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October 23, 2006

Iraq: An Honest Exit
Posted by Suzanne Nossel

Administration officials today stated that, in line with calls from critics, they are taking steps toward a timetable that - at least as I read it - can only lead to an ultimate drawdown of U.S. troops.  The President is finally backing away from his "stay the course" mantra. 

But, true to form, Bush did so by denying that "stay the course" was ever Administration policy.  That feeble attempt at obfuscation is easily exposed, but it points to a much more serious issue:  the Administration seems inclined to mislead the public on its way out of Iraq just as it did on the way in.

Here are some of the fallacies being profferred:

- Conditions in Iraq are improving - During an interview with George Stephanopolous last week, Bush insisted that "we [are] on our way to achieving a goal, which is an Iraq that can defend itself, sustain itself and govern itself and be an ally in the war on terror in the heart of the Middle East."  Stories like this about the breakdown of the Iraqi police in their core mission in Baghdad underscore the obvious: progress is nowhere near what anyone hoped or expected, and by some reports is close to nil.

- The Iraqis can take over where we leave off, if they'd only stop dithering - Today's announcement spoke of a US timetable for the Iraqi government to quell sectarian divisions and take over security for the country.  But the government of President Nuri al-Maliki is roundly acknowledged to be failing in this regard, with no signs that he'll be able to reverse course.  The Administration acts as though the Iraqi government refuses to put the country in order the way a stubborn child refuses to pick up his toys - in the Stephanopolous interview, Bush referred to it as "dawdling."  The reality is that Iraq's problems are so deep and complex that the world's strongest and most sophisticated military cannot solve them, and nor can a fledgling and fragile Iraqi government.

The reality of a potential US departure from Iraq is that we'll be leaving because things are going poorly, and because there's no sign that we can ultimately succeed in our mission of turning a stable Iraq over to a government capable of keeping it that way.  Some other facts worth facing:

- The Iraq we leave will likely devolve into a failed state - While this isn't necessarily the case, all signals point to the inability of an Iraqi government to quell sectarian divisions such that the country coheres.  If we cannot prevent such disintegration with 120K+ troops, how will we prevent it without them?  The US can and should pursue approaches involving various forms of economic, political and diplomatic buttressing to hold together an Iraqi state, but given how fragile that state is, such measures seem poised to fail.

- Iraq as a failed state will have grave consequences for the Iraqis,  the region, and - in all likelihood - the US - Many Iraqi leaders are afraid of the pullout scenario, and understandably so.  It seems fair to say there is serious risk of continued and even escalated violence and bloodshed, at least in the already volatile parts of the country.  From what we know of failed states, their problems are not confined to fixed borders, which puts even now peaceful parts of Iraq and the broader region at risk.   Thinking of Afghanistan, simmering resentments over America's invasion and ultimate withdrawal could have long-term reverberations in the form of deep-seated anti-Americanism amidst a large population that blames us for abandoning them to inter-ethnic warfare.   Beyond that, oil, jihadism, nuclear proliferation and an anti-American meglomaniac holding the helm in Iran.  Do we know for sure it will combust?  No.  Is there a viable scenario in which these forces organically settle and enable the region to move toward increasing stability?  That's equally tough to envisage.
In short, if we pull out it will not be because the mission is accomplished, or because we can rest easily or at all about Iraq's future.  Instead, it will be because nothing we try has worked, and because after four years we're not sufficiently convinced that our presence is doing more good than harm.  We were dishonest on the way into this, but should be honest - at least with ourselves - on the way out.  That way we at least avoid deceiving the public into believing that all will be calm in our wake, and having to
explain what happened if and when that's proven wrong.
The Iraq war has exacted a wide array of tolls - Iraqi lives, American lives, the U.S's international legitimacy, our alliances, the battle-readiness of our military, and the trust of the American people in their government.  Recovering from these losses will be slow and painful.  When it comes to the question of Americans' trust, the Administration must not add insult to injury by  misleading the public on its way out just as was done on the way in.


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In 2004 most GOP candidates were traveling downstream in their "swiftboats" attacking every Democratic candidate that dared to criticize the Bush administration's war in Iraq. In 2006 you not only can't find the GOP "swiftboat", you can't find a Republican candidate willing to jump in and try to navigate the hapless dingy against the strong current of voter dissatisfaction with the seemingly never ending war.

One, voters appear to have decided that the President's plan is a failure. Two, despite the fact that the Democrats haven't actually offered a cohesive or comprehensive alternative plan, voters are convinced any change might be better than more of the same. That stands to help Democrats on November 7th...but it also means that voters are hoping for change come November 8th...and that may prove to be the beginning of an even larger problem for both parties.

