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
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
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
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.)
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
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
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