Hawks for Withdrawal


The Nation, May 29, 2006

Democrats are slowly but surely uniting around a plan for military withdrawal designed by the Center for American Progress, a think tank linked to Clinton-era Democrats and headed by former White House Chief of Staff John Podesta.

Not all the party leaders agree. Senator Hillary Clinton continues to posture as a military hawk. Senator Joe Biden wants to dilute and divide Iraq into three sectarian enclaves. Neither Senator Charles Schumer nor Representative Rahm Emanuel, who are charged with winning November's elections, have a coherent message on Iraq, preferring themes like "corruption" and "incompetence" to a straightforward alternative.

Despite the timidity and paralysis, however, Democrats on the campaign trail increasingly know they must address the war. Polls show that Iraq is dragging down ratings for the President and the Republican Party. Democrats prefer to simply criticize the Administration's handling of Iraq without discussing an exit plan of their own. This Democratic approach worked brilliantly on Social Security, where Bush could find no Democratic divisions to exploit. John Kerry's presidential campaign tried the same approach on Iraq but discovered that Kerry was losing both centrist and progressive voters. Today, the most common concern voters have about the Democratic Party is whether it stands for anything.

Late last September, Lawrence Korb and Brian Katulis first floated their plan for "strategic redeployment." The two authors have credible--that is, conservative--credentials; Korb was assistant defense secretary under Ronald Reagan, and Katulis is associated with the "soft power" approach of promoting security through civic-society initiatives abroad.

Their proposal is framed in hawkish rhetoric. By occupying Iraq, they argue, the United States is increasing the global terrorist threat. "Strategic redeployment" redefines military withdrawal not as a retreat but as shifting US forces to new battlefields in Afghanistan, Africa and Asia, while basing expeditionary forces in the Persian Gulf and Kuwait in case postwithdrawal Iraq goes the way of South Vietnam.

The purpose of an Iraq peace, in their view, is to better prepare for other wars on the frontiers of empire and, further, to "prevent an outbreak of isolationism in the United States."

Leaving the framing rhetoric aside for the moment, the core propositions of the CAP paper point to a nearly complete US withdrawal in the next eighteen months. They are to:

§ Immediately reduce our troop presence at a rate of 9,000 per month to a total of 60,000 by the end of 2006, and to "virtually zero" by the end of 2007.

§ Bring home all National Guard units this year.

§ Double the number of US troops in Afghanistan, place an Army division in Kuwait, an expeditionary force in the Persian Gulf and an additional 1,000 special forces in Africa and Asia.

§ Shift the central paradigm of Iraq policy "from nation-building to conflict resolution."

§ Appoint a presidential peace envoy to organize a Geneva conference under United Nations auspices to "broker a deal" on security, militias and the division of power and oil resources.

§ Obtain international funds for Iraqi reconstruction with a greater emphasis placed on Iraqi jobs. Use the assistance to leverage power-sharing agreements on provincial levels.

§ Make key policy shifts, declaring that the United States seeks no permanent bases in Iraq and "intensifying its efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."

Little is said in the document about Iran, except that until the United States withdraws from Iraq, "it will not have the moral, political, and military power to deal effectively with Iran's attempts to develop nuclear weapons." Under cover of a multilateral Gulf Security Initiative, Iran would be drawn into discussions with its neighbors about its nuclear and security policies.

The paper reinforces the positions already taken by several leading Democrats, including Representative John Murtha, the seventy-member Out of Iraq Caucus and Senators Kerry and Russ Feingold. Senator Dianne Feinstein was the latest to endorse its content. The document is being circulated by Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean as well.

Seeking the hypothetical center ground requires Korb and Katulis to distance themselves from the peace movement, the only citizen force actually working toward the goal of withdrawal. To do so, the authors construct a phantom extreme of "immediate withdrawal," which they claim will permanently destabilize Iraq and the Middle East (as if current US policies have not already done so). As is common with Clinton-style politics, a solid centrist reputation is built by lampooning the progressive position.

All disrespect aside, there is a significant acceptance of the peace movement's message buried in this centrist proposal. It is not a proposal to keep US troops fighting until victory. There is a definite withdrawal timeline proposed and defended--eighteen months, starting immediately. Last year, peace groups collected tens of thousands of petitions for an exit strategy including a US declaration that no permanent bases are intended, a proposed paradigm shift to conflict resolution, selection of a peace envoy and power-sharing talks with Iraqi nationalist supporters of the insurgency. Kolb and Katulis examined the proposal carefully, and these concepts seem to have been incorporated into the document.


The proposal has weaknesses. First and foremost, it assumes that the new Iraqi government and armed forces will be sustainable if the United States begins to withdraw. There is no proposal for an interim peacekeeping force from neutral countries, as many Iraqi insurgent groups propose. There is no pledge to assure Iraqi sovereignty over Iraqi oil. There is an assumption that military withdrawal will be accompanied by a transition from "a highly centralized command to a market-based economy." In short, the proposal envisions a kind of devastated but safe post-Saddam Iraq integrated into the World Trade Organization, one requiring no more combat deaths.

