The danger of a ‘dignified’ exit from Iraq

Things are always complicated. In the Washington Post, for instance, James Mann, author of Rise of the Vulcans, recently suggested that it was far “too simplistic” to claim “the appointment of Robert M Gates to replace Donald Rumsfeld [represents] the triumph of Bush the father’s administration over Bush the son’s”.

Still, I prefer the analysis of Washington Post reporter (and author of Fiasco) Thomas Ricks. When asked by the Post’s media columnist Howard Kurtz whether a Newsweek headline, “Father knows best”, was just “an easy, cheap Oedipal way for the press to characterize what’s going on”, Ricks replied: “Well, just because it’s easy and cheap doesn’t mean it’s wrong.”

At a moment when every version of the dramatic arrival of James A Baker III as co-head of the Iraq Study Group (ISG) and Robert Gates as US defense secretary on the scene – and the scuttling of Rumsfeld’s Titanic – is at least suspect, it’s still worth considering the bare bones of what can be seen and known – and then asking what we have.

Sooner or later, failure has a way of stripping most of us of our dreams and pretensions. So let’s start with a tiny history of failure. President George W Bush’s life trajectory of failing upward has had a rhythm to it – and a rubric, “crony capitalism”. Daddy’s friends and contacts helped him into and – after he failed – out of the oil business, into and out of the baseball business, into and now, it seems, out of the failed game of global politics.

“His is,” as the Boston Globe’s Michael Kranish and John Aloysius Farrell put it in 2002, “the story of a man who struck out numerous times before being bailed out by big hitters who often were family members, friends or supporters of his father.”

It’s appropriate, then, that the man who bailed him out in Florida when he in essence lost the presidency in 2000, Bush family consigliere Baker, would reappear six years later, in the wake of another failed election, to bail him out again now that he has screwed up the oil heartlands of the planet. Daddy – we’re talking here about former president George H W Bush – has three adopted boys: his former national security adviser (and alter ego) Brent Scowcroft, who went into opposition to the younger Bush’s Iraq policy even before the invasion of 2003 and now lurks quietly in the wings; his former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director Gates; and Baker.

Like Daddy, Gates was deeply involved in, but never indicted for, his dealings in the scurrilous Iran-Contra affair, was later involved in the tilt toward and arming of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq against Iran, pioneered fertile territory in the late 1980s in terms of manipulating intelligence in the debate over the nature of Mikhail Gorbachev’s Soviet Union, had a hand in the Gulf War of 1991, and most recently held the presidency of Texas A&M University, where he was the keeper of the flame for Daddy’s library. Could you ask for a better insider CV for taking over the Pentagon from one of Bush the elder’s rivals in the Gerald Ford era, Rumsfeld?

We don’t know how all this happened, but a little speculation never hurt anyone. Congress mandated the ISG to come up with some new recommendations for Iraq policy last March. Baker and co-chair Lee Hamilton began work in April. Iraq has been in an ever more horrific and bloodthirsty spiral downward ever since.

Yet the ISG has still delivered nothing but promises of recommendations – which Baker and others continue to swear will be no “magic” or “silver” bullet – some time in December or even January. In March, Baker insisted on getting the president, who initially seemed reluctant, to sign on personally. But the question is: What happened over the past eight months as Iraq boiled?

I think we have to assume – and a cover piece in Time seems to confirm this – that Baker, a distinctly hard-nosed guy, never intended to present a bunch of suggestions that Rumsfeld could simply shoot out of the skies and so was stalling until his departure. (Time quotes a “Gates aide” as saying, “Baker wasn’t going to let his report come out so that Rummy could stomp all over it.”)

Assumedly, he knew that if his group took long enough, Rumsfeld would be gone and a secretary of defense more to his liking in place. Hence the distant date for delivering “solutions”. It has been, in essence, a stall. Everyone involved has claimed, of course, that Bush Sr had nothing directly to do with all this and that Baker didn’t even know, until the last second, that Rumsfeld was about to fall like a brick. I’d be surprised if that story lasted out the month.

In fact, what we’re seeing undoubtedly adds up to something more than Iraq-policy recommendations – possibly even a genuine purge of most of the remaining neo-conservatives and their allies (who are also in the process of, as ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern has written, eating their own). At the Pentagon, rumor has it, the leftover neo-cons, many of them allies of Vice President Dick Cheney, are just waiting for their dismissal notices when Gates steps aboard. All this seems aimed at leaving the Vice President’s Office increasingly isolated and Cheney himself sidelined.

