Pushed by powerful voter sentiment, the leading Democratic presidential candidates all talk of ending the Iraq war, and the November election seems headed toward a showdown with a Republican committed to a long-term war and occupation.
But it’s not necessarily true.
The press, the politicians and much of the public have embraced a paradigm that equates ending the Iraq war with the phased withdrawal of American troops from combat roles, a position favored by the top Democratic candidates. Sen. Hillary Clinton, according to her campaign statements, would withdraw most or all of them in five years though she “hopes” to withdraw them sooner, and Sen. Barack Obama would do the same in 18 months. Former Sen. John Edwards has recently espoused a more rapid and complete withdrawal timetable.
Overlooked is the fact that if and when those combat troops withdraw, U.S. counter-terrorism units will remain indefinitely to fight the Iraq-based al Qaeda along with other undefined “terrorists.” There also are American advisers who will continue training roles for the Iraqi army and police, and will be embedded in the Iraqi Interior Ministry, a Shiite stronghold widely criticized for torture, detention without charges, and other human-rights violations. There will be armed forces to protect the diplomats in the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, the largest embassy in the world. Finally, these units will require “force protection” by additional American troops.
To sum up, if all American combat troops ever are withdrawn, there still will remain 50,000 to 100,000 Americans involved in a low-visibility, dirty war in Iraq, just like those that involved death squads in Central America in the ‘70s, or the earlier Phoenix program in South Vietnam, in which the Viet Cong infrastructure was decimated by assassinations and torture. Top American advisers in Baghdad today operated the El Salvador counter-insurgency and have praised the Phoenix program.
This, in fact, already is happening. The Baghdad regime is described by a source in the Baker-Hamilton report as a Shiite dictatorship. The recent lessening of violence in Baghdad largely is due to the ethnic cleansing of its Sunni population. At least 50,000 detainees are imprisoned today without charges or trial dates. The United States is paying Sunnis to fight Sunnis, funding the Shiite-dominated security forces, and has increased its bombardment from the air by fivefold since last year.
Morality aside, there is no certainty that transferring combat duties to the Iraqi army, with embedded U.S. advisers and trainers, will succeed in stabilizing Iraq any time soon. Nor will inevitable revelations of human rights abuses in Baghdad’s secret prisons salvage America’s ruined reputation in the world.
The silence of the candidates and the media toward this U.S.-created, U.S.-funded, U.S.-armed Frankenstein in Baghdad perhaps reflects a bipartisan establishment fear of “losing” Iraq. Such fears resonate strongly in American politics in favor of Republicans, from the acrimony over “losing China” in the ‘50s to the continuing polemics over who “lost Vietnam.” It may also be rooted in an unspoken consensus on securing a an American advantage in the sharing of the Persian Gulf oil supplies.
If the Democrats continue to downplay this issue, they may provide a pretext for a Ralph Nader candidacy in an extremely close November race. Moreover, they may disillusion countless Americans if, despite promises, the war goes on for five years or more.
An alternative has been pointed out by, of all people, former CIA Director John Deutch, who says the United States must decide to end the occupation and open a diplomatic offensive with Iran, “the only country that could make our withdrawal difficult.” The Baker-Hamilton report concluded that Iran will not support a solution in Iraq as long as Tehran believes the U.S. goal is to overthrow the Iranian regime.
Meanwhile, the moment before California’s Feb. 5 primary will be one of the last windows for the media and the public to clarify if and when the Democrats really plan to withdraw all troops from Iraq.
Tom Hayden is the author of “Writings for a Democratic Society: The Tom Hayden Reader” forthcoming from City Lights Books.