Iraq and the neocon experts
Carlton M. Caves
2005 June 28

On Saturday, June 18, the Albuquerque Journal ran an article headlined "Experts Discourage Iraq Withdrawal." Written by Richard Whittle of the Dallas Morning News, the article cites "foreign-policy experts" as warning, "Americans who are telling pollsters they want U.S. troops out of Iraq could see some nasty consequences if President Bush heeded their wishes." According to these experts, the nasty consequences, at worst, could include all of the following:

1. A civil war in Iraq resulting in far greater bloodshed than the current conflict, though presumably without further U.S. losses.

2. The transformation of western Iraq, which is dominated by Sunni Muslims, into a haven for international terrorists from al-Qaida and other groups.

3. A collapse of U.S. credibility among the nations of the Middle East, whose leaders would probably distance themselves from Washington.

4. A collapse of the Bush administration's push for democracy in the region.

5. Instability in the Persian Gulf that could lead to steep increases in oil prices, driving the cost of gasoline beyond current record levels.

It should be clear to anyone that this list is not an unbiased assessment of the situation. These so-called "experts" are either members of the Bush gang or their neocon apologists in the conservative think tanks, and this list was the opening salvo in the current push, culminating in a speech by Bush tonight, to shore up support for Bush's Iraq policy. This means we ought to examine the list carefully, precisely because it represents the neocon right's best shot at justifying a continuation of the occupation.

What is most immediately clear from the list is that the Iraq invasion and the subsequent occupation are a failure, at least up to the present. It is now more than two years since the invasion. We've suffered the loss of about 1,750 troops, with nearly 6,500 so severely injured that they could not return to duty within 72 hours, and we've spent over $200 billion---all this to leave us in a situation where should we withdraw, we face the neocon list of perils, considerably worse than any prewar threats from Iraq, and should we persist, we will continue to suffer serious losses with no end in sight. This can hardly be called a success.

In contrast to this dire situation, what were we led to expect? Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld set the Pollyannish tone in an hour-long interview with Infinity Broadcasting in November, 2002, four months before the invasion, declaring, "I can't tell you if the use of force in Iraq today will last five days, five weeks, or five months, but it won't last any longer than that." Paul Wolfowitz, then Deputy Defense Secretary and a chief cheerleader for the Iraq invasion, expressed the same absurdly optimistic expectations in Congressional testimony of February 28, 2003. After noting that containing Saddam over the previous twelve years had cost "slightly over $30 billion," he cajoled our representatives, "I can't imagine anyone here wanting to spend another $30 billion to be there for another twelve years." Who indeed would want that? Too bad it's no longer on offer. Vice President Dick Cheney, appearing on Meet the Press on March 16, 2003, four days before the invasion commenced, was equally optimistic, repeating twice his belief that "we will be greeted as liberators" and concluding, "The read we get on the people of Iraq is there is no question but what they want to the get rid of Saddam Hussein and they will welcome as liberators the United States when we come to do that." Finally, here's the giddily optimistic Wolfowitz again, in Congressional testimony on March 27, 2003, outlining his scenario for paying for the reconstruction of Iraq: "There's a lot of money to pay for this. It doesn't have to be U.S. taxpayer money. We are dealing with a country that can really finance its own reconstruction, and relatively soon."

Were these guys deliberately lying, or did they really believe this nonsense? The Bush gang's habitual reliance on lying and deception to promote their agenda inclines one toward the former, but in this case, I'm persuaded that they really believed their own propaganda. Don't get me wrong. There was plenty of deception and misinformation about the justification for the war, but it seems clear that the Bushies believed their own rosy occupation scenarios because that belief informed their actions. Their misjudgment of the post-invasion situation prompted them not to bother with any serious planning for the occupation because they believed it would be short and sweet. The near absence of planning was apparent to anyone who followed the news in the summer and fall of 2003, and it has been confirmed again recently by the Downing Street memos. The result was chaos in Iraq in the aftermath of the invasion, which allowed the insurgency to gain a foothold and threw away whatever chance there was for securing the country and getting out quickly.