Some day, when the full story is in, we’re bound to be riveted. After all, Baker has managed in these months to gather in the wings something like an alternative State Department, National Security Council and CIA-in-waiting in the shell of the ISG, which is filled with old movers and shakers going back to the Ronald Reagan administration. (He has even begun to conduct something akin to his own foreign policy, meeting with the Syrian foreign minister and Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, both no-nos for the Bush administration.)

The 10 key ISG members, in fact, are largely not military strategists or geopolitical thinkers of a sort who might be expected to offer Iraq solutions. They are instead a who’s who of establishmentarianism, extending back to the Reagan era.

Is this a major shift in Washington? You bet. How big remains to be seen. But here’s the real question: Can the new crowd – even if the president bows down to Daddy’s Boys, which is hardly a given – get the US out of Iraq? Do they even want to? At a moment of such flux, with a new Democratic Congress and growing public pressure for a genuine Iraq exit strategy, what kind of gates will the Gates nomination actually open?

When is an ‘exit’ not the way out?

Let’s start with one sure side-effect of the Gates nomination and the extended delivery schedule of the ISG. It buys time from election-driven pressure for whatever administration is in formation.

We now have to wait for the Gates confirmation hearings; the ISG recommendations (and possibly those from an alternative White House version of the same); endless consideration of them; and, barring an unlikely flat turn-down from an increasingly cornered administration, the time to implement those policies and check out the results (which are guaranteed to be deeply disappointing, if not disastrous). Six months to a year could easily pass before it becomes obvious to Americans that we’re not really heading out of those Iraqi gates.

If you happen to have lived through the Vietnam era, then think of this as the beginning of the season of non-withdrawal withdrawal gestures. The key word right now is “redeployment”, something Senator Carl Levin, who will soon take over the Armed Services Committee, is pushing hard. His modest drawdown plan, however, is not even meant to begin for another four to six months and offers no timetable or any particular end in sight. Levin does, however, make it clear that redeployment and departure are two different creatures. In the form of some kind of military advisory group (not to speak of the United States’ massive new embassy in the heart of Baghdad and a few of the massive bases it has built), he expects the US to be in Iraq into the distant future.

We don’t, of course, know exactly what plan the ISG will offer, but all reports on its deliberations suggest that, while public expectations are soaring, the actual recommendations “may sound familiar”. Actually, they may sound that way because the proposals the group seems to be considering are indeed remarkably familiar.

These range from a bulking up of US troop strength by 10,000-40,000 more soldiers to a far more likely scenario described by Neil King Jr, Yochi Dreazen and Greg Jaffe in the Wall Street Journal just two days after the election. This would involve a long-term drawdown of US forces to the 50,000 level – still 20,000 more than Rumsfeld and pals hoped to leave in-country only months after the taking of Baghdad. Assumedly, these would largely be pulled back into those permanent bases.

“The new defense secretary is more likely to oversee a shift of the US effort away from providing security in urban areas such as Baghdad to a more advisory role … In such a scenario, the Pentagon would turn big US units into quick reaction forces to bail out Iraqi soldiers and advisers who get overrun. Teams of American advisers who live and work with Iraqi units would increase in number.”

Recently, Julian Borger of the British newspaper The Guardian summed up what’s known this way: The ISG “is also looking at various types of troop deployment. Most probably it will suggest pulling US forces out of the urban patrolling that causes most of the casualties and regrouping in bases in Iraq or in neighboring countries.”

Along with this would go various forms of pressure on the Iraqi government to step up (“benchmarks”, but not perhaps the dreaded “timetable” for withdrawal that Bush opposes so vigorously). In addition, a regional conference of neighboring states, the Europeans and the US would be convened. Its task would evidently be to draft Iran and Syria into the process of “stabilizing” Iraq. (Having played a high-stakes game of chicken with the Bush administration based on an assessment of US power and seemingly won, the Iranians, in particular, are unlikely to settle now for what little the US administration might offer in return for their help.)

Yes, the presidential idea of “victory” or “success” will be nowhere in sight, nor will an emphasis on fostering “democracy” in Iraq – and further coup rumors may proliferate. But all of this, however palatable it may seem in Washington, will only add up to a series of tactical, not strategic, readjustments – most of which (minus that conference) have already been tried in Iraq and have only been so many benchmarks on the road to catastrophe.

Before the November 7 US election, an upsurge in violence in Iraq was compared to the Tet Offensive “turning point” moment in Vietnam. In fact, the past weeks bear no particular relationship to that nationwide Vietnamese campaign that saw bitter fighting all over the country, even inside the US Embassy compound in Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital. But let’s remember another, more telling aspect of Tet. As a “turning point” in that conflict, it was still followed by another seven years of war. Almost as many Americans, and probably more Vietnamese, died in the period after Tet as before.

