• 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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