Why We Must Leave Iraq

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Monday at
New York University
, Senator John Kerry launched his first strong
attack on George Bush’s Iraq War policy. (“By one count, the president
offered 23 different rationales for this war. If his purpose was
to confuse and mislead the American people, he succeeded. His two
main rationales, weapons of mass destruction and the Al Qaida-September
11th connection, have both been proved false by the president’s
own weapons inspectors and by the 9/11 Commission. And just last
week, Secretary of State Powell acknowledged those facts. Only Vice
President Cheney still insists that the Earth is flat…”) On Tuesday,
the exceedingly cautious UN General Secretary Kofi Annan, who only
the other day managed to term our war and occupation in Iraq “illegal”
for the first time, stood
at the podium
of the General Assembly, called on the assembled
UN delegates to uphold “the rule of law… at risk around the world,”
and symbolically denounced the tortures of Abu Ghraib (“we have
seen Iraqi prisoners disgracefully abused”).

Then President Bush stepped to the same podium and made the
following curious observation
– “We know that dictators
are quick to choose aggression, while free nations strive to resolve
differences in peace” – as part of a speech ostensibly aimed
at the audience of stony-faced delegates. Like almost all Bush speeches,
however, his was in fact a rousing, hectoring propaganda moment,
a nationalist speech geared to the election and largely aimed at
his own fundamentalist base. It was full of red-meat lines not meant
for the delegates from France or Bangladesh, but for the conservative,
assumedly UN-loathing voter from the American heartland.

Among other things, there were the invocations of “human dignity,”
part of the President’s endlessly coded reaffirmations of his stances
on abortion, cloning, and (by implication) stem-cell research. “No
human life,” he said, “should ever be produced or destroyed for
the benefit of another.” There was the ringing denunciation of “the
evil of trafficking in human beings,” a mobilizing issue for his
evangelical base; and there was that reddest of all red-meat lines,
“Coalition forces now serving in Iraq are confronting the terrorists
and foreign fighters so peaceful nations around the world will never
have to face them within our own borders.” Within our own borders…
this is
the line
with which the Bush administration hopes to win the
election. War in Iraq, however terrible, is better than fighting
in the streets of Toledo.

But in the real Iraq quite a different process is underway. In Superpower
Syndrome, America’s Apocalyptic Confrontation with the World
an insightful little paperback published last year, psychiatrist
Robert Jay Lifton wrote of how the Bush administration “responded
apocalyptically to an apocalyptic challenge”; of how in the wake
of 9/11 and facing Islamist fanaticism, it offered its own version
of a fundamentalist “world war without end”; of how, perversely,
it then partnered up with al-Qaeda in a strange global dance of

If indeed at the highest levels we are seeing two versions of fundamentalism
locked in a strange embrace, then it’s hardly surprising that something
similar should be replicated “on the ground,” as has happened in
Iraq. To me, the most striking aspect of the Iraqi situation is
that this administration’s fundamentalist occupation of Iraq emboldened,
even (you might say) created, its own dream enemy. Soon after the
insurgency there gained modest strength, the President declared
Iraq “the central front in the war on terrorism” – and as with
one of those genies in some old Arabian tale, Poof! It was so.

In Iraq, everything we’ve done from not attempting to stop the initial
pulse of looting to dismantling Saddam’s army, police, and state,
from instituting American right-wing fundamentalist economic policies
to our deep belief in the unimportance of Iraqis in the occupation
of their country – we didn’t even arrive with translators,
no less experts – not to speak of our heavy-handed use of military
power and torture power in the “liberated” country at the earliest
signs of resistance – all have essentially favored the growth
of the most extreme elements in Iraqi society and in the region
more generally. The administration which turned away from the real
“war” on terror to Iraq for reasons of its own and whose top officials
then melded Saddam, 9/11, weapons of mass destruction, and al-Qaeda
into a tasty propaganda stew, have now, not surprisingly, managed
to turn fantasy into reality.

Today, according
to Time magazine correspondent Michael Ware
, who was
almost kidnapped by members of Attawhid wal Jihad (Unity and Holy
War), a militant group loyal to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, “the most
wanted terrorist in Iraq”:

group’s black flags flutter from the palm trees and buildings
along the Baghdad boulevard where we were stopped, an area known
as Haifa Street. It’s a no-go zone for U.S. forces. The fact that
insurgents tied to al-Zarqawi are patrolling one of Baghdad’s
major thoroughfares – within mortar range of the U.S. embassy
– is an indication of just how much of the country is beyond
the control of U.S. forces and the new Iraqi government. It also
reflects the extent to which jihadis linked to al-Zarqawi, 37,
the Jordanian believed to be al-Qaeda’s chief operative in Iraq,
have become the driving forces behind the insurgency and are expanding
its zone of influence.”

This is a remarkable, if dark, achievement for the Bush administration.
Iraq may indeed now be “the central front in the war on terrorism.”
A reader wrote me recently, on the subject of withdrawal from Iraq,
asking whether we could possibly consider withdrawing without first
“stabilizing” the country. But the point is the opposite: You can’t
put our fundamentalist administration and its Iraqi plans in the
same sentence with the word “stabilization.” The longer we remain,
the more destabilizing we will prove. Let Jonathan Schell, whose
book The
Unconquerable World
puts a frame of history around the events
of our moment, take on the issue of withdrawal below in his latest
Nation magazine “Letters from Ground Zero” column, which
the editors of that magazine have been kind enough to let me share
with you. Tom

We Must Leave Iraq

Jonathan Schell

Post columnist Richard Cohen, once a supporter of the war in
Iraq, has been rethinking his position. The day after Senator John
Kerry’s speech at NYU attacking the President’s war policies, Cohen
wrote, “I still don’t think the United States can just pull out
of Iraq. But I do think the option is worth discussing.”