In the post-Tet period, we had to live through a Senator Levin-style near-complete withdrawal of US ground troops from Vietnam under the pressure of a disintegrating army and rising anti-war feeling at home, only to see the use of US air power escalate dramatically to fill the power gap.

Expect some modified, scaled-down version of this Richard Nixon-era “Vietnamization” program in Iraq. As early as last November, Nixon’s secretary of defense Melvin Laird, who claims full credit for the strategy (and still thinks it was a successful way to win the Vietnam War in the face of increasing public opposition at home), proposed a similar Iraqification plan in Foreign Affairs magazine. Now, its moment may be arriving.

Like almost all strategies floating around Washington at the moment, this is but another way to try to hang on to some truncated but permanent imperial presence at the heart of the oil lands of the planet – and as such it is doomed. Unfortunately, to make much sense of what an Iraqification policy might actually mean, you need to be able to assess two key aspects of the US Iraq venture that the mainstream media in essence have not cared to cover.

Permanent facts on the ground

As the New York Times revealed in a front-page piece by Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt on April 19, 2003, just after Baghdad fell, the Pentagon arrived in the Iraqi capital with plans already on the drawing board to build four massive military bases (that no official, then or now, will ever call “permanent”).

Today, according to the former secretary of defense, the US has 55 bases of every size in Iraq (down from more than 100); five or six of these, including Balad Air Base, north of Baghdad, the huge base first named Camp Victory adjacent to Baghdad International Airport, and al-Asad Air Base in western Anbar province, are enormous – big enough to be reasonable-sized US towns with multiple bus routes, neighborhoods, a range of fast-food restaurants, multiple shops, pools, mini-golf courses and the like.

Though among the safest places in Iraq for American reporters, these bases have, with rare exceptions, gone completely undescribed and undiscussed in the US press (or on the television news). From an engineering journal, we know that before the end of 2003, several billion dollars had already been sunk into them. We know that in early 2006, the major ones, already mega-structures, were still being built up into a state of advanced permanency.

Balad, for instance, already handled the levels of daily air traffic one would normally see at Chicago’s ultra-busy O’Hare and in February its facilities were still being ramped up. We know, from the reliable Ed Harriman, in the latest of his devastating accounts of corruption in Iraq in the London Review of Books, that, as you read, the four mega-bases always imagined as the United States’ permanent jumping-off spots in what Bush administration officials once liked to call “the arc of instability” were still undergoing improvement.

Without taking the fate of those monstrous, always-meant-to-be-permanent bases into account – and they are, after all, just about the only uniformly successfully construction projects in that country – no US plans for Iraq, whatever label they go by, will make much sense. And yet months go by without any reporting on them appearing. In fact, these past months have gone by with only a single peep (that I’ve found) from any mainstream publication on the subject.

The sole bit of base news I’ve noticed anywhere made an obscure mid-October appearance in a Turkish paper, which reported that the US was now building a “military airport” in Kurdistan. A few days later, a United Press International report picked up by the Washington Times had this: “Following hints US troops may remain in Iraq for years, the United States is reportedly building a massive military base at Arbil, in Kurdish northern Iraq.”

Kurdistan has always been a logical fallback position for US forces “withdrawing” from a failed Iraq. But so far nothing more substantial has been written on the subject.

There is, however, another symbol of US “permanency” in Iraq that has gotten just slightly more attention in the US press in recent months – the new embassy now going up inside Baghdad’s well-fortified Green Zone and nicknamed by Baghdadis (in a sly reference to Saddam Hussein’s enormous, self-important edifices) “George W’s Palace”.

It’s almost the size of Vatican City, will have its own apartment buildings (six of them) for its bulked-up “staff” of literally thousands, and its own electricity, well-water and waste-treatment facilities to guarantee “100% independence from city utilities”, not to speak of a “swimming pool, gym, commissary, food court and American Club, all housed in a recreation building” and its own anti-missile system.

Harriman tells us that it’s a billion-dollar-plus project – and unlike just about every other construction project in the country, it’s going up efficiently and on schedule. It will be the most imperial embassy on the planet, not exactly the perfect signal of a sovereign Iraqi future.

Again, few in the US have had much to say about the embassy project, a rare exception being an August Dallas Morning News editorial, “Fortress America: New embassy sends wrong message to Iraqis” that denounced the project: “America certainly needs a decent, well-defended embassy in Baghdad. But not as much as ordinary Iraqis need electricity and water. That our government doesn’t seem to understand that reality could explain a lot about why the US mission is in such trouble.”