The current Iraqi Parliament is by no means a solid pillar of the US occupation. Evidence is mounting that supporters of the Iraqi resistance have established a stronghold for their views even within the US-dominated "puppet" structure. Just this week, the Sunni vice president of Iraq, Tarik al-Hashimy, approved talks between the insurgents and American officials, but only on the condition that the guerrillas not stop the fight without a "final deal." President Jalal Talabani recently said he was negotiating secretly with seven insurgent groups. A report from reliable Iraqi sources indicates that a majority of the Parliament's 275 members will support a one-year withdrawal deadline if the question is put before them. Faced with this quagmire and election-year pressures, the option of peace, or the appearance of peace, seems to have been forced on the Bush Administration.

Iraqi army claims that it can "stand up" as the Americans leave are beyond credibility. If the US armed forces cannot end the insurgency, why would Iraqi security forces with sectarian loyalties and inferior weapons be any more effective? Could Shiite forces defeat the Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr? Impossible. Would the modest Sunni security forces suppress the Sunni insurgents? No. Could the Kurdish peshmerga hold off the whole Iraqi resistance? No. As in Vietnam, "Iraqization" could become a fig leaf covering the US redeployment, but then only an agreement with the multiple resistance groups could prevent their demise.

Many in the peace movement are entitled to be affronted over the hawkish language of the Korb-Katulis strategy paper. But profound strategic questions are emerging for the peace movement as a whole, as a result of the movement's relative success. A planned US withdrawal is the majority sentiment in America, Britain and Iraq. Politicians are adjusting their positions accordingly, if only for the sake of survival. Political efforts to isolate and smear the movement, as well as counterintelligence operations, have failed. In perspective, the peace movement has contributed to constructing these formidable obstacles to continued war:

§ An antiwar constituency that affects close Congressional races this year and presidential calculations for 2008.

§ The inability of military recruiters to achieve their quotas.

§ Domestic discontent over presidential lies, secrecy and wiretapping.

§ A budgetary crisis aggravated by the rising costs of the Iraq occupation, including oil costs.

§ A moral stain on the US reputation around the world.

§ The steady erosion of the "coalition of the willing."

he peace movement should take some credit for this. And the peace movement should keep the pressure on the pillars of the war policy, lest public opinion backslide into divisions or despair. The peace movement should also be planning now to make it virtually impossible for presidential candidates to campaign successfully in 2008 without committing to a speedy withdrawal from Iraq.

But there are understandable limits to what the peace movement can accomplish in the short run, aside from forcefully expressing the majority's desire that the United States withdraw. What are those limits? The peace movement cannot force the US government to "withdraw now," unless of course the insurgents suddenly overrun the Green Zone. The peace movement cannot force the United States out of the Middle East, though it can help pressure our government to reverse the Israeli occupation, which our tax dollars subsidize. But with the public climate soured over Iraq, the peace movement can mobilize opinion against military intervention in places like Venezuela.

Movements generally have power against the system when they apply pressure to the focal point of its weakness, in this case the dramatic waste of lives and taxes spent on an unwinnable war conducted undemocratically. The strong popular demand to set a withdrawal timetable is becoming impossible for the elites to avoid. When and if withdrawal is announced, the peace movement may face serious shrinkage and internal confusion. The phase of negotiation tends to wear movements down. The Paris peace talks of the Vietnam era took some seven years. The Israeli-Palestinian negotiating process appears eternal. An exception worth examining has been the peace process in Northern Ireland.

Besides remaining a formidable factor for politicians facing close elections and military recruiters chasing down high school students, the peace movement has a historic role to play every day in shaping the public understanding of the lessons of Iraq. The lessons of this war will "prepare the battlefield," to borrow a Pentagon term, for future wars and political campaigns. It will determine whether the current peace movement will be limited to a single important issue or be an embryo of a broader progressive movement.

This is the sharpest potential difference between the peace movement and the centrists. Both can and should collaborate on military withdrawal. But the peace movement wants to prevent future wars, reverse the nuclear weapons momentum, end domestic spying, divert resources to domestic priorities and, just for starters, put an end to the pattern of "armed privatization."

These are issues the centrists and most politicians will not touch unless they are confronted with a future climate of opinion in which real answers are demanded. Moderates wish the war to end so that the "real" war against terrorism can be prosecuted more effectively. Progressives should be making the case that the Iraq War is far from a misguided adventure but rather the result of pursuing an anti-terrorism approach that divides the world into camps of good and evil, just as Vietnam was the logical outcome of cold war assumptions about a monolithic Communist conspiracy.

The national security establishment already fears this legacy of Iraq. A December 2005 Foreign Affairs article fretted about an emergent "Iraq Syndrome" that parallels the "Vietnam Syndrome" of previous decades. Based apparently on a disease-control model, the "Iraq Syndrome" will make Americans skeptical that having the largest defense budget is "broadly beneficial." Other Vietnam-era themes critical of empire have re-entered through the window of the Bush era; among them, opposition to an imperial presidency or any notion of policing the world.

If the Vietnam era left any "syndrome" behind, it was a healthy irreverence toward power, which shows up today in antiwar marches and parents' opposition to military recruiting. The first President Bush prematurely believed that the "Vietnam Syndrome" was defeated in the Persian Gulf War, but it only remained dormant until the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Whether a Republican or Democrat finally withdraws American troops from Iraq, it is crucial that public opinion remain angry and critical of the deceptions that resulted in so many needless deaths. That is the final victory, which only the peace movement can achieve by drawing more Americans into questioning the nature of what Robert Lifton calls "the superpower syndrome."