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The Withdrawal Follies

The Bush Administration Plants Its Flag in the Future

Withdrawal is now so mainstream. Last week, debate about it led to a sleep-in protest in the Senate and, this week, it’s hit the cover of TIME Magazine, of which there’s no mainer-stream around. The TIME cover couldn’t be more graphic. The word “IRAQ” is in giant type, the “I,” “R,” and “Q” all black, and a helicopter is carting off a stars-and-stripes “A” to reveal the phrase, “What will happen when we leave.” (Mind you, some military blogs now claim that the helicopter in silhouette is actually an old Soviet Mi-24 Hind; if so, maybe the designer had the embattled Russian withdrawal from Afghanistan in mind.)

Still, is there anyplace in the news where you can’t find the word “withdrawal,” or its pals “exit,” “pull out,” and “leaving” right now? Here are just a few recent headlines featuring the word that has come in from the cold: “Most Americans want Congress to make withdrawal decision, according to poll”; “The Logistics of Exiting Iraq”; “U.S. withdrawal from Iraq would be a massive undertaking”; “Americans Want Withdrawal, Deadline in Iraq”; “Washington’s House Democrats join in calling for Iraq troop withdrawal”; “Withdrawal fallout could lead to chaos”; “Exit strategies”; “Iraq warns against early US withdrawal”; and so on ad infinitum.

Think of that as “progress” — as in our Baghdad commander General David Petraeus’ upcoming mid-September “Progress Report” to Congress. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that no one (except obscure sites on the Internet) was talking about withdrawing American forces from Iraq.

Here’s the odd thing, though: “Withdrawal,” as an idea, has been undergoing a transformation in full public view. In the world of the Washington Consensus and in the mainstream press, it has been edging ever closer to what normally might be thought of as “non-withdrawal” (just as happened in the Vietnam era). In fact, you can search far and wide for reports on “withdrawal” plans that suggest a full-scale American withdrawal from Iraq and, most of the time, find nothing amid the pelting rain of withdrawal words.

As imagined these last months, withdrawal turns out to be a very partial affair that will leave sizeable numbers of American occupation forces in Iraq for a long period. If anything, the latest versions of “withdrawal” have been used as cudgels to beat upon real withdrawal types.

The President, Vice President, top administration officials and spokespeople, and the increasingly gung-ho team of commanders in Iraq — most of whom haven’t, in recent years, been able to deliver on a single prediction, or even pressure the Iraqis into achieving one major administration-set “benchmark” — have nonetheless managed to take possession of the future. They now claim to know what it holds better than the rest of us and are turning that “knowledge” against any suggestion of genuine withdrawal.

Worst of all, we’ve already been through this in the Vietnam era, but since no one seems to remember, no lessons are drawn.

Fast-Forward to the Future

In recent months, General David Petraeus, our “surge” commander in Iraq, has popularized a double or triple clock image: “”We’re racing against the clock, certainly. We’re racing against the Washington clock, the London clock, a variety of other timepieces up there, and we’ve got to figure out how to speed up the Baghdad clock.” In fact, he and his commanders have done just that, resetting the “Baghdad clock” for future time.

There’s a history of the future to consider here. In the late 1950s, when nuclear weapons made war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union inconceivable, the Pentagon and associated think-tanks found themselves forced to enter the realm of the future — and so of fiction — to “fight” their wars. They began, in strategist Herman Kahn’s famous phrase, to “think the unthinkable” and so entered the realm of science fiction, the fantasy scenario, and the war game.

In those decades, possessing the future was of genuine significance to the Pentagon. It led to a culture in which weapons systems were planned out long years, sometimes decades, in advance and so the wars they were to fight had to be imagined as well. Today, Baghdad 2025 is becoming ever more real for the Pentagon as Baghdad 2007 descends into ever greater chaos.

As a corollary, the more the present seems out of control, the stronger the urge to plant a flag in the future. In the case of Iraq, where control is almost completely lacking, we see this in a major way. When General Petraeus first arrived to oversee the surge, he and his commanders spoke cautiously about the future, but as their desperation has grown, their comments have become increasingly bold and their claims to predictive powers have expanded accordingly.

Just the other day, General Walter Gaskins, in charge of U.S. forces in al-Anbar Province, even appropriated a predictive phrase whose dangers are well known. He said: “There’s still a lot of work left to do in Al Anbar [Province]. Al Qaeda in Iraq is still trying to make its presence felt, but I believe we have turned the corner.” He added that “another couple of years” would nonetheless be needed to get the local Iraqi forces up to speed. “Although we are making progress, I will always caution and always say that you cannot buy, nor can you fast forward experience.”

When it comes to withdrawal, however, the military commanders have been doing just that — “fast-forwarding experience” — and reporting back to the rest of us on the results. Recently, for instance, Karen DeYoung and Thomas Ricks of the Washington Post reviewed a host of elaborate Iraq war games conducted for the Pentagon, including one which found that “if US combat forces are withdrawn” — note that those are only the “combat brigades,” not all U.S. forces — Iraq would be partitioned, Sunnis driven from ethnically mixed areas in and around Baghdad into al-Anbar Province, and “Southern Iraq would erupt in civil war between Shiite groups.”

