Five years and counting
As the fifth anniversary of the occupation of Iraq nears, the CN&R invites a diverse group of panelists to discuss how the U.S. can get out of this mess
March 19, 2003; 10:16 p.m. EST; the Oval Office.
“My fellow citizens, at this hour, American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger.”
With those words, George W. Bush turned a threat into reality: Saddam Hussein would be deposed, “weapons of mass murder” neutralized, Iraqis liberated.
Such a campaign, the president advised, “could be longer and more difficult than some predict. And helping Iraqis achieve a united, stable and free country will require our sustained commitment.” Yet, “you can know that our forces will be coming home as soon as their work is done.”
There’d be no turning back: “Now that conflict has come, the only way to limit its duration is to apply decisive force. And I assure you, this will not be a campaign of half measures, and we will accept no outcome but victory ….
“We will pass through this time of peril and carry on the work of peace. We will defend our freedom. We will bring freedom to others and we will prevail.”
March 7, 2008; 4:05 p.m. PST; the CN&R office.
It’s been nearly five years since those bold words and actions transformed the international landscape. As the U.S. military counted its latest fatality, the 3,975th in Iraq, eight Chicoans began discussing what this invasion had wrought and when and how it might end.
There are no easy answers, for this is no simple problem, even if its potential inheritors reduce it to a sound bite. The Democrats may want to bring the troops home, and John McCain may see an occupation lasting a century, but are those really the only choices?
To explore this matter, a panel of people with distinct experiences and expertise gathered at the Chico News & Review office. Four were faculty members from Chico State: Beau Grosscup, an author who teaches international relations and studies terrorism; Tom Imhoff, a philosopher who examines ethics in social/political policy; James Matray, a historian who analyzes U.S. foreign policy since World War II; and Mahan Mirza, a native of Pakistan, new to Chico, who teaches Islam. The others were Sue Hilderbrand of the Chico Peace and Justice Center, Steve Schibsted of Bidwell Presbyterian Church and Army reservist Alexandra Trent, who had spent time in Iraq and was awaiting word on a third tour of duty.
The discussion, moderated by CN&R News Editor Robert Speer, lasted nearly an hour. Opinions varied, but on this all agreed: Come the sixth anniversary, we would still be in Iraq.
Nearly 4,000 American troops have died in Iraq, tens of thousands have been injured, and U.S. military forces are stretched beyond their natural limits. Best estimates are as many as 150,000 Iraqis, most of them civilians, have lost their lives in this conflict. The war has cost us nearly $1 trillion, and analysts are suggesting the eventual cost could be anywhere from $2 trillion to $3 trillion, taking into consideration the lifelong costs of medical care for the returning injured veterans, of which there are hundreds of thousands.
What is an acceptable price to pay going forward? And how will we know we’ve won in Iraq?
Matray: The first thing that has to be decided on is, “What is the definition of victory?” In this case I’m really reminded of Vietnam—might as well get that out there right away. That was the problem in Vietnam from the moment the first troops landed: the difficulty in defining victory. So that’s the question I would want to have some definition of first before trying to answer how much we’re willing to pay to achieve that goal.
Schibsted: I would say, “How much can we really afford?” I just think it keeps pointing back to the same mistake we keep making over and over again—we keep overestimating our power. We have to realize we can’t do this on many different fronts.
Matray: The optimism was staggering on the part of the administration in terms of the expectation that not only would we be greeted as liberators, but there’d also be a very short distance between liberation and the establishment of a functional democracy. What made their expectations far more staggering was that, for them, that was just the first step. Iraq was to be the linchpin in a strategy that was going to lead to the democratization of the entire Mideast and with that was going to resolve myriad problems, including the [conflict between] Palestinians and Israelis. It’s really breathtaking when one looks back at the grandiose nature of the administration’s expectations. Now we’re in a situation where democracy at least rhetorically remains the expectation, but it’s very hard for me to see that as a reasonable expectation.
Obama is frankly out to lunch on this question. There’s no way the United States can be out of Iraq in his first year in office and maintain its interests in the region. It would be an invitation to a whole number of very negative consequences. I don’t say this lightly, but that decision was made five years ago. We face a very difficult problem.