The Bush gang's astonishing and appalling incompetence in failing to plan for the occupation of Iraq is out there for all to see. How should it inform our response to Bush's speech tonight? Given Bush's general record of distorting and misleading, it goes without saying that everything he says should be treated with extreme caution. The record of incompetence on planning for the occupation provides an additional, even more serious warning. He might not just be misleading us about where we stand and where we're headed, but might be pursuing a policy based on a misjudgment as colossal as his failure to plan for the post-invasion period. Keep that in mind as you listen to him.

With this background behind us, let's work our way through the neocon list, realizing that the nasty consequences of withdrawal do not stand alone, but rather should be compared to where we might be now had we not gone into Iraq and to where we might end up should we stick with the Bush gang's present policy.

1. Civil war. Given Iraq's deep ethnic and religious divisions between Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds, civil war is always a possibility. Under Saddam's repressive regime, civil war was very unlikely, but this stability was purchased by stamping out all opposition. The Kurds had carved out an autonomous region in the north, guaranteed by us and our allies, but the Sunnis and, especially, the Shia were still oppressed by Saddam's brutal rule. The end of Saddam's dictatorship is a positive accomplishment of the invasion and occupation, although it must be weighed against the resulting chaos and destruction and the increased chance of civil war.

The question now is how to proceed in the current situation. The Kurds have long controlled their own area with home-grown militias, and the Shia increasingly do the same in southern Iraq. Neither the Kurds nor the Shia are going to give up control of their own areas to the central government. The likely outcome of any policy is that the Sunni insurgents will assume similar control of their own areas in central and western Iraq, with the central government ceded control of Baghdad and its immediate environs. The result will be a tenuous situation, certainly prone to civil war and ethnic and religious conflict, with a weak central government that is dependent on its own security forces to control the Baghdad area and on the good will of the militias of the three ethnic and religious groups. This is far from ideal, but it is almost certainly the best that can be achieved. If we set a timetable for prompt withdrawal of our forces and begin implementing that timetable, we will not only cut our own losses, but we might also encourage the majority of Sunnis to reject the violence and chaos of the insurgency, since its goal of expelling us will have been accomplished, and to support establishing order in their own areas by turning the insurgents into militias.

The Bush gang's policy is to train enough Iraqi security forces that the central government can gain and maintain control without the support of our troops. What they're talking about, however, is control of the Sunni triangle, but efforts in this regard are doomed because the Sunnis will not accept direct central-government control of their areas when the Kurds and Shia have not been required to do so. Our continuing presence and the futile attempts to bring the Sunnis to heel will simply fuel the insurgency. We will continue to bleed lives and treasure into an endless pursuit of a policy that will accomplish accomplish little more than could be achieved by a prompt withdrawal.

2. Haven for international terrorists in western Iraq. The first thing to note is that this undeniably undesirable outcome is a legacy of the invasion and occupation. Saddam had few, if any ties to international terrorism, despite the Bush gang's assertions to the contrary. Iraq was not a major center of international terrorism under Saddam, but western Iraq is such a center now. This is entirely a result of the Bush gang's policy.

The support provided by international terrorists is a major resource for the Sunni insurgency, a resource they will be very reluctant to forgo. A prompt withdrawal of our forces would remove a major recruiting tool for the terrorists and might lead to a backlash against them among the majority of Sunnis, but now that the terrorists are established, it is hard to envision rooting them out completely, whether we leave promptly or persist with the Bush policy. This is a problem largely of our own making, which we will have to deal with for many years to come.