These days, along with such grim military predictions go hair-raising suggestions about what even a partial U.S. withdrawal under pressure might entail. Here’s a typical comment attributed by DeYoung and Ricks to an “officer who has served in Iraq”: “[T]here is going to be an outbreak of violence when we leave that makes the [current] instability look like a church picnic.”

This is already coin of the realm for an administration which, until well into 2006, refused to admit that major sectarian violence existed in Iraq, no less that the country was headed for civil-war levels of it. That changed in a major way this year. Now, the administration has embraced sectarian violence as the future American critics are hustling it toward and is flogging that future for all it’s worth.

Early in July, U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker began to issue grim warnings about just such a future, should the U.S. withdraw. As the New York Times reported, “[T]he U.S. ambassador and the Iraqi foreign minister are warning that the departure of American troops could lead to sharply increased violence, the deaths of thousands of people and a regional conflict that could draw in Iraq’s neighbors.”

Ever since, such predictions have only ramped up. In his July 12 press conference, President Bush quickly picked up on the ambassador’s predictions, heightened them further, and wove together many of the themes that would thereafter come out of Iraq as the “advice” of his commanders. He said:

“I know some in Washington would like us to start leaving Iraq now. To begin withdrawing before our commanders tell us we are ready would be dangerous for Iraq, for the region, and for the United States. It would mean surrendering the future of Iraq to al Qaeda. It would mean that we’d be risking mass killings on a horrific scale. It would mean we’d allow the terrorists to establish a safe haven in Iraq to replace the one they lost in Afghanistan. It would mean increasing the probability that American troops would have to return at some later date to confront an enemy that is even more dangerous.”

A version of this (lacking the al-Qaeda twist) quickly became part of what passes for common wisdom among experts and pundits in this country — as in the Michael Duffy story that went with the TIME withdrawal cover. Should we draw-down, no less withdraw, precipitously, the result, suggested Duffy, is likely to be violence at levels impossible to calculate but conceivably just short of genocidal. As Marine Corps commander James Conway put it recently in words similar to the President’s, “My concern is if we prematurely move, we’re going to be going back.”

This mood was caught perfectly in a question nationally syndicated right-wing radio host Hugh Hewitt posed to General Petraeus: “Some have warned that a genocide of sorts, or absolute terms, would follow a precipitous withdrawal of coalition forces. Do you agree that that is a possibility … and a significant one?” To which Petraeus responded, “[O]ne would certainly expect that sectarian violence would resume at a very high level…. That’s not to say there’s not still some going on right now….”

The Future in Slo-mo

In the meantime, the Bush administration, its ambassador in Baghdad, and its commanders were hard at work trying to push any full-scale assessment of the President’s “surge” plan — promised for September — and the plan itself ever further into the future. This was part of a larger campaign for “more time.” In press conferences, teleconferences to Washington, briefings for Congress, leaks to the press, and media appearances of all sorts, they appealed for time, time, time. (Nowhere in the media, by the way, have the reporters who benefit from this flood of official and semi-official commentary suggested that it might be part of a concerted propaganda campaign.)

Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, who oversees day-to-day operations in Iraq, typically claimed that the September deadline was “too early” for any real assessment of “progress” and suggested November as the date of choice. Under pressure, he half-retracted his comments the next day, assuring Congress that there would indeed be a September Progress Report. He added: “My reference to November was simply suggesting that as we go forward beyond September, we will gain more understanding of trends.”

General Petraeus took a similar tack in that Hugh Hewitt interview: “Well, I have always said that we will have a sense by [September] of basically, of how things are going, have we been able to achieve progress on the ground, where have their been shortfalls…. But that’s all it is going to be.” In essence, the once-definitive September report was already being downgraded to a “snapshot” of an ongoing operation.

While Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Peter Pace even hinted that U.S. troop numbers in Iraq might rise in the near future, the horizon for the surge plan to end began to be pushed toward summer 2008. Yochi Dreazen and Greg Jaffe reported in the Wall Street Journal (“Gap Widens over Iraq Approach”): “Despite growing calls from lawmakers for drastic change in Iraq, senior U.S. military officials on the ground say they believe the current [surge] strategy should be maintained into next year — and already have mapped out additional phases for doing so through January.” They indicated that this was part of a Bush administration “gamble” — think campaign — “that Congress will be unable or unwilling to force a drawdown and that the military will have a free hand to keep the added troops in place well into next year.”

There was a drumbeat of commentary by various commanders pushing the plan deeper into the future. Maj. Gen. Richard Lynch, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division, typically said: “It’s going to take through [this] summer, into the fall, to defeat the extremists in my battle space [south of Baghdad], and it’s going to take me into next spring and summer to generate this sustained security presence.”

Leaks of plans that took the American presence into the increasingly distant future also began to occur. The most striking came on July 24th in a New York Times front-page piece by Michael R. Gordon. Its headline said it all: “U.S. seen in Iraq until at least ’09.” Gordon reported that a “detailed document,” known as the Joint Campaign Plan and developed by General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker, “foresees a significant American role for the next two years.” The article revealed plans to be in Iraq in force at least through the summer of 2009 — in other words, well into the tenure of the next administration. Gordon identified the source of this leak as “American officials familiar with the document.” As is often the case with reporter Gordon, the sourcing was indecipherable but undoubtedly administration-friendly, part of the President’s rolling, roiling campaign to secure the future (having lost the past and present).

