How Do We Fix the Mess In Iraq?

Below is the text of a speech I gave at the invitation Johns Hopkins Antiwar Coalition on March 9, 2006, at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore.

This is an interesting question, and many people in and out of the American government are asking it.

In October of last year, Army General William Odom said "The invasion of Iraq was the "greatest strategic disaster in United States history." He said the invasion had alienated America’s Middle East allies, making it harder to prosecute a war against terrorists."

Vietnam veteran John Murtha said last month: "we’re not only not winning, we’re spreading hatred towards the United States. Eighty percent of the people in Iraq want us out of there. Forty-seven percent of the people in Iraq say it’s justified to kill Americans. Eighty percent of the people in the periphery of Iraq say that we’ll be better off. Once we get out of there, it will be more stable in Iraq. "

Mother Jones Magazine ran a piece this week by James K. Gailbraith, economics professor at University of Texas, Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs. Gailbraith’s article is entitled "Withdrawal Symptoms: Quitting Iraq won’t undo the real damage of the war." He details what is wrong in Iraq, and says: "But the reality is that the Iraq war could not be won by a force of any size or by an expenditure of any amount. Against determined opposition, occupations in the modern world cannot prevail."

Recent words of a modern conservative godfather, William F. Buckley, Jr., echo those of Odom, Murtha and Gailbraith. Buckley is receiving a lot of flak from the neoconservative movement he helped produce. Entitled simply: "It Didn’t Work." Buckley boldly condemns American policy in Iraq. By "it," didn’t work, he means the American "objective" was not achieved. Buckley writes:

"Our mission has failed because Iraqi animosities have proved uncontainable by an invading army of 130,000 Americans. The great human reserves that call for civil life haven’t proved strong enough. No doubt they are latently there, but they have not been able to contend against the ice men who move about in the shadows with bombs and grenades and pistols."

Three of these men, and thousands of other men and women who have closely observed American foreign policy in the Cold War and post Cold War Era, are exactly on target. The occupation had an agenda of sorts, although this administration has been less than open about that agenda. In the future, whole books will be dedicated to trying to figure out the real reason that we invaded and attempted to occupy Iraq. Perhaps Rumsfeld, Cheney or even George W. Bush will grace us with a memoir.

The agenda seems — and I emphasize "seems" because we cannot truly know at this time — seems to have been to forcibly transform an oil rich country that was a socialist dictatorship — with Saddam Hussein playing a hostile Marshal Tito — into a kind of Israeli-modeled proportional parliamentary system; into an unarmed country filled with religious and ethnic tolerance; into a capitalistic country with a globally integrated economy; into a country that would reliably sell their massive quantities of petroleum for dollars, and not euros, nor gold, nor any other currency, but dollars; and into a country that would sell that oil freely to people we liked.

We flew the flag of democracy from our tank turrets, HUMVEE antennas, and our rifles in order to achieve the neo-conservative vision for this other country.

This agenda has not been completely implemented. There is a proportional parliamentary system in place, but it isn’t tested, seems contrived, unpopular, and not able to ensure minority rights to the satisfaction all Iraqis. Iraq is a capitalistic country, but only in the sense that another capitalist country now manages and controls its primary export commodity and its banking system. Its economy is globally integrated, but only because the formerly state-owned industrial base has been sold to friendly international bidders who were part of the U.S. "coalition of the willing." Oil is now again traded on the dollar, as this change occurred via an Executive Order signed by George W. Bush in May 2003; however, less oil is being produced today than under the heavily sanctioned former government of Iraq.

The flag of democracy we waved to the Iraqi people from the turrets and tanks is now tattered.

Of course, the cynics among us may believe that what we have today in Iraq is exactly what we, or at least Washington neoconservatives, really wanted. Cynics suggest that our real agenda was simply to destroy the industrialized, unified, and proud country of Iraq, and create a kind of long-lasting chaos and societal breakdown that would serve our own purposes in the region, including the construction of massive Guantanamo-style fortresses we call megabases.

While General Odom, John Gailbraith, and John Murtha are correct about Iraq, William F. Buckley, Jr. is off base in his assessment of the situation. Of course, Bill Buckley understands that we must now admit defeat in Iraq. He concluded on February 24th of this year that, " … different plans have to be made. And the kernel here is the acknowledgment of defeat."