Of course, as we learned in Vietnam, even the most permanent facilities can turn out to be impermanent indeed and even the best-defended imperial embassy can, in the end, prove little more than a handy spot for planning an evacuation. But if the ISG doesn’t directly confront these facts on the ground (as it surely won’t), whatever acceptable compromises it may forge in Washington between an embedded administration and a new Congress, things will only go from truly bad to distinctly worse in Iraq.

The uncovered war

Here’s another mystery of Iraq (and Afghanistan) coverage: the essential US way of war – air power – has long been all but completely absent. There has been not a single mainstream piece of any significance on the air war these past years, with the single exception of journalist Seymour Hersh’s remarkable December 2005 report “Up in the air” in The New Yorker. (“A key element of the drawdown plans, not mentioned in the president’s public statements, is that the departing American troops will be replaced by American air power. Quick, deadly strikes by US warplanes are seen as a way to improve dramatically the combat capability of even the weakest Iraqi combat units.”) It is, of course, an irony that the only American reporter to look up and notice all those planes, helicopters and drones overhead has never been to Iraq.

Such modest coverage of the air war in Iraq as exists in the US press generally comes in the form of infrequent paragraphs buried in wire-service roundups as in a November 14 Associated Press piece headlined, “US general confronts Iraqi leader on security”:

On Monday night, US forces raided the homes of some [Muqtada al-]Sadr followers, and US jets fired rockets on Shula, their northwest Baghdad neighborhood, residents said. Police said five residents were killed, although a senior Sadr aide put the death toll at nine. The US military said it had no comment.

This incident assumedly took place somewhere in the vast Baghdad slum of Sadr City. In other words, we’re talking about US planes regularly sending rockets or bombs into relatively heavily populated urban areas. All you have to do is imagine such a thing happening in a US city to grasp the barbarism involved. And yet over these years in which such targeting has been commonplace and, in larger campaigns, parts of such cities as Najaf and Fallujah have been destroyed from the air, hardly a single reporter has gone to an air base such as Balad and simply spent time with American pilots.

Not surprisingly, this remains a non-issue in this country. How could Americans react, when there’s no news to react to, when there’s next to no information to be had – which doesn’t mean that information on the United States’ ongoing air campaigns is unavailable. In fact, the US Air Force is proud as punch of the job it’s doing; so any reporter, not to speak of any citizen, can go to the USAF website and look at daily reports of air missions over both Iraq and Afghanistan. The report of last Wednesday, for instance, offers the following:

In Iraq, US Marine Corps F/A-18s conducted a strike against anti-Iraqi forces near Ramadi. The F/A-18s expended guided bomb unit-31s on enemy targets. Air force F-16 Fighting Falcons provided close air support to troops in contact with anti-Iraqi forces near Forward Operating Base McHenry and Baqubah. Air force F-15E Strike Eagles provided close-air support to troops in contact with anti-Iraqi forces near Baghdad. In total, coalition aircraft flew 32 close-air-support missions for Operation Iraqi Freedom. These missions included support to coalition troops, infrastructure protection, reconstruction activities and operations to deter and disrupt terrorist activities.

This was a pretty typical day’s work in recent months; there were 34 strikes on November 14, 32 on the 13th and 35 on the 12th – and note that each of the strikes mentioned was “near” a major city. These reports can be hard to parse, but they certainly give a sense, day by day, that the air war in Iraq is no less ongoing for being unreported.

Here’s the crucial thing: US troop levels simply cannot be slowly drawn down in Iraq without – as in Vietnam – some increase in the use of air power. And yet you can look far and wide and find no indication of any public discussion of this at the White House, in Congress or in what we know of the deliberations of the ISG.

And yet as the Iraqi chaos and strife grow while the American public increasingly backs off, air power will be one answer. You can count on that. And air power – especially in or “near” cities – simply means civilian carnage. It will be called “collateral damage” (if anyone bothers to call it anything at all), but – make no mistake – it will be at the heart of any new strategy that calls for “redeployment” but does not mean to get the US out of Iraq.

‘A true disaster for the Iraqi people’

On the American Broadcasting Co’s Sunday political talk show This Week, White House chief of staff Josh Bolten had this to say: “I don’t think we’re going to be receptive to the notion there’s a fixed timetable at which we automatically pull out, because that could be a true disaster for the Iraqi people.”

