American form of empire, however, is that, in its modern phase, it is solely an empire of bases, not of territories, and these bases now encircle the earth in a way that, despite centuries-old dreams of global domination, would previously have been inconceivable.”

Aside from the interest groups that benefit economically from a policy of militarism and perpetual war, and such factors as securing oil and other resources, Johnson sees

“Something else at work, which I believe is the post-Cold War discovery of our immense power, rationalized by the self-glorifying conclusion that because we have it we deserve to have it. The only truly common elements in the totality of America’s foreign bases are imperialism and militarism-an impulse on the part of our elites to dominate other peoples largely because we have the power to do so, followed by the strategic reasoning that, in order to defend these newly acquired outposts and control the regions they are in, we must expand the areas under our control with still more bases. To maintain its empire, the Pentagon must constantly invent new reasons for keeping in our hands as many bases as possible long after the wars and crises that led to their creation have evaporated.”

Think of the American Empire as a series of lily-pads strung across the great Pond of the world. Our agile forces can leap, froglike, from one pad to another, to and fro, back and forth, over oceans and across continents in pursuit of the Bad Guys. Whether it be the sudden need for “regime change” in the Middle East, or assistance to yet another “peoples’ revolution” inside the former Soviet Union, these fortresses of Empire are the essential infrastructure of our strategic doctrine of military preemption.

The goal of that doctrine is world hegemony, and the immediate objective is the Middle East. Those Iraqi installations going up at great cost – and great profit to the Cheney-connected Halliburton – are the forward bases for our next strike, which is even now being whispered about in the corridors of power.

Withdrawal? What withdrawal? We’re only getting ready for the next war.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, 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].