Well, let’s discuss it.

The United States should just pull out of Iraq.

There are many issues in politics that are very complicated. The
war in Iraq is not one of them. Common sense in regard to this war
rests on two rock-solid pillars:

(1) The United States should never have invaded Iraq.

(2) Now it should set a timetable to withdraw and leave.

These two propositions go together. The litany of reasons why it
was wrong to invade Iraq – that there were no weapons of mass
destruction in the country, no ties to Al Qaeda and only the dimmest
prospect of democracy – are the same as the reasons why it
is now wrong to remain there.

And in truth, the war would have been an even greater mistake if
the reasons given for it had been based on reality – if the weapons
of mass destruction and ties to Al Qaeda had existed. People don’t
have to ask themselves today what might have happened if Vice President
Cheney had been correct in saying, as he did before the war, that
Iraq had “reconstituted its nuclear weapons” and if CIA director
George Tenet had also been correct in saying that the sole circumstance
in which Saddam might use weapons of mass destruction would be if
his power were threatened. Had both men been correct, there might
have been a use of weapons of mass destruction against American
troops in the Iraq theater, or even on US soil (if the ties to Al
Qaeda had also been real), and a possible use of nuclear weapons
by the United States in retaliation.

How fortunate we are that Cheney, at least, was factually mistaken!
That he was wrong is the bright side, if you like, of the current
mess. His disastrous factual errors may have saved us from his catastrophic
policy errors. Nor has the war brought with it any new justification
for itself. On the contrary, it has added fresh reasons for leaving.
If the story of the occupation so far – a story of scarcely
imaginable incompetence, misfired intentions, collapsing plans,
multiplying horrors and steadily growing resistance – teaches
a single clear lesson it is that the United States is a radicalizing
force in Iraq. The more the United States pursues the goal of a
democratic Iraq, the farther it recedes into the distance. The longer
the United States stays the course, the worse the actual outcome

Let there be as orderly a transition as possible, accompanied by
as much aid, foreign assistance and general sweetness and light
as can be mustered, but the endpoint, complete withdrawal, should
be announced in advance, so that everyone in Iraq – from the
beheaders and other murderers, to legitimate resisters, to any true
democrats who may be on the scene – can know that the responsibility
for their country’s future is shifting to their shoulders. The outcome,
though not in all honesty likely to be pretty, will at any rate
be the best one possible. If the people of Iraq slip back into dictatorship,
it will be their dictatorship. If they choose civil war, it will
be their civil war. And if by some happy miracle they choose democracy,
it will be their democracy – the only kind worth having.

Kerry’s speech was the beginning “at long last” (his words) of a
serious debate in the campaign over the war. The speech was heralded
by his charge, a few days before, that George W. Bush lives in a
“fantasy world of spin” – the first telling, or even widely
audible, phrase that Kerry has used in his entire campaign for President.
Bush, indeed, has an audacious personal quality that has somehow
served him well so far: full frontal repudiation of facts known
to all. Faced with the absence of WMDs in Iraq he once simply said,
“We have found the weapons of mass destruction.” Faced with a Presidential
Daily Brief titled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in the U.S.,”
he and his spokespersons called it “historical.” In his universe,
faithfulness to delusion is “consistency.” It reached its apogee
at the GOP convention, where the President presented a picture of
the war in Iraq from which all current facts – the street fighting,
the bombing, the kidnappings, the torture, the departing allies – had
been removed.

the course” meant staying in the imaginary world. At the convention,
the President, if we are to judge by his sudden dramatic rise in
the polls, apparently drew a majority of the country into that world
with him. Yet almost immediately thereafter, he sank again in many
polls. As of this writing, the polls are in anarchy, showing anything
from a double-digit Bush lead to a dead heat. The polling may reflect
the confusion of a public groping to deal with its immersion in
the imaginary world. Like a movie audience emerging from a feel-good
blockbuster onto the icy streets, the public probably cannot help
noticing that what is before its eyes is quite different from what
was on the screen. The bright and shining lies are always more appealing,
at least for a while, than the plain truth. Could the resulting
double-vision be the reason for a certain flip-flopping, so to speak,
of the public itself?

his speech, Kerry embraced one of the pillars of common sense, finally
declaring that the war was a mistake, saying of the President, “Is
he really saying that if we knew there were no imminent threat,
no weapons of mass destruction, no ties to Al Qaeda, the United
States should have invaded Iraq? My answer is no.” He did not proceed,
however, to the necessary corollary, that withdrawal is necessary,
though he hinted at it. Each of his concrete proposals – to
find allies, train Iraqi police, speed up reconstruction, hold elections
– is fine, but none guarantee the success in creating a “viable”
Iraq that he still seems to promise. He has put one foot in the
real world, but left the other in the imaginary world, leaving himself
open, still, to the flip-flopping charge that Bush immediately leveled
against him again. Only one-hundred-percent fantasy will do for
the President. But Kerry has at least begun the journey – one
as hard as the journey from his service in Vietnam to his protest
against it – toward the real. Give him credit for that.

This article will appear in the October 11 issue of The

23, 2004

Tom Engelhardt [send him
] is editor of TomDispatch.com,
a project of the Nation
. He
is the author of several books, including The
Last Days of Publishing: A Novel
and The
End of Victory Culture
. Jonathan Schell is the Harold Willens
Peace Fellow at the Nation Institute and the author of The
Unconquerable World
(Metropolitan Books) as well as A
Hole in the World
, a collection of his “Letters from Ground
Zero” column for the Nation magazine.

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