Thursday, December 15, 2005

Iraq: Withdrawal or Drawdown?

Published on Thursday, December 15, 2005
by William D. Hartung

The domestic debate on U.S. policy towards Iraq is finally shifting against the war, with a majority of Americans supporting either immediate withdrawal or withdrawal within two years time. Two years might seem like a long while, but considering that there have been indications that the U.S. might want to stay on indefinitely in some form, this change in public attitudes represents real progress.

The beginning of the shift in public opinion began with Cindy Sheehan's sit-in outside the Bush "ranch" last summer. The vigil site was called Camp Casey after her son who died in Iraq. She wanted an in-person explanation from President Bush about what was so important about the war in Iraq that it justified risking the lives of thousands of American military personnel like her son. In short, she wanted to know why her son had to die, and what was the "noble cause" that justified it. As a mother of a soldier who served and died in Iraq, her questions could not be simply batted aside as the rantings of someone who "doesn't support our troops." As the New Republic noted at the time, Cindy Sheehan's stand made it clear that you could support the troops and oppose the war, a point that had been lost to many Americans amidst the fog of propaganda cast over the issue by the Bush administration.

The next major blow to the administration's rationale for the war came from Rep. Jack Murtha, a conservative Democrat from Pennsylvania who is highly respected by the leadership and rank-and-file of the armed forces. In a November 17th speech on the House floor, Murtha described U.S. Policy in Iraq as follows:

The war in Iraq is not going as advertised. It is a policy wrapped in illusion The American public is way ahead of us . . it is time for a change. Our military is suffering. The future of our country is at risk . . . It is evident that continued military action in Iraq is not in the best interests of the United States, the Iraqi people or the Persian Gulf region.

Murtha is no liberal, which makes his turn against the war all the more significant. Many long-time observers of military affairs believe that Murtha was stating positions that he had heard from enlisted personnel and military officers, who by virtue of their positions in the armed forces are not allowed to express their opinions on the war. As he put it in the close of his speech, "Because we in Congress are charged with sending our sons and daughters into battle, we have the responsibility, the OBLIGATION, to speak for them."

One of Murtha's biggest motivations for speaking out has been the lives lost and shattered by the war in Iraq. As he noted, at the time of his speech there were over 2,079 American deaths in Iraq, over 15,500 seriously wounded and over 50,000 suffering from battle fatigue (often referred to in technical parlance as post-traumatic stress disorder). He also expressed concern that "the future of our military is at risk," and that spending on "procurement programs that ensure our military dominance" will be threatened if the war is allowed to drag on. At this rate, maybe even Lockheed Martin will be forced to come out against the war (not likely, but one can hope!).

A more likely scenario is that the major contractors will do everything they can to protect their interests, even if it comes at the expense of troops in the field. In a December 5th story in the Wall Street Journal entitled "Pentagon Weighs Personnel Cuts to Pay for Weapons," authors Jonathan Karp, Andy Pasztor and Greg Jaffe made note of a private dinner between Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England and representatives of key defense contractors in which this approach was presumably discussed. England himself is a former top executive at General Dynamics, a major contractor involved in building tanks, submarines, and various types of missiles for the Pentagon. At a time when U.S. troops are overwhelmed in Iraq and basic supplies like body armor and well-armored vehicles are still in short supply, this power grab by the contractors and their allies in the Pentagon is particularly ill-timed, to put it mildly.

In the mean time the economic costs of the war are mounting rapidly. The Congressional Research Service has estimated that the war has cost $250 billion to date, with costs mounting at over $6 billion per month. By comparison, a comprehensive program to secure or destroy loose nuclear weapons and bomb-making materials in Russia would cost about $3 billion per year * the cost of two weeks of fighting in Iraq. And since Russia is by far the largest potential source for terrorists seeking nuclear weapons or nuclear materials, this $3 billion per year would go a long way towards keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists. You may remember that preempting "the smoking gun that may become a mushroom cloud" was one of the Bush administration's original public rationales for going into Iraq. Now that all relevant experts agree that Iraq had no active nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons when U.S. forces invaded the country, it makes eminent sense to pull out of Iraq while putting resources into preventing real threats of nuclear proliferation.

