It astounds me sometimes how otherwise intelligent and well-intentioned people can confuse slogans for strategy. The increasing debate over U.S. policy toward Iraq is a prime—and dangerous—example. Many proponents of immediate withdrawal believe that the U.S. presence in Iraq is the primary and proximate cause of the insurgency and therefore removal of the U.S. occupation will cauterize the wound. Subsequently, 'withdrawal first' advocates say, the international community can muster whatever forces or humanitarian workers are needed to help a sovereign Iraq get on its feet. Et, voila. Iraq will be free and viable. Poppycock.
Where to begin? Let's start with some basic observations of the situation. Iraq is on the verge of genocidal civil war, so says the relatively moderate Shi'a leader Sistani. Yet the insurgency is right now largely contained within the three provinces that make up the Sunni heartland, so says the British military. How do these square? Simple. The situation right now is not a civil war, that Kurdish and Shi'a groups are still invested in the political process and that time is running out. Shi'a militias are strong, growing and training. And the Kurdish Peshmerga are battle-tested units.
The Sunni areas, however, see the current political process as skewed to the advantage of the Shi'a and the Kurds. This, of course, was confirmed first by the excessive de-Ba'aathification executed by former CPA chief Bremer and by the more recent revelation that the U.S. government funded individual political groups it wanted to win the January 2005 'purple finger' elections, manipulating Iraqi democracy before it even existed.
If that's the situation, then withdrawal will not make things better. Quite the opposite. Right now, the existing process in Iraq is at least keeping the Shi'a and the Kurds at the table. That table only exists because there's at least a minimal process that creates the safety for a negotiation. The assassination this week of two members of the constitutional drafting committee showed that that table is not safe for everyone. But that lack of safety is driven by the failure of the Bush administration to give Sunnis a meaningful stake in the future of Iraq. That failure, that legitimate grievance, has then been used by opportunistic thugs to mobilize underemployed young men and unemployed former soldiers in approximately 11 different insurgent groups.
What is essential, therefore, is to find a way to force this administration into ending its failed political and economic experiment in Iraq, while maintaining the confidence of the parties in Iraq that there is a negotiated way out.
Withdrawal will immediately shatter the table that has been created and, like a piece of delicate porcelain that shatters on the kitchen floor, there is no way to put it back together. A new process could start, but not until too much Iraqi blood has been shed in a civil war that the parties already know will be genocidal.
So the United States pulls out, genocide erupts and just who is going to stop it? The United States surely is not. The European Union does not have the ability to project that kind of intervention without the command framework of NATO or the logistical capacity of the United States. So much for the international community coming to the rescue. And civil war in Iraq will trigger serious and unpredictable consequences in the Persian Gulf. An interruption of oil supply at this point could trigger a massive global depression with the world's poor and America's working class hit hardest.
But let's say there is no genocidal civil war after a pull out. The Green Zone will surely fall, and fighting will take place on the fringes of the various communities. The best that can happen is a failed Iraqi state leading to self-determination movements that get resisted, perhaps violently, by Turkey, Iran and Israel. The security situation will remain bad enough that the groups with the skills, knowledge and experience in how to stand up a failed state will not be able to operate. Without an effective government, Iraqi cities will be unsustainable and large-scale migration will begin. If someone does begin to consolidate power, it will be Taliban-style and we'll have a new Afghanistan sitting on top of the world's second-largest oil reserves.
No, "Withdrawal First' and its sister, "Out Now" are slogans that reveal either an irresponsible lack of understanding about how peace is built and how Iraq is situated or that reveal a set of interests that do not coincide with those of Iraqis, working Americans or the billions of people hoping America will end its dalliance with empire and get back to the hard work of advancing international peace, security and sustainable prosperity.
In the meantime, those of us who would rather see progressives govern than merely protest will continue to seek solutions that can be implemented. That means setting up the conditions in Iraq such that a just and viable compact for Iraq emerges before Iraqis completely lose confidence in a negotiated settlement. To do that will require drastically changing the nature of our presence in Iraq. But it will not mean withdrawal.