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One eye on Iraq, one eye on the U.S. elections

COMMENTARY | October 30, 2006

The overseas press: In Britain, a pullout is now seen as a necessity; the question is what we leave behind, and whether the rest of the Middle East will explode. Some see ‘cut and run’ as no longer pejorative—as long as it results in cutting our losses.

By John Burke

PARISBefore the United States invaded Iraq, the debate about the necessity of the invasion raged across the world. Three and a half years on, the debate has turned to the necessity of a retreat.

Perhaps the most relevant opinions come from the United States’ main ally in Iraq, the British. From the beginning of the war, polls showed that around 90 percent of the UK public opposed invasion. As the condition of oil-rich Iraq has worsened and more of the aggressors’ troops are lost, that opinion has rung only louder.

Most British papers entertain the pullout question in a practical manner, considering the problems it might cause if Western forces were suddenly not there to police a nation in the midst of civil war.

At the same time, they want to see their government and that of their ally present a concrete strategy that provides the best hope that the Iraqi situation does not explode throughout the whole Middle East. For this reason, they are watching the American midterm elections not just as your everyday vote, but as one that may determine the outcome of a very unpopular war:

The Guardian wonders where the “Point of Departure” is, blaming the U.S. and British governments for terrible pre-war planning and for currently hiding an imminent retreat behind over-optimistic rhetoric:

“Now, although they dare not say it, even the war's architects in Washington and London know that there will be no honourable departure. They are preparing to scuttle. Military reality and political expediency are blowing away all talk of patience, reconstruction, "staying the course" and "getting the job done" – the desperate expectation that somehow, despite all the violence and disorder, a better destination would be found for Iraq. The language is still heard, more now from Tony Blair than President Bush. But it has become nothing more than passing cover for a retreat from western engagement that is already under way, a thin disguise draped over defeat…

“But the need is not for retribution at home, but a truthful account of how things stand and an assessment of how best the country can be pulled up from the black depths into which it is plunging. There is no cure for wounds that will bleed for many years. What can be hoped for is a salvage operation…

“The crucial point is that the American and British departure must be planned with the care and understanding that was so lamentably – some would say criminally – absent when the invasion took place. Yet this is not happening. Honest planning requires that the people who created the war admit the original vision of a liberal democracy is dead. Yet they still peddle the comfortable fantasy that British and U.S. troops will hand over to able Iraqi forces, when these are failing from Basra to Baghdad…

“The U.S.'s private assessment of Iraq's military capability must be made public. It will make disturbing reading. But as there is little prospect of adequate Iraqi forces, their weakness cannot provide justification for prolonging Britain's presence.”

In the run-up to the midterm elections, the Economist writes, “America's voters are entitled to punish George Bush. They should not punish the people of Iraq”:

“WHEN a great democracy such as the United States holds elections at a time of war, voters are torn between two instincts. One is to show grit and solidarity by rallying around the flag and the president. The other is to treat the election as a referendum on the war. Ever since September 11th 2001 George Bush has milked the first instinct for all it is worth. But having gained so much from presenting himself as a war president, Mr Bush can hardly complain now that the voters are moving in the other direction. Many seem intent on using November's mid-terms to give their verdict on his handling of the war in Iraq. That is bad news for the Republicans…

“In recent weeks the combination of an election campaign in America with the lack of progress in Iraq has for the first time produced a vigorous, open debate about strategic alternatives. Yet the benefits of this debate may turn out to be more apparent than real. For none of the alternative ideas mooted so far, such as partition, installing a strongman or withdrawing American forces ‘over the horizon’, looks more promising than the existing three-part strategy. This, broadly, is to damp down the violence as much as possible while continuing to train Iraq's own soldiers and policemen and pressing Iraq's elected politicians to make a power- (and oil-) sharing deal that could end the civil war. The real choice facing America and its allies in Iraq is whether to persevere with this strategy in the hope of eventual success, or admit failure now and start to head for the exit.