The relevant debate now is over how to pull out, not whether to do so. But the Bush administration's rhetoric on this score needs to be carefully scrutinized. In his "Victory in Iraq" speech on November 30th, the president talked about re-deploying U.S. Troops out of Iraqi cities and using them for more specialized anti-terror missions. It is widely believed that there will be some kind of troop reduction before the mid-term Congressional elections in November 2006, but the question is how large. If the administration were to reduce the U.S. troop presence in Iraq by 23,000, from 160,000 to 137,000, levels would simply be back before U.S. forces were bulked up in anticipation of the December 15th elections. Other numbers discussed have U.S. troop levels going to as low as 100,000 by next fall. But whatever the number ends up being, a "drawdown" or "redeployment" is not the same as a withdrawal.

As David Sanger of the New York Times pointed out in a story that ran on December 1st, the day after the "victory" speech, "he [President Bush] said that while the strategy was intended to help Iraqis take the lead in the fight within their country, his hope was that they would do so without 'major' foreign assistance. That suggested some form of continuing American presence." Sanger further noted that while Bush didn't say how long that continuing presence might last, "some of his aides point to South Korea, the Balkans and other places where some American presence remains years after the conflict." Given these points, the article's title, "Bush Gives Plan for Iraq Victory and Withdrawal," is somewhat misleading.

Congress is slowly -- very slowly -- coming around to the notion that U.S. troops should be withdrawn. In mid-November, the Senate passed a resolution calling for a "phased re-deployment of United States forces from Iraq." Senate Minority leader Harry Reid (D-NV) asserted that the vote meant that "Democrats and Republicans acknowledged that staying the course is not the way to go. Therefore, this is a vote of no confidence on the Bush administration policy in Iraq." This is certainly an exaggeration, given that the resolution suggested no timeline for withdrawal and represented only a "sense of the Senate," not a binding resolution. While noting that the vote fell "far short of laying the foundation for a successful exit strategy," analyst Erik Leaver of Foreign Policy in Focus noted that "For the first time since giving the Bush administration authorization to go to war three years ago, the Senate engaged in a debate over Iraq policy. And while the demands of the peace movement to bring the troops home now were not met, Democrats were united in setting forth an exit strategy that Republicans were forced to accept."

Whether voters will get a clear choice on Iraq policy in the November 2006 Congressional elections remains to be seen. When House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) endorsed Rep. Murtha's withdrawal plan, there was considerable push back by some members of the Democratic Caucus arguing that the party would not be well-served by such a stance in the upcoming elections. At this point it appears that some Democrats (and some Republicans like Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC) will take a clear position on withdrawal, while others will limit themselves to criticizing the Bush administration's mishandling of the conflict.

That brings us to this week's parliamentary elections in Iraq. Even President Bush has acknowledged that the election is unlikely to reduce the violence there. There are a number of indicators that suggest that the violence could even increase. The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the party that is predicted to get the most votes, has been in charge of the Interior ministry, which has been involved in torturing at least 126 Sunni prisoners. As inspections are carried out at hundreds of other Interior ministry sites throughout Iraq, that number is likely to increase dramatically. Shiite death squads integrated into the Iraqi police have been implicated in assassinations of Sunnis (John F. Burns, "To Halt Abuses, U.S. Will Inspect Jails Run by Iraq," New York Times, December 14, 2005). In the southern city of Basra, the leading Sunni party has created an atmosphere of intimidation that has made representatives of other parties afraid to campaign in the streets. Earlier this week, the secular alliance led by former interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi was attacked with rocket-propelled grenades. This recent record of anti-Sunni torture and violence does not bode well for the creation of a stable government after the elections. Meanwhile, Rep. Murtha has noted that over 80 percent of Iraqis want U.S. troops to leave, while 45 percent believe that attacks on American occupying forces are justified.

William D. Hartung is the Director of the Arms Trade Resource Center at the World Policy Institute (


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