As it happened, the future was also being wielded in another way. The President’s commanders now embraced their own version of withdrawal and began to turn it into another version of prolonged occupation. Their general attitude went something like this: If you think it took a long time to get into this mess, you have no idea how long it will take to get.

As an example, General Pace recently claimed that a month would be needed to withdraw each of our 20 combat brigades in Iraq non-precipitously; in other words, once we started, it would take almost two years not to get all our troops out of that country. Maj. Gen. Benjamin R. Mixon, U.S. commander in northern Iraq, then topped Pace by claiming that 18 months would be needed just to cut the brigades in his region in half.

Think of this as the future in slo-mo — or, as the Wall Street Journal’s Dreazen and Jaffe put it, “a complete withdrawal from Iraq could take as long as two years if conducted in an orderly fashion.” Not only that, but the military — and so the American media — suddenly discovered the vast amount of stuff that had been flown, or convoyed, into Iraq (mostly in better times) and now somehow had to be returned to sender. As TIME’s Duffy put it, included would be “a good portion of the entire U.S. inventory of tanks, helicopters, armored personnel carriers, trucks and humvees…. They are spread across 15 bases, 38 supply depots, 18 fuel-supply centers and 10 ammo dumps,” not to speak of “dining halls, office buildings, vending machines, furniture, mobile latrines, computers, paper clips and acres of living quarters.”

Associated Press reporter Charles Hanley caught the enormity of withdrawal this way: “In addition to 160,000 troops…, the U.S. presence in Iraq has ballooned over four years to include more than 180,000 civilians employed under U.S. government contracts — at least 21,000 Americans, 43,000 other foreigners and 118,000 Iraqis — and has spread to small ‘cities’ on fortified bases across Iraq.” In fact, such lists turn out never to end — as a series of anxious news reports have indicated — right down to the enormous numbers of port-a-potties that must be disposed of. In such accounts of the overwhelming nature of any withdrawal from a country the Bush administration thought it could make its own, cautionary historical examples are cited by the Humvee-load. (After the First Gulf War, withdrawal from Kuwait took a year under the friendliest of conditions; Afghanistan was hell for the Russians; Vietnam, despite the final scramble, took forever and a day to plan and carry out.) And don’t forget about the need to get rid of the “toxic waste” the Americans have accumulated — that alone is now estimated to take 20 months — or, according to reports, the shortage of aircraft for transport, the cratered, bomb-laden roads on which to convoy everything out, and the possibility that our allies, knowing we’re leaving, may turn on us in a Mad-Max-style future Iraq. Finally, don’t forget something that, until just about yesterday, no one outside of a few arcane military types even knew about — the agricultural inspectors who must certify that everything entering the U.S. is free of “microscopic disease.” And so it goes. Withdrawal, it turns out, is forever.

Of course, much of this is undoubtedly foolishness, though with a serious purpose. It’s meant to turn an unpredictable future into what former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld once termed a “known known” that can be wielded against those who want to change course in the disastrous present. You want withdrawal? You have an ironclad guarantee that, no matter how bad things might be, it will be so much worse.

Withdrawal, in other words, is fear itself. Sanity is a future that’s essentially the same as the present (with somewhat fewer U.S. troops) and, though no one mentions it, a significantly ramped up ability to bring air power to bear. (On this, the AP’s Hanley has just done two superb, if chilling, reports from the field, the only ones of significance on air power in Iraq since the invasion of 2003. He has revealed that the “surge” of U.S. air strength there may prove far more devastating and long-lasting than the one on the ground.)

Vietnam Redux

In the Vietnam years, the ongoing bloodbath of Vietnam was regularly supplanted in the United States by a predicted “bloodbath” the Vietnamese enemy was certain to commit in South Vietnam the moment the United States withdrew (just as a near-genocidal civil war is now meant to supplant the blood-drenched Iraqi present for which we are so responsible). This future bloodbath of the imagination appeared in innumerable official speeches and accounts as an explanation for why the United States could not leave Vietnam, just as the sectarian bloodbath-to-come in Iraq explains why we must not take steps to withdraw our troops (advisors, mercenaries, crony corporations, and port-a-potties) from that country.

In public discourse in the Vietnam era, this not-yet-atrocity sometimes became the only real bloodbath around and an obsessive focus for some of the war’s opponents within mainstream politics. Antiwar activist Todd Gitlin recalled “the contempt with which [activist Tom] Hayden had told me of a meeting he and Staughton Lynd had with Bobby Kennedy, early in 1967. Kennedy, he said then, had been fixated on the dangers of a ‘bloodbath’ in South Vietnam if the Communists succeeded in taking over.”

But it wasn’t only in the mainstream. Antiwar activists, too, often had to grapple with the expected, predicted horror that always threatened to dwarf the present one — the horror for which, it was implied, they would someday be responsible.

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 (“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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