But Buckley gets it wrong in why we have been defeated. He believes we have lost against "killer insurgents" in Iraq and something he calls "the ice men who move about in the shadows with bombs and grenades and pistols."

Well, people, I have some good news and I have some bad news.

The good news is that the more intelligent and reasonable on the left, the right, the down low and the on high, and every other part of the political spectrum, are all reaching the same conclusion. Iraq is a mess, we have made it a mess, and we ought to do something. Most advocate a withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. Strangely, no one in government, media or academia wants to talk about our multi-billion dollar megabases, and what we should do with them. I can only imagine.

More good news is that the majority of Americans — we the people — are beginning to accept our own culpability for the Iraq mess. There is a growing sense of American responsibility for what our politicians, specifically our President, Vice President and our Congress have done not only to Iraq, but to our own American credibility, financial solvency, and to our preferred image of ourselves as the most law-abiding and simultaneously the most free country on earth.

Of course, a small minority of neo-conservatives in both major political parties are the ones who dreamed, designed, promoted, advocated and implemented this disastrous foreign policy in the Middle East. But it was our political system that allowed this neoconservative concoction to be sold to American citizens and to the world without warranty, without a list of active ingredients, and without a warning that dangerous side-effects were not only possible but very likely.

That political system, with a willing state media to communicate Washington’s desires for this "drug," is still intact. It is being used today with great effectiveness to advocate American and Israeli military attacks on Iran. But we as a nation are now recognizing the problem, and are beginning to assign responsibility in all of the right places, not just a few of them. This is a good sign, and it is happening now.

Lastly, good news can be found in the real performance of the Iraqis themselves under our devastating occupation. We hear of imminent or ongoing civil war, we hear of ethnic and religious intolerance. We see the incredible efforts that real (versus American-appointed and American-recommended) Iraqi leaders have made to de-escalate passions in the face of recent violence and desecration of mosques by unknown persons. In the eyes of many Iraqis, violence of this type is probably the work of persons not of Iraqi origin, outsiders intent on stirring up sectarian strife.

25 million Iraqis, with all of their problems, have come to realize to a person, that overbearing, over-centralized, militaristic government fails. Such governments extract resources and waste them. Such governments constantly engage in organized war. Such governments lie. Such governments torture. Such governments deceive. Iraqis knew this well under Saddam Hussein, as subjects of dictatorships always understand. Iraqis understand this even more completely today, as they are subject to exactly the same thing under the American-dominated and enforced administration of Iraq today.

During the Cold War, Russians and other subjects of the Supreme Soviet understood the corruption of communism, decades before the final collapse of the Soviet Union. When we read Solzhenitsyn from the late 1960s and early 1970s, we understood that Russians already knew more about their own political flaws and problems, and had already considered and debated challenges of living and society and government more deeply than we ever could or would.

The Iraqi people have witnessed — and many have survived — the American occupation. They have seen incredible destruction of institutions and infrastructure. They have witnessed corruption beyond any they tolerated under Hussein, and watched as the United States built even more prisons in order to incarcerate ever-increasing numbers of Iraqis.

But there is indeed good news. The good news is that the Iraqis today have no remaining illusions about government. They increasingly cling together along the lines of things that truly matter — family, tradition, religion, and faith — and as one of the more educated and liberal of the Arab states in the 1980s and 1990s, they are privately generating many concrete and positive ideas on how to make their country great again. If only we would get out of the way and let them do it.

Leaving Iraq is indeed the first step, and for us, little else needs to be done, to fix that mess. Colin Powell and others often publicly invoke the so-called Pottery Barn rule, saying "We broke it, we buy it." The absolute arrogance of this faulty analogy should offend all Americans, as it surely must offend the Iraqis.

Do we really believe that we can break a people who have withstood occupations in any number of centuries in just a few years with a few hundred thousand American soldiers and Marines? Do we actually believe that Iraqis were broken by the years of sanctions and daily bombings by the US and UK that characterized the George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton regimes in Washington? Do we think that the destruction of Saddam’s Republican Guard and hundreds of thousands of draftees and civilians in 1991 broke the Iraqis? Was Iraq destroyed by eight years of Saddam Hussein’s insane war against Iran, a country three times its size and with far more resources? Do we actually think that our killing of over 300,000 Iraqis since 2003 — whether on purpose or as nameless, faceless collateral damage — has destroyed the country?