In my opinion, it will behoove both parties to find some tangible solutions to the Iraq mess if they hope to have any success in 2008. If one thinks voters are unhappy now, imagine their mood if Iraq is still at the top of their list of issues two years from now.

Read more here:

I generally agree with most of your analysis Suzanne. But I have been puzzled for some time by your frequent assertion that when the US leaves, Iraq will become a failed state, as theough the US presence is currently keeping it from becoming a failed state. I just don't get this. Are you saying that Iraq is not yet in a condition of massive state failure? As far as I can tell, "Iraq" has no real government. There are just a bunch of people talking in Baghdad, who are called the "government of Iraq" but are otherwise doing nothing statelike, while the militias and political parties they represent fight it out for control of different parts of the country and run the show.

The US invasion destroyed the Iraq state - that's when it failed. And despite a variety of desperate efforts since then, no one has been able to successfully reconstitute an Iraqi state to replace the one that was destroyed. Writing constitutions, having elections, putting hopeful labels on things, assigning offices - none of those things are sufficient to establish a state. You don't have a state until those actions succeed in consolidating some corporate entity that exercises real governmental power. As far as I'm concerned, Iraq has been a "failed state" since 2003 - or perhaps it would be better just to call it a "non-state" or a "merely purported state". "Iraq" is the name of a place; but there exists no state in that place.

Unfortunately there is a 'third way' in addition to staying in Iraq or leaving--and that is the destruction of our military forces by armed Iraqis supported by Iran and Syria.
All the supplies for our troops have to pass through the Iranian-controlled Strait of Hormuz and then transit four hundred miles of highway through increasingly hostile territory completely controlled by the Mahdi militias, a significant military force and our sworn enemy.
The recent destruction of Forward Operating Base Falcon could be a taste of things to come.
In other words the temptation to believe that the US government controls all the options could be, and probably is, a fallacy, just like the fallacies (ably pointed out by DK) that there exists Iraqi "sovereignty' and an Iraqi 'government' just because the US government says so. In that case whatever "we" think would be moot.

Don, what do you know about the destruction of FOB Falcon?

I saw a report by iraqis claiming that there was no structure left standing, that we lost between 8 and 50 armored vehicles, and that 6 planeloads of casualties got to a particular hospital.

The US military itself claimed that there were no casualties and that the base was back to normal operation in 24 hours.

What should we believe?

The best way to secure our borders, as well as ensure global stability, is to support the Millennium Development Goals. Eradicating global poverty is the best diplomatic and humanitarian way to create a safer America. According to The Borgen Project, only $19 billion annually would be needed to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. Making the Goals much more economically efficient than continuing the war.

Ya...what a disaster Iraq has become. However, it seemed doomed from the get-go. The issue at hand here is US business interests. I mean seriously, Iraq has the oil which equals $$. War means private contractors for infrastructure = $$. A failed state means "humanitarian aid" = private contractors = $$. Essentially, this war comes down to US corporations. We all know this or at least we should! How much $$ have American taxpayers spend so far to fund this corporate monsters? Honestly it's stealing from the poor to make the rich even more rich!! It's quite disgusting. The $300 + billion that has been spent so far could have been spent meeting the Millennium Development Goals. We could have ended extreme poverty and world hunger. We could have opened up the markets to 3 billion new consumers. Instead, we would rather let those potential consumers die and pretend it's not our problem. However, even in the US, we have 37 million people living in poverty. That is 12% of the nation. Honestly people, what is happening to the land of the free and opportunity?!?!

Re: FOB Falcon: Unfortunately we don't have a reliable source to report on the damage. (NOTE: Do we ever have reliable sources anymore?) I don't trust US military reports.

The US military says one incoming mortar round set off an ammo fire, no casualties, no damage. Iraqi sources say rockets and mortar rounds incoming, many deaths and injuries, thunderous explosions that rocked Baghdad, and has Google photos of extensive damage at FOB Falcon. The photos I've seen show a huge fire, and if in fact above-ground tank and artillery rounds were cooking off then there has to be extensive damage. Normally the larger rounds are stored vertically, but who knows about the smaller calibers (It all should have been in bunkers.) The BBC reported extensive damage with shells falling on Baghdad.

There's plenty to read here.

and photos here

After reading a lot of this stuff again, and looking at the pictures, considering the lack of verification, I guess that I should have said destruction AT FOB Falcon.

Don, thank you. I couldn't begin to tell what was true there from a quick lit search.

Ditto what Dan said.

Here's what Zelikow wrote back in February 2005, according to Bob Woodward:

"At this point Iraq remains a failed state shadowed by constant violence and undergoing revolutionary political change."

And those were the good old days -- a full year before bombing of the Shia shrine.

There are certain things in life related to smoking that simply cannot :)
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