Doomsday in Iraq -- is it really just around the corner?
We’ve now been at war intermittently with Iraq for almost 20 years, and with Afghanistan for 30. It adds up to nearly half a century of experience, all bad.
Yet an expanding crew of Washington-based opiners is calling for President Obama to extend the misery, urging the administration to alter its plans -- negotiated in the last months of the George W. Bush administration -- for the departure of all American troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. Pulling out on schedule, they argue, would virtually assure civil violence and ethnic bloodletting in Iraq.
According to these doomsayers, our withdrawal as scheduled would encourage Shiite militias to stage a violence-filled comeback. Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs would increase -- bringing more violence. And the group Al Qaeda in Iraq would move to fill any power void with its own destructive agenda.
So far, the administration and the military say they still hope to pull out on schedule. But last month, the Washington Post reported that the U.S. military has drawn up contingency plans for delaying the agreed-upon withdrawal of all combat troops from the country in August. And national security writer Tom Ricks reported on Foreign Policy’s website that the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Gen. Ray Odierno, has officially requested that a combat brigade remain in the troubled northern city of Kirkuk after the deadline.
Meanwhile, a chorus of the usual pundits -- “warrior journalists,” as Tom Hayden calls them -- are singing ever-louder warnings that the greatest of all dangers would be premature withdrawal. Ricks, for instance, recommended in the New York Times that the Obama administration should “find a way” to keep a “relatively small, tailored force” of 30,000 to 50,000 troops in Iraq “for many years to come.” (Those numbers, oddly enough, bring to mind the 34,000 U.S. troops that, according to Ricks in his 2006 bestseller, “Fiasco,” Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz projected as the future U.S. garrison in Iraq in the weeks before the invasion of 2003.)
The Brookings Institution’s Kenneth Pollack, who beat the drum for invading Iraq in 2003, now argues against removing “the cast” -- his metaphor for the U.S. military presence -- on the “broken arm” of Iraq too soon. Kimberly and Frederick Kagan, who also championed the war from the beginning, recently wrote a Wall Street Journal article calling for “a long-term military partnership with Iraq beyond 2011,” saying the country will not be able to defend itself by then.
Iraq is admittedly a mess. On our watch, the country has crashed and burned, and no one claims that we’ve put it back together. Multibillions of dollars in reconstruction funds later, the U.S. remains incapable of delivering the simplest things like reliable electricity or potable water to significant parts of the country.
But even as Iraq is in shambles, our confidence in ourselves, our -- why not say it? -- narcissism, remains intact. We are still, somehow, staring into that pool, enamored with the kindly, helpful face that stares back. We have convinced ourselves that we can see the future of Iraq, and that an Iraqi future without us would be desolation itself.
What makes the arguments of the warrior pundits particularly potent is the fact that they base them almost entirely on things that have yet to happen and may never happen. After all, humans have such a lousy track record as predictors of the future. History regularly surprises us.
Few remember anymore, but we went through a version of this 40 years ago in Vietnam. In that conflict too, Americans were repeatedly told that the U.S. couldn’t withdraw because, if we left, the enemy would launch a “blood bath” in South Vietnam. This future blood bath of the imagination appeared in innumerable official speeches and accounts. It became so real that it sometimes seemed to put the actual, ongoing blood bath in Vietnam in the shade, and for years it provided a winning explanation for why any departure would have to be interminably and indefinitely delayed.
But when the last American took that last helicopter out, the blood bath didn’t happen.
In Iraq, only one thing is really known: After our invasion, and with U.S. and allied troops occupying the country in significant numbers, the Iraqis did descend into a monumental blood bath. It happened in our presence, on our watch, and in significant part thanks to us.
But why should the historical record be taken into account when our pundits and strategists have such privileged access to an otherwise unknown future? In the year to come, based on what we’re seeing now, such arguments are likely to intensify. Terrible prophesies about Iraq’s future without us will multiply.
It’s true that terrible things may happen in Iraq. They could happen while we are there. They could happen with us gone. But history delivers its surprises more regularly than we imagine -- even in Iraq.
In the meantime, it’s worth keeping in mind that not even Americans can occupy the future. It belongs to no one.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. He is the author of “The End of Victory Culture” and the novel “The Last Days of Publishing.” A longer version of this piece can be found at tomdispatch.com