July 15, 2006

What Iraq War?

[I am pleased to post a piece co-written with an old friend, a fellow who introduced me to my radical roots in 1972. It is especially significant because this is Orwell's Grave 500th post since I started it early last year]

by P.J. Baicich and F. S. McArthur

There are mighty good reasons to be disturbed over the level of discussion on the situation in Iraq, especially with patriotic-sounding Republicans regularly rallying behind their President. Just consider the situation last month where they would insert the phrase "cut-and-run" into every third or fourth sentence they uttered. It was painful to watch as the clueless Democrats squirmed to avoid being painted as "sell-outs" and near-traitors to our troops.

Of course, as long as the Democrats talk about "withdrawing from the war" and fight among themselves over the degree to which they should embrace an "anti-war position," they will never extricate themselves from the Republican patriot-trap. As long as the Republicans accuse any opposition to the Bush administration as a capitulation and a "cut-and-run" policy, the American people will equivocate or will confuse patriotism with holding fast to an increasingly untenable position in Iraq.At the same time, the American people seem to be stuck in the endless memory-loop of Vietnam, and they are increasingly presented with the Iraq situation from the viewpoint of a nation still wounded from its Vietnam experience - by both sides in the American debate. The "insurgency" is discussed in Vietnam-like terms, and the opposition "alternative" is, thus, shoe-horned into the brilliantly orchestrated Republican "cut-and-run" mantra. This is a losing proposition for Americans - and for the Iraqi people.

The cycle must be broken.

This can only be done by facing the reality: The war in Iraq is over.

What is a classic state-to-state war, anyhow? How does one measure "victory" of one side over the other?

Well, for starters, one historically gauges a victory as the defeat of the opponent's military; next, the seizure of the main cities (often with the capital as being the most crucial); and, finally, the elimination of the top political/military leadership of that enemy nation.By those classic criteria, America won the war and Iraq has been soundly defeated.

Whether you supported the invasion of Iraq or opposed it is now totally irrelevant. The fact is that the war is now over. Laughable as it may seem on the surface, the war has been over since about the time that George W. Bush stood in front of that memorable "mission accomplished" sign.

So, what actually remains?

What remains is a devastated physical and political infrastructure in Iraq; what remains is a factional, near-civil-war between Sunni and Shiites; what remains is a self-appointed international jihadist mini-faction (only loosely self-identified with Al-Qaeda) that is stirring up trouble. What remains are American troops in-between.

Ultimately, what remains is not the U.S. in a war, but the U.S. in an occupation.

Post-war occupations - particularly if they persist for long periods - are often debilitating, ugly, demoralizing, and even dehumanizing for the occupying power. Take examples in recent world history: the Soviets in Eastern Europe or the Israelis in the administered territories.

Alas, the U.S. public has no recent memory of such an experience, so the disastrous Vietnam War is often brushed off and superimposed onto the Iraqi situation. It simply doesn't fit for many reasons too numerous to recount here. Suffice it to say, without alternate American examples in immediate memory, media commentators, the military, and politicians alike all slip into Vietnam analogies. This occurs for both defenders and opponents of the American involvement in Iraq, sometimes with a desire to ‘do it right this time,’ and colored by the proponent’s view of the now long-gone Vietnam experience.

What might fit better is the history of the American occupation of the Philippines after the quick and quasi-imperialist Spanish-American war, when a disorganized, vicious, and fanatic "insurgency" was a response to an American occupation that became increasingly ugly and debilitating. That occupation also demoralized and dehumanized the U.S. troops at the time. But the Philippine experience is a century old, too far off in our collective memory to be a helpful lesson to Americans easily prone to historic amnesia.

So it is far simpler to re-visit the Vietnam experience, even domestically, with everything but the phrases "hawks and doves" re-constituted anew and with opposing sides in the U.S. practically forced to play their pre-assigned roles once again, having many Democrats insist that the U.S. "get out of the war," and many Republicans wave the bloody shirt of American casualties piling up in a far-off foreign land.

Unfortunately, the pliant and short-sighted American media is a smug party to perpetuating the confusion. No less culpable is an official "anti-war movement" which has an institutional investment in simply repeating what it is most comfortable with - viewing much of the U.S. role in Iraq through old Vietnamese-style anti-war lenses.

What to do under these circumstances?

We must stop talking about getting out of "the war" and start talking about getting out of "the occupation"! Only then will we be able to redefine the tasks facing all Americans and do justice for Iraq.