With hundreds of thousands of dead and more following daily, it makes you wonder exactly what it has been like so far for the Iraqi people, as Bolten sees it. But perhaps he’s right; perhaps the disaster behind the US will be nothing compared with the disaster ahead, especially if Daddy’s Boys, the ISG, other Democratic and Republican movers and shakers, and all those generals and former generals floating around decide that this isn’t the moment to rediscover a Colin Powell-style “exit strategy”, but “one last chance” to succeed by any definition in Iraq. Then, God help us – and the Iraqis. Sooner or later, the US will undoubtedly be gone from a land so determinedly hostile to being occupied, but that end moment could still be a long, long time in coming.

Here, for instance, is Gates’ thinking 18 months ago in a seminar at the Panetta Institute at California State University in Monterey on “phased troop withdrawals” from Iraq:

But Mr Gates qualified his comments, noting it sometimes takes time to accomplish your goals. Sixty years after the end of the Second World War, “there are still American troops in Germany”, he noted. “We’ve had troops in Korea for over 50 years. The British have had troops in Cyprus for 40 years … If you want to change history, you have to be prepared to stay as long as it takes to do the job.

So hold on to your hats. Tragedy and more tragedy seems almost guaranteed, and the Pentagon has just submitted to Congress a staggering US$160 billion supplemental appropriation request to continue its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

American dignity

So far, what have the US invasion and occupation of Iraq led to – other than a staggering bloodbath, killing fields galore and a secret landscape of detention centers and torture chambers?

As a start, an already badly battered Iraqi economy was turned into a looting ground for Bush administration crony corporations and thoroughly wrecked. (Tall Afar, for instance, is considered a US “success” story when it comes to security, though part of the city is now a “ghost town” of rubble, and unemployment there is estimated at almost 70%.)

The Iraqi education system is in tatters; the medical system in ruins; basic social and urban services almost undeliverable; oil production barely up to pathetic prewar levels (if present-day figures are even real, which is in doubt); the position of women now disastrous; child malnutrition on the rise; and well over a million Iraqis have fled their homes in a country of only 26 million people.

In addition, national sovereignty has been destroyed; the national police system is on its last legs, its ranks well stocked with men loyal to various murderous Shi’ite militias; a Sunni insurgency rages ever more violently; a Kurdish form of independence seems ever more likely (though inconceivable to neighboring states); corruption is rampant; and a central government, whose sway doesn’t reach most streets in its capital, is now considered “the least accountable and least transparent regime in the Middle East”. (The Interior Ministry alone “reportedly employs at least 1,000 ghost employees, whose wages amount to more than $1 million a month”.)

Throw in the fact that the Iraqi army the Bush administration has been so intent on “standing up” is largely a Shi’ite one (as fine Knight-Ridder reporter Tom Lasseter discovered in October 2005 and New York Times correspondent Richard A Oppel found only last week in Diyala province, north of Baghdad). So if the plan is to bulk it up further to create a modicum of “stability” before departure, forget it. By its nature, such a training program, even if successful, is but a plan to generate an even more murderous civil war.

Now, add in endless months or years of non-withdrawal withdrawal plans, keep in mind the likelihood that US air power will be ratcheted up, and you have a formula for further carnage, collapses and disintegrations of every sort, coups, assassinations, civil war and God knows what else.

In the Vietnam era, Nixon went on a well-armed, years-long hunt for something he called “peace with honor”. Today, the catchword is finding an “exit strategy” that can “salvage US prestige”. What we want, it seems, is peace with “dignity”. In Vietnam, there was no honor left, only horror. There is no American dignity to be found in Iraq either, only horror.

In a Washington of suddenly lowered expectations, dignity is defined as hanging in there until an Iraqi government that can’t even control its own Interior Ministry or the police in the capital gains “stability”, until the Sunni insurgency becomes a mild irritation and until that US Embassy, that eighth wonder of the world of security and comfort, becomes an eye-catching landmark on the capital’s skyline.

Imagine. That’s all the US wants. That’s its dignity. And for that dignity and the imagined imperial stability of the world, the United States’ top movers and shakers will proceed to monkey around for months creating and implementing plans that will only ensure further catastrophe (which, in turn, will but breed more rage, more terrorism that spreads disaster to the Middle East and actually lessens US power around the world).

Now, the dreamers, the greatest gamblers in the United States’ history, are departing official Washington and the “realists” have hit the corridors of power that they always thought they owned. It wouldn’t hurt if they opened their eyes. Even imperial defenders should face reality. Someday, it’s something we’ll all have to do. In the meantime, call in the Hellfire-missile-armed drones.

Tom Engelhardt is editor of Tomdispatch and the author of The End of Victory Culture. His novel, The Last Days of Publishing, has recently come out in paperback. Most recently, he is the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews with American Iconoclasts and Dissenters (Nation Books), the first collection of Tomdispatch interviews.