3. A collapse of American credibility in the Middle East. This is a truly remarkable assertion, since the Bush gang has been responsible for the most devastating blows to American credibility since Vietnam. Our credibility took a gigantic hit when the Bush gang decided to go to war on the basis of Saddam's alleged WMDs, hyped the evidence to justify the policy, and then found no WMDs after scouring the country. In addition, the reputation of the United States has been dragged in the gutter by the Bush gang's decision to forgo international norms in detaining and interrogating those captured in the war on terror. These are body blows to our country's credibility and reputation, from which we will be suffering for at least a decade and perhaps much more.

What we need to remember is that we can change our country's leadership and thereby begin the process of restoring our damaged credibility and reputation in the world. It is regrettable that we didn't do this last November, but we can neuter the Bush gang in the Congressional elections of 2006 and dump the neocons entirely in 2008, replacing them with leadership that understands the importance of telling the truth in international affairs and of adhering to international norms in the treatment of prisoners, even when at least some of those prisoners are truly evil people. Nothing would do more to restore our credibility and reputation in the world than to start with fresh leadership that explicitly repudiates the Bush gang's policies.

4. Failure of the Bush push for democracy in the Middle East. This is another whopper. The Bush push for democracy is a sham, applied inconsistently across the Middle East and the world and used mainly as a grandiose rhetorical device to justify actions taken for other reasons.

The enemy in the war on terror is religious fundamentalism, specifically, the virulent Islamic fundamentalism that hates the West for its success and that feeds on the failure of Arab and Muslim governments to provide a modern society within an Islamic context. The United States and our friends in the other liberal democracies must work to promote a third way between the corrupt and repressive governments of the Arab and Muslim world and the Islamic fundamentalists that arise as the only opposition to these governments. This will not be easy. It will require fundamental changes in attitudes in the Arab and Muslim worlds, it will take decades of consistent policy, comparable to the Cold War policy of containing the Soviet Union, it will require that we distance ourselves appropriately from the relevant governments, and it will not sprout out of the end of a gun barrel. Indeed, the idea that training a country's military to provide internal security is a step on the road to democracy is a telling sign that something is seriously wrong with the Bush approach.

5. Instability in the Persian Gulf that could lead to turmoil in international oil markets. There's nothing new here. We are very dependent on the Middle East for oil, and demand for this oil is going to grow because of the explosive growth of the Chinese and other Asian economies. The Middle East is inherently unstable because of the unfortunate combination of failed governments and Islamic fundamentalism. The Iraq war has done little or nothing to change this situation, and nothing we do now can change the fundamentals, except a conscious decision to move away from a fossil-fuel-based economy.

The world---and this means especially the United States---is going to have to find a way reduce and ultimately end its reliance on fossil fuels for energy, because of global warming and the imminent global shortage of oil. It is fortuitous that the most effective action we could take in the war on terror would be to adopt national policies aimed at ending our dependence on Middle Eastern oil over the next fifteen to twenty years, thereby removing the ultimate source of support for global terror and forcing Arab and Muslim governments to plan for a future without the prop of oil revenues. Can we do this? It will be extraordinarily difficult, but it has to be done. Will we do it? We won't even try as long as the Bush gang is running things.

Bush and his gang are locked into a failed policy in Iraq, and tonight Bush will tell us that we must stiffen our resolve and fall in line to support his failed policy. The situation is like Vietnam, not because Iraq and Vietnam are similar, but because our government, with the reluctant acquiescence of the military, is once again fooling itself that the end is just around the corner and trying to mislead us into believing them.

Bush persists in not spelling out a plan for getting our troops out, because whether he's fooling himself or just plain lying, he knows in his heart that any exit strategy he lays out is likely to end in failure, and when that happens, he wants to able to shift the goal posts so he can deny that he failed. There's no excuse for this sort of evasion in an elective war, and we simply cannot allow Bush to get away with it any longer. We should insist through our elected representatives that Bush lay out a realistic plan for Iraq, accompanied by estimates of the cost in life and treasure. We can judge then whether we want to follow him, and we can hold him accountable should he fail.

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