A world power engaged in a war must bring to bear certain weapons and necessities; a world power in an occupation must employ other tools altogether. The choices facing a country in war are far different from the choices facing a country in an occupation.

If the real issue is "the war" then the answers are always to be couched in military terms: boots on the ground, security, re-establishing the Iraqi army as the first priorities. These are never-ending, self-perpetuating, and, ultimately, losing issues, simply because they don’t address the current situation.

If the issue is "the occupation" and getting out of it, the answers will revolve around generating a degree of economic and social infrastructure in Iraq (based on such standards as the re-establishment of increased electrical power, a loose but functioning transportation network, more secure oil production, some increased health care, reopening more schools, and assembling a recognizable legal system). Perfection and a full-blown civil society may not be possible, but a modicum of stability is. America and Iraq need a timetable to make at least some of those goals possible. Moreover, it is the U.N. that may ultimately have a real role here, not the U.S.

Furthermore, American troops need to re-deploy out of Iraq: for the sake of being able to address real Islamic fundamentalism elsewhere (e.g., Afghanistan) and for the sake of addressing our own bloated and Republican-driven federal budget.

A more simple economic and social timetable or deadline is, indeed, possible: start with one year to help repair a fragile Iraqi economy rather than one year to build a parasitical Iraqi army. Set modest civil goals, attempt to restore parts of self-governance, and then simply get out.

Ultimately, the Iraqis must repair the country for themselves. They need help, but they also need a deadline.

Is it possible?

We only need point to the situation in the north of Iraq, where there is a Kurdish majority, to illustrate that, indeed, this is no illusory pipe-dream. There we see a level of popular participation, economic stability, and functioning civil society. It is more than imperfect, certainly, but it is also admirable and workable nonetheless.

Of course, there is also no hint of irony if the issue of Iraq is transformed from one of "war" to one of "occupation." In such a case, the issue of "defeatism" is completely removed from the equation. There can be no defeatism since victory has already been achieved!

Finally, the way to extricate the U.S. from the current Iraq situation is to seize at least one vestige of our painful Vietnam experience: to take the advice of then Senator George Aiken (VT) in 1967 to "declare victory and get out." The ultimate lesson might be that when Senator Aiken uttered these words they could not reflect reality, but if they were followed today they would hit the mark perfectly.


MidlifeMutant said...

Great writing. I posted it with link on my blog.

Mimi said...

Yes! From now on, I intend to refer to America's criminal operations in Iraq as "the occupation" and reference the occupation of the Phillipines.

Kvatch said...

Nice piece, and congratulations on the 500th post!

I largely agree and wrote in an Independence Day post of my own how we had achieved the only thing that it was ever in our power to give to the Iraqis--idependence and self-determination.

Now...we should leave.

Phil d'Oronzio said...

You have articulated several strands of my
>own thinking quite well, inclusive of resuscitating Aiken's "Declare
>victory and go home/get out" paradigm.
>Don't hold your breath. The United States is NOTORIOUS for permanent
>occupations. In fact, the US has NEVER voluntarily pulled out of a
>conquered country.
>Japan: 10s of thousands of troops still there 60 years later.
>Germany: Ditto
>Korea (never really conquered, but still a significant military
>adventure): 42k troops at last count, 53 years later.
>Panama?: Thousands of troops there, from its founding to present day.
>And of course, your example of the Philippines: Huge military presence
>for 93 years after the Spanish American War, and the occupation was
>ended by an active volcano, not political or military machinations.
>I suppose you could argue that none of these examples constitute
>occupations per se, but rather permanent enclaves instituted for global
>and regional strategic purposes. So what? Does anyone really think
>the US won't justify a substantial military presence in Iraq for decades on similar grounds?

Pat Molloy said...

Sometimes we need to readdress an issue by rephrasing the situation which is what, I believe, was your point. If we think and accept that we are at war then it places a heavy burden on any that oppose its current course. Your suggestion allows us to say 'Great Job GI's-Now let's get you home!'

DecemberFlower said...

I wonder if it isn't a question of people not recognizing that we're in an occupation rather than a war or whether it's being conveniently ignored. It seems to me that it would be much more politically convenient for Republicans to keep using war language because it gives them the opportunity to cast Democrats and other critics of the handling of Iraq as traitors and cowards.

enigma4ever said...

500 posts- Congratulations!!!!

Really well written...and so sad..and so true- for all extensive purposes- the occupation is going Horrendous...and Bush still has his rose colored glasses on....