“For the politicians (and newspapers, like ours) who argued strongly for the invasion of Iraq, it is no longer enough to accuse those who want to head for the exit of ‘cutting and running’, as if using a pejorative phrase settled the argument either way. Cutting your losses is sometimes the sensible thing to do, even for a superpower, and even after paying a heavy price in lost lives and wasted money. If you genuinely believe, as many people now do, that the likeliest long-term outcome in Iraq is that America will end up cutting and running anyway, with no improvement to be expected even three or four years hence, why simply postpone the inevitable?

“Because failure may not be inevitable. It is true that Iraq is not poised to become the exemplary democracy the American neocons dreamed of carving out in the heart of the Arab world. But that definition of success was always a peculiar one to apply to a war the United States launched primarily to secure its own interests… The question Americans need to ask is what impact their own staying or going is likely to have on the balance of probable outcomes. And in answering this question, the case for staying becomes a good deal stronger. By persevering, America stands at least some chance of putting Iraq on a more stable trajectory. By leaving, it is almost certain to make things worse.

“At a minimum, America's continuing presence in Iraq prevents the neighbours from joining in a civil war, as Lebanon's neighbours did in the 1970s with much less at stake. The Americans can still move into and establish some order in areas where the violence surges out of control. They can protect the elected government and put pressure on its members to make a political settlement. They can continue to train Iraq's own security forces and, if necessary, attack or dismantle some of the militias. Once they leave they can do none of these things…

“For Mr Bush, the Iraq war has in one sense already been lost, whatever result the mid-terms bring. This president's legacy will forever be tainted by what he overpromised and how much he underperformed. The voters of America are entitled to judge and punish his party as they see fit. But Americans would be wrong to extend this punishment to the people of Iraq, who have suffered so much already. Even if it was a mistake to blunder into Iraq, it would be a bigger mistake, bordering on a crime, for a nation that aspires to greatness to blunder out now, without first having exhausted every possible effort to put Iraq back together and avert a wider war.”

The Economist continues, opining that the Bush administration is “Coming to the end of options” but that the precarious options that remain will not be revealed until after the mid-term elections, even on the part of the Democrats, which may soon be in control of Congress:

“No big changes are likely to be announced before the mid-term elections, but the president has said he will listen to the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan commission appointed by Congress to study alternatives to current policy, which will issue a report, probably later this year…

“If the Democrats capture one or both arms of Congress—as polls suggest is likely—they will have the power, in theory, to force a withdrawal of American troops by denying Mr Bush the funds to keep them in Iraq. Leading Democrats insist they will not do anything so drastic. But it is unclear what they will do, besides launching investigations into how Mr Bush and his crew handled pre-war intelligence and post-war rebuilding contracts.

“If the Democrats ever agree on a strategy for Iraq, it will not be until after the election, because only then will they know which of them is in charge. Will it be Nancy Pelosi, the likely speaker if the Democrats capture the House of Representatives? Or Harry Reid, the probable majority leader if they win the Senate? Either would have to decide whether merely to obstruct the president's Iraq policy, or to work with him to improve it.

“Several Democrats think the only way to make the Iraqi government take responsibility for its own defence is to set a timetable for pulling out American troops. Carl Levin, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, wants a ‘phased withdrawal’ to begin by the end of the year, to ‘tell them that they've got to take hold of their own nation’.

“Then again, such a plan might spur the militias to redouble their efforts at ethnic cleansing, so as to maximise the area they will control when the Americans leave. A study by the Brookings Institution, a think-tank, suggests that this is already happening, with hundreds of thousands of Iraqis having fled their homes since February because of ‘rumours and intimidation’ and many more ‘teetering on the edge of displacement’. Mr Baker says a sudden American pull-out would lead to ‘the biggest civil war you've ever seen’”.