American political leaders — particularly those Republicans and Democrats who tentatively oppose the American occupation in Iraq — whimper under their breath about having to stay there because we "broke the country." These politicians are almost more arrogant and uninformed than the neo-conservatives who had planned to do precisely that.

Allow me to offer you a new analogy. It is one that every American can understand, including our congressional representatives. It is an analogy that applies well to Iraq today. When the supermarket announcement is made for "Cleanup in Aisle 3," do we not make every effort to contain our errant children and get them away from the mess, so that those truly responsible for the store’s operation can do their job, a job they want to do, and which they are best qualified to do?

Naturally, the store owner would prefer that his property not be damaged and destroyed. Naturally the store owner would prefer that safety, sanitation and other customers not be put at risk. But the mother or father who unleashes her newly penitent, and perhaps chastened crowd of 3-year old ankle biters on the spilled applesauce in Aisle 3 will certainly be told by the store owners and employees, firm and confidently, "Indeed, your help here is not necessary. Thanks, but we’ll take care of this ourselves."

George W. Bush has said that the best thing we can do in fighting his global war is to go shopping. The shopping experience we need to apply in Iraq today is not the Pottery Barn rule, but the more humble "Cleanup in Aisle 3" rule. And deep down, the vast majority of Americans already know this.

Now for the bad news.

Bill Buckley wrongly believes we failed in Iraq because "the ice men who move in shadows" in Iraq have defeated our glorious occupiers. Instead, we failed strategically because the ice men who move in shadows in Washington do not respect the rule of law or our own Constitution. The ice men in Washington do not understand real freedom and from whence it comes, and apparently, they slept through every history class they ever took. Buckley is a bit confused on this point. The ice men are not in Iraq. But they do exist and they are indeed the cause of this extreme and tragic failure of American foreign policy.

Leaving Iraq does nothing to solve the primary problem that plagues our national policy and financial stability. The ice men remain, and will remain, in Washington. The system that allows boutique wars of choice to be pursued at the whim of the President and his advisors is still in place. The government media system that manufactures lies, reports those lies to the people, and then charges truthtellers with being traitors and terrorists, is still in place in America. It is hard to believe, but this system is even more robust than it was three years ago.

Both the grassroots and the ivory tower embrace the idea that elections are useful and something called “voting” matters. Many naïvely expected that, once Iraqis voted and raised the purple finger, American troops would come home, having accomplished at least that small afterthought of the American agenda in Iraq.

But any dictator can have elections. Saddam held regular elections, as did the Soviets, as do we. Paper ballots or electronic signaling of our preferences may not, in the end, really matter.

But the image of Iraqis with purple index fingers raised does suggest a partial, yet intriguing, remedy to our own situation here at home.

We, the people, desperately need to raise more fingers in defiance of our pencil-necked, jack-booted government. My personal preference — and apparently that of George W. Bush — is the middle finger salute. But the index finger, when associated with “Just a minute, buster!” and “What are you doing to us, Congressman?” also works. We, the people, also need to give healthy thumbs-down to politicians corrupted by lobbies or love of power, and those who suffer chronic and willful ignorance of our Constitution.

How does giving the finger to our own government help fix Iraq? As anyone who watches Oprah or Dr. Phil, or even Judge Judy knows, when you have a troubled relationship with a significant other, you can’t just fix the “other.” All you can really do is be honestly aware of what you have become, and then listen and learn the truth about your partner’s situation (and here’s a great starting point). Finally, no matter what solutions present themselves, we understand that the only future we own, the only destiny we control, and the only change we can truly accomplish is our own.

We cannot “fix” Iraq. The Iraqis surely can, and the sooner they are able to get started, the better. We might lead by example, illustrating to the Iranian clerics, and the Turkish nationalists, and the Israeli adventurers that it is polite and proper to give a partner some space, to let them find their own way.

