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The Withdrawal Follies
Posted on Jul 26, 2007
As for the President and his men: In his memoirs, Richard Nixon related how White House Chief of Staff Alexander Haig informed him of intelligence information indicating that the North Vietnamese and the National Liberation Front had “instructed their cadres the moment a cease fire is announced to kill all of the opponents in the area that they control. This would be a murderous bloodbath.”
As the war’s supporters were frustrated whenever they tried to make the enemy’s actual atrocities carry the weight of American ones, the thought of this future sea of blood weighed heavily in their favor. Similarly, an Iraqi near-genocidal civil war—the vision of seas of sectarian blood and even a regional conflict in the oil heartlands of the planet—weighs heavily in favor of “staying the course” in Iraq, a course already literally awash in a sea of blood.
Put another way, if the future was ever to be their opponents’, this was the future the administration—Nixon’s or Bush’s—wished on them. Such a bloodbath-to-come would, in their minds, effectively wash clean the bloodbath still in progress (as the bloodbath that happened—unexpected to all—in Pol Pot’s Cambodia indeed did). In the meantime, the expected Vietnamese bloodbath that never came about, like the expected Iraqi civil war of unprecedented proportions, deflected attention from the nature of the struggle at hand, and from the growing piles of dead in the present, allowing American leaders to withdraw, but only so far, from the consequences of their war.
Similarly, in the Vietnam years, the nonwithdrawal withdrawal was an endlessly played upon theme. The idea of “withdrawing” from Vietnam arose almost with the war itself, though never as an actual plan to withdraw. All real options for ending the war were invariably linked to phrases—some of which still ring bells—like “cutting and running,” or “dishonor,” or “surrender,” or “humiliation,” and so were dismissed within the councils of government more or less before being raised (just as they are dismissed out of hand today by the Washington Consensus and in articles like that of TIME’s Duffy). If anything, in the later years, “withdrawal” became—as it is now threatening to become in Iraq—a way to maintain, or even intensify, the war while pacifying the American public.
“Withdrawal” then involved not departure, but all sorts of departure-like maneuvers and promises—from bombing pauses that led to fiercer bombing campaigns to negotiation offers never meant to be taken up to a “Vietnamization” plan in which most (but hardly all) American ground troops would finally be pulled out but only as the air war was intensified—a distinct, if grim, possibility for Iraq’s American future. Each gesture of withdrawal allowed the war planners to fight a little longer. And yet, with every failed withdrawal gesture and every failed battle strategy (as may be the case in Iraq as well), a sense of “nightmare” seemed to draw ever closer.
Opting for the Present
We have now entered a period in the Iraq War in which stark alternatives are being presented to Americans that hardly wear out the possibilities the future offers. At the same time, Americans are being told of withdrawal “plans” that hold little hope of fully withdrawing American troops from Iraq. As Duffy frames the matter: After a reasonable withdrawal, we might have 50,000-100,000 troops still dug in “to protect America’s most vital interests” for an undefined “longer stay.” This would be not so much “to referee a civil war, as U.S. forces are doing now, but to try to keep it from expanding.” AP’s Hanley, however, suggests that, after a future drawdown, the numbers are likely to remain just what they were for administration planners “since before 2003”—30,000 American troops.
In what passes for a “debate” about withdrawal in the mainstream, two positions are essentially offered: American troops in some numbers will remain for an undefined period of years to preserve some kind of “stability” and “security” for the Iraqi populace and some cover for the Iraqi government, or those troops will be withdrawn precipitously and a whole series of horrors, ranging from a bloodbath of unknown proportions to the establishment of the beginnings of Osama bin Laden’s “caliphate” are likely to occur.
In this vision of the future, at least one major alternative possibility (of which there are undoubtedly many, some not yet imagined by any of us) is completely ignored: American troops remain for the long-term (however drawn-down and dug in) and, as has been the case over the last four-plus years, the situation continues to deteriorate. The military solution that General Petraeus and his commanders are relying on has yet to create anything other than instability, mayhem, and death. So, what if it turned out that the long-term maintenance of some form of American occupation was, in fact, not protection from, but the very path to an unimaginable sectarian bloodbath (as has been the case so far)?
The history of the last four years should tell us that this scenario is far more plausible than either of the alternatives now being presented. In fact, these years seem to offer a simple, if ignored, lesson: The Iraqis would have been better off had we never invaded; or if, after toppling Saddam, we had departed almost immediately; or if we had left in the fall of 2003—and so on for all these dismal, ever more disastrous years.
The fact is that we humans are generally lousy seers (and, when it comes to prediction, the President, the top officials of his administration, and his commanders have proven themselves especially poor at predicting the future). It’s time to set the future—and so fiction, fantasy, and speculation—aside. At the heart of the withdrawal debate in America should lie an obvious set of truths. As a start, no matter how continually we war game the future, it will never be ours. We will always be surprised.
While bad things did happen in Vietnam after our departure, none of them could have been called a “bloodbath,” while the bloodbath that was our presence there did indeed end. Vietnam is now, of course, a peaceful American ally in the region.
In Iraq, with our departure, there could indeed be a near-genocidal civil war, a partition of the country into three or thirty-three parts, and even a brutal regional war—or there could not. In fact, any of these things—as the present threatened Turkish invasion of Iraqi Kurdistan reminds us—could happen while our troops remain in residence. All this aside, deaths in Iraq are already approaching staggering levels without our departure. After all, if the Lancet study’s estimate of 655,000 “excess deaths” by mid-2006 is accurate, then imagine what that number must be an even bloodier year later.
We don’t know what the future holds. We do know what the present holds and that we could do something about.
The full-scale withdrawal of American troops from Iraq is an option that should, at least, be accorded serious attention, rather than automatic dismissal in the mainstream. Of course, a lot of this depends on whether you believe, in the end, that the United States is part of the problem or part of the solution in Iraq.
In the imperial mindscape of Washington, it is impossible to conceive of the U.S. as not part of the solution to almost any problem on the planet. But what if, in Iraq, that can’t be so as long as we remain in occupation of the country? Then, perhaps it would be worth opting for the present and taking a gamble on the unknown, rather than banking on Rumsfeld’s endless “known knowns.” Perhaps it’s time to bring not only the word, but the idea of withdrawal in from the cold.
Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s Tomdispatch.com (“a regular antidote to the mainstream media”), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews with American Iconoclasts and Dissenters (Nation Books).
Copyright 2007 Tom Engelhardt
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