Every few years, against President George Washington's farewell admonition that America avoid foreign entanglements, this country is seized with an overpowering need to instruct the rest of the world on how to live. It's the source of an endless amount of trouble, Iraq being the latest example. Scolding and lecturing are never enough; sooner or later, we feel obliged to send in the Marines. It's always in a good cause, of course. Usually, the government tells us we're guarding our freedom by guaranteeing someone else's freedom. The darker side (protecting corporate interests, securing energy supplies, convincing ourselves we're still Number One) is never acknowledged.
Above all, once committed, we can't fail, because as Gen. George Patton once famously advised, Americans won't tolerate losing. This adolescent mindset has gotten us into the fix we're in at the moment in Iraq. Our president won't withdraw on the grounds that only "victory" is acceptable, regardless the cost. What the Bush doctrine comes down to is that a war of choice that didn't have to be fought and shouldn't have been fought must be won anyway, no matter what. It's the ethic of the Yale cheerleading squad transferred to foreign policy.
The president's sophomoric rationale has garnered surprising support in respectable government and academic circles, so that the obvious question, Why not just leave?, has produced a broad, knee-jerk negative reaction. To the wise men who populate the serious talk shows and fill the pages of the learned journals, abandoning Iraq (or "cutting and running," in the popular vernacular) is off the table as an option. But predictions that the sky would fall if we did so have not been sufficiently challenged. It's time they were.
Ironically, the best summary of the arguments against "precipitate withdrawal," as it's termed, is contained in December's Iraq Study Group Report, which itself advocates eventual withdrawal. The report lists seven reasons why the US can't leave any time soon, the first being that it would stimulate greater sectarian violence and ethnic cleansing. With Sunnis and Shi'ites massacring each other at a record pace in what is, to all intents and purposes, a civil war, it's hard to fathom how an American departure would make things worse. Conversely, the continued deployment of US troops will (if it hasn't already) place us in the position of taking sides the government we are currently propping up is Shi'ite-dominated -- a situation analogous to the unofficial British backing of Protestant forces against Catholics in Northern Ireland in the 1970s.
A second reason for not withdrawing quickly, the report argues, is that it would lead to a general deterioration of conditions in Iraq -- greater chaos, destruction, and dislocation. This is true; civil wars always lead to such conditions. But again, it's already happening, and the American occupation is only slowing an inevitable process, much like the Dutch boy holding back the tide with his finger in the dike.
A third argument for a continued American presence is that otherwise a power vacuum would be created in Iraq, possibly producing another Saddam Hussein, a strongman who would use harsh methods to produce order out of anarchy, perhaps eliminating basic freedoms in the process. We wish. At this point, a more benevolent, less sadistic Saddam is just what Iraq needs, a Tito-like dictator capable of holding the country together by force of will while it feels its way toward some form of popular government. Iraqis could do worse than stumble upon an enlightened secular despot.
A fourth reason advanced for America continuing its occupation is that a precipitant pullback of our forces would result in greater human suffering and an explosion of refugees. In a country that has already lost 600,000 civilians to this war, according to a recent Johns Hopkins study, suffering has become a relative term. Is the suffering we have inflicted by our arbitrary presence superior morally to the suffering Iraqis may inflict upon themselves in our absence? As for refugees, the process has already begun. Close to two million Iraqis have already fled their country, living as expatriates in Jordan and Syria.
Also raised, should America abruptly end its occupation, is the spectre of regional destabilization. War fever will spread, goes the argument, prompting invasions by Iraq's neighbors, insurrections in surrounding states, and other unnamed horrors. The sages of the Iraq Study Group may not have noticed, but regional destabilization began the day President Bush launched his war in 2003; there's no putting that genie back in the bottle. However, there's nothing to stop the US from redeploying to the periphery of the Middle East (to allied countries like Kuwait), maintaining a reduced presence for purposes of containment in the event violence threatens to spread beyond Iraq's borders.
On to the real worry for opponents of rapid withdrawal, the supposed threat to the global economy, which is code for protecting our oil, the oil that's under their sand. Iraq's petroleum, consisting mostly of untapped reserves, plays a relatively minor role in the Western economies and almost none in the US economy, contributing only a small fraction of our foreign supply. Dependent on Western technology to develop it, Iraq's potential oil production will remain for some time more a dream than a reality.
This brings us to the final reason advanced for not leaving Iraq, namely that an American departure would represent a victory for al Qaeda, producing more terrorist recruits and a decline in American prestige and influence. Given that 90% of the insurgents opposing our occupation are not members of al Qaeda, the notion that any US pullback was prompted by international terrorism would receive little credence, if the White House just stopped saying so. Al Qaeda fighters in Iraq are parasitic hangers-on in a nationalist uprising cum civil war; they are used by the insurgency, but not of it. And our continued presence doesn't dampen their recruitment, it aids it. As for America's standing and influence, it's at rock bottom now and can't fall any farther.
The Bush administration has tried to frame the current contest as central to the war on terrorism; it's not, any more than Vietnam was central to the struggle against Communism. We don't need to win, and consequently a withdrawal will constitute a catastrophic defeat only for the White House. For everyone else, it will represent a triumph of common sense.
Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.
Subscribe to The Progressive Populist