We might, as we have done in other emergency situations, offered favored nation trade benefits, use our soft power in the world to discourage our allies, like Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, from taking material advantage of Iraq during its necessary recovery. We might use our soft power and other influence to encourage our adversaries, like Iran, to focus on making its own country a good neighbor, and not seek to destabilize Iraq.

However — we must accept that any advice we have for the rest of the world is fundamentally discredited, as our own behavior in Iraq has, just as in the game of Monopoly, sent us to jail, and this time, we do not have a "get out of jail free" card. We will have to sit out the next round.

In addition to withdrawing our military troops, abandoning our military bases in Iraq, and our prisons, we might put some of our free trade rhetoric into practice. We should immediately and completely return the financial, energy and service sectors to local Iraqis, even to Iraqi regions and Iraqi municipalities. We insist upon ensuring a federal state, but we have no trusted strong man to manage it for us. As Sir Walter Scott wrote, "…Oh the tangled webs we weave, when we first practice to deceive." Or, if this is more understandable to the neoconservatives, the Rolling Stones used to sing, "You can’t always get what you want, but you might just get what you need."

Perhaps — and I know this sounds like crazy talk — someday we might buy Iraqi oil, without constraints and conditions, just because they might someday produce it and we might someday want to use it, at a non-coerced, mutually agreed upon free market price?

If Oprah or Dr. Phil, or even Dr. Laura or Dr. Ruth were to make a recommendation on how to fix Iraq, the advice would be to start by fixing ourselves. Perhaps instead of “fix,” they might use the word “heal” or “improve.” Stop overt aggression in our actions and our language, cut out the holier-than-thou platitudes, they would say. Don’t pick fights, start listening, stop labeling, refrain from theft and don’t tell lies about what is really going on.

This advice, if taken, would clear out most of our current members of Congress, before or during the next election. It would put right-wing administration-apologist talk radio and TV completely out of business, and it would crush the emerging left-wing critics who want more government power in order to “fix” someone else. Imagine an America where centralized controls, fear-mongering government spokesmen, and mass-produced White House talking points are rare and unusual. Imagine a Congress that takes its Constitutional role seriously, and can distinguish between real and imaginary national security threats. Imagine political leaders who carefully moderate the coarser public tendencies, instead of exploiting and intensifying them.

Fix Iraq? We cannot do it, we should not do it, and we must not insist upon trying to do it. It’s not our job, and we have no right. Sadly, it’s not even our responsibility. Americans were told nothing but lies before the invasion of Iraq, and still can’t get the truth out of the White House about this never-ending occupation. Neoconservative politicos can’t even agree on why they wanted the war, and now they’re dropping from the team like day-old houseflies over theoretical arguments and occupation reality.

Americans have only a single solemn responsibility — to end it.

In any case, Iraqis won’t be fooled again. We ought to recognize this as an admirable quality, and adopt it ourselves. Instead of fixing Iraq, we ought to focus on fixing our own country.

God bless this country, and God bless our founders, who understood we would be faced with real governing challenges in the years that would follow. The founders fully expected that our government would not be completely guided nor constrained by the Constitution. They fully expected that our government would become corrupted, arbitrary, militaristic and unaccountable to the people.

Ben Franklin famously warned moments after signing the constitution when asked by a lady on the street "What have you given us, sir?" He answered, "A Republic, if you can keep it."

I want to close with comments made this week by’s editor, Justin Raimondo. He was referring to Iraq, and drums in Washington pounding ever more loudly for war with Iran. Raimondo says:

…One intervention leads us, ineluctably, to another, and — in the case of war with Iran — to far greater and more destructive conflict.

This is why the cautious proposals of a gradual drawdown proposed by some ostensibly pragmatic critics of the war are, in the end, eminently impractical. The accelerated tempo of the developing conflict will soon outpace such half-measures.

He goes on, saying,

Only a massive rebellion by the American people — an outpouring of militant antiwar sentiment — can stop the War Party.

Fixing Iraq is actually far easier for us than recovering our own innocence. But I believe that if we remember that we ARE the people, and that we only suffer the government that we ourselves consent to suffer, we can indeed fix the mess we have made, and certainly prevent future such disasters in our foreign policy. At least, I hope so.

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