The Independent takes the opposite stance of the Economist, arguing that for the sake of the Iraqi people as well as the reputations of the American and British, a withdrawal should happen sooner rather than later:

“I haven’t written about Iraq recently, because I think those of us who supported this catastrophic invasion should apologize and then have the humility to shut up and reflect on what we have wrought…

“There are ever-louder whispers from Washington that the Bush administration is considering junking the (very) limited democracy Iraq now has, sacking the prime minister, and installing a junta of ‘national unity’ generals to ‘impose order’…

“This Iraq-needs-a-dictator approach is based on a false analysis of what has gone wrong since the war, one strangely shared by some parts of the anti-war movement. As Bush’s team moots installing a strongman, Piers Morgan, whose Daily Mirror was one of the most prominent voices against the war, recently said if he was still in charge of the paper he would be leading one last Iraq campaign: ‘Bring back Saddam.’ Their argument is that Iraq is an irredeemably tribal society, always on the brink of fracturing into a Shiite-vs-Sunni-vs-Kurd conflagration. This ethnic chaos needs an iron fist to keep it in order — an Arab Tito. Even a sliver of democracy is the problem. Dictatorship is the solution.

“But to suggest that the emergence of a violent tribalism in Iraq was the inevitable after-effect of ending Saddamism is to actually let the Bush administration off the hook. It took more than two years — and a huge amount of violence directed by unrepresentative militias, against Shiite and Sunni mosques, marketplaces and shrines — for Iraqis to turn on each other in significant numbers. Even now, a large majority of all three Iraqi communities — according to every poll — still believes in a unified Iraq under an elected government.

“Tribalism has taken this toxic form because of the total economic collapse of Iraq overseen by Bush. His administration immediately and undemocratically imposed on Iraq the opposite of a Marshall Plan, a deflationary Republican wet dream: Privatize everything immediately, impose a flat tax, slash the public sector to pieces. Everywhere this has been tried, from Argentina to Russia, it has led to total economic collapse. Create a situation where unemployment hits 70 percent and people will look to tribes they barely think about in better times… So the emerging Bushite narrative about Iraq — hey folks, we nobly tried democracy but it turns out they’re just too damn tribal and they need a tough guy after all — is wrong and repellent. For people such as Piers Morgan, who have been vindicated on the war and to fall for this now, is a Last-Act tragedy.

“This withdrawal is inevitable, and soon. The only question is whether our governments leave very quickly of their own choice, or are chased out of the Green Zone like the last helicopters from Saigon. The shape of one possible Bush withdrawal strategy is now becoming clear, and it’s not hard to smell the sulfurous influence of Henry Kissinger — who has been outed by Bob Woodward as Bush’s new mentor — on it. Install a friendly CIA-backed dictator who will iron out Iraq’s creases (no need to ask about the messy tactics, boys) and ensure the oil keeps flowing.

“This access to oil supplies was always the primary goal of the Bush team. As long ago as 1991 — back when the only thing George W. Bush tortured was the English language — Dick Cheney said about Iraq: ‘We’re there because the fact of the matter is that part of the world controls the world supply of oil.’ Wolfowitzian talk of spreading democracy was a sugar-coating, easily burned away. In opposition to this strategy-of-sorts, many people propose to leave immediately. I have some sympathy for this, but it has a big flaw: The departure would be seen as a victory for the mainly sectarian and fundamentalist resistance groups. It would increase their power and prestige in Iraq’s postwar vacuum. I think there is a better way to achieve a very swift exit. It is for the occupying forces to hold a referendum, within one month, asking the Iraqi people — do you want the foreign troops to remain for another year, or should they leave now? The answer Iraqis will give is pretty obvious: In the latest poll, 82 percent opted for immediate withdrawal.

“Arguing for this quick democratic exit against the Kissingerian proposals of George Bush might be the last thing we can do for the Iraqi people, along with finally holding our leaders accountable for the crimes — the chemical weapons, the torture — they have committed in the course of this catastrophe.”

Mostly because of the debacle in Iraq, The Times observes, “The backwoods folk are beginning to doubt Bush.” Because of this potential loss of support, if the Democrats take over Congress in the midterm elections, it won’t only be because of their supporters:


“Most critically, it is the rural heartland that is beginning to question Bush and the war. First, they trusted him as a man of God. Then they blamed the media for distorting reality in Iraq. Then their patriotism kicked in as the president urged them to ‘stay the course’. But now this segment of the population, people who have disproportionately sent their sons and daughters to fight in the bloodsoaked streets of Ramadi and Falluja and Baghdad, show signs of revolt. If Bush loses these voters — or if they are too demoralised to vote at all — the omens are truly dark for the Republicans…

“Until recently the rural evangelicals have stuck with the president, in part to honour the fallen, and out of admirable patriotism and trust. It is hard to believe that your son or daughter died or is permanently crippled for a bungled cause. But if the facade cracks, if these rural voters begin to believe they have been misled, then the rock-solid patriotic support could become something else. It would not, in my judgment, fade into indifference. It could turn into rage.

“That hasn’t happened yet. But you can feel it beginning. When you add to it the libertarian Republicans, alienated by the religious right, the worries for Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney mount. Then there are the fiscal conservatives appalled by the massive spending and borrowing, and the social conservatives who suspect the Republican leadership of covering up pederasty in its own ranks in the Mark Foley affair, and the neoconservatives who believe that their war was never given enough troops or resources to succeed. Put it all together and you have a party that is beginning to resemble a circular firing squad nine days before critical mid-terms…

“It is premature to predict a huge change in the Congress on November 7. Republican discipline could still hold on by a squeak. But a big Democratic victory could happen. And if it does, it will be Republican and conservative voters who deliver it.”

In a review of the Arab press, London-based Al Hayat writes that the Bush administration is changing “‘horses in the middle of a stream’ as it loses its war in Iraq and in Washington”:

“The London-based Al Hayat said in a commentary that the US administration is now changing ‘horses in the middle of a stream’ as it loses its war in Iraq and in Washington.

“The Saudi-financed daily said that the unprecedented decline in support for the Republican party and US President George W. Bush are due to the conditions in Iraq and the failure of the war on terror. ‘The war on Iraq is going from bad to worse for the Americans,’ it insisted, adding that Al Qaeda achieved the prediction of slain insurgency leader Abu Mussab Al Zarqawi that an ‘Islamic emirate of Iraq’ will be established in three months.

“The paper referred to massive demonstrations in Iraq's Anbar province after the declaration of the ‘Islamic state in Iraq.’ It said that the US administration today must be in a very awkward position since the situation in Anbar is now ‘out of control.’

“It said that the Republican party today faces an internal crisis due to an external crisis resulting from reckless foreign policies after September 11, 2001, adding that three years after the Bush administration's war on Iraq, the Democrats are on the verge of returning strongly to Congress after a long absence. ‘It has become clear that the horse carrying the American nation is beginning to get tired and it might fall before reaching the safe shore,’ it said. ‘Therefore, the American people see the need to change the horse, even if it's in the middle of the stream.’”

For Malaysia’s New Straits Times, it’s time that Bush stops “Sticking to admit his guns” and admits his mistakes in Iraq, also hoping that the Republicans get what they assumedly deserve in the midterm elections:

“The dead end that the US finds itself in Iraq suggests not only that regime change is not as easy as deposing a dictator and imposing democracy at the barrel of a gun, but also proves that military occupation invariably provokes popular resistance. No new military tactic or strategy, however slick and masterful, is capable of reversing internal opposition to the foreign yoke. It is time to move beyond tinkering with tactics and acknowledge the shortfalls of American policy on Iraq and the inadequacies of the war on terror.

“When the body count mounts in an expensive foreign war which was launched on false premises and built on lies, it is to be expected that American public opinion would turn hostile when the promise of victory proves illusory. It remains to be seen, however, whether the American public will send a sufficiently strong message to their elected representatives that it is no longer the time to talk tough on Iraq but to bring the boys home.”

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