Grosscup: It seems to me that a victory means understanding what has meant success for the United States in Iraq and the Middle East in general, and that has simply meant installing a strongman to keep the country together and organize the country to benefit U.S. interests and also be a surrogate power in the Middle East for the United States. I think there’s a very strong consensus in the national-security estate, which would include the [presidential] candidates, that a win means re-establishing a strongman to promote and protect U.S. interests regionally and internally.
Matray: You mean someone like Saddam in the 1990s …
Alexandra, you’ve been over there, and you know soldiers who have been there. How do the soldiers conceive of victory in Iraq?
Trent: I don’t think they conceive of victory in Iraq—truly. The soldiers’ perspective is they’re there to do the job until they get home. They don’t foresee a victory, and I’m not sure it’s definable in the eyes of the American military.
Do they sense that their job basically is to keep the lid on the pressure cooker?
Trent: Pretty much. They know that they’re in there to do a job. They know the reasons behind that job aren’t the ones that were told to the American public, but they’re in there doing it the best they can.
What do they think would happen if that lid came off?
Trent: Pandemonium. It’s pretty easy to see that if we pulled out directly, things would be complete chaos.
So do you have any definition of what would be success?
Trent: To me, success would be getting out with a low amount of loss, financially and physically. This is a question I ponder frequently, and, being in the military, it is something I ethically have to deal with a lot. We do have to come up with some kind of plan, but to define it in short spurts and sentences would be impossible for me.
Mirza: One of the things McCain says is honor—that we don’t want to give the appearance of defeat. So I think he’s measuring victory in these terms and these intangibles.
Saving face …
Mirza: Saving face. After 9/11, people in the streets of Iran stood up and said, “We’re all Americans today.” All of that has eroded, to the point that people in Europe and Latin America and Australia have very anti-American sentiments—not against the American citizenry, but against the ideology that has gripped America post-9/11. That has to be reversed.
McCain, he sees that American honor has to be preserved; he’s coming at it from a soldier’s background, with a history of service and duty. I know we look at interests—economic interests, security interests—and that’s also going to be paramount, but the two are going hand in hand.
Trent: Every time you hear of a military blunder, don’t you feel more dishonored to be an American? Honestly? The longer we continue to perpetrate this war, every day it’s a new blunder and a new dishonor for me as an American.
Matray: I think that’s an interesting question. Just as I have mixed emotions about the process of engagement and the impact that will have on the Mideast, I think that’s true of a lot of nations. I don’t see a groundswell of support in the international community for a prompt American withdrawal, because there’s a recognition that the consequences of that are very, very difficult to predict.
I see Iran as the biggest threat to destabilization in the Middle East right now, and that’s because of the invasion of Iraq—it’s changed everything. But it’s hard to know exactly what will happen after we leave. What’s ironic is that’s why Bush’s father didn’t go on to Baghdad in ‘91. You can read [former National Security Adviser] Brent Scowcroft, in a book that he co-authored with [George] H.W. [Bush], describe what a catastrophe that would have been, and that’s precisely what happened.
Saddam was the strongman Beau exactly described. We took him out, and precisely the chaos that was predicted has occurred. Where we go from here is very troubling and problematic.
Schibsted: There aren’t really any good options. The best of poor options is all we really have at this point.
Mirza: If we’re moving to the question of what we should do, I think the United States should look more inward to answer that question than outward. Our focus is always on Iran and Iraq and Syria and Palestine—what they’re doing. But I think there’s a lot that we’ve been doing, and a lot of the history you quote is what they would quote to justify their opposition and hostility toward the United States.
And I think there’s a fundamental contradiction between our belief and appeal for democracy in the region, and at the same time were that democracy to come about and have interests contrary to ours, how we would negotiate with them as equals. We see that happening all over. What happens when Hamas gets elected? What happens in Algeria? So I think this whole idea of wanting to see democracy in the region is a little disingenuous when we confront reality.
Matray: A little? [laughs]
Mirza: So, our way forward is through looking inward—re-evaluating who we are and what our values are, whether we can deal with a changing world in which we can recognize that the resources of the world are to be shared and respect as equals is to be given to nations with whom we don’t agree. That’s going to require a major adjustment of lifestyle and perspective in America that, frankly, I don’t see happening very soon.
If a Democrat gets elected, it will change one fundamental fact: The president will say, “We are leaving.” How long that will take will have to be bargained with the military chiefs and so forth—but saying we are leaving, what effect will that have on the situation in Iraq?
Imhoff: From an ethical point of view, I don’t think you can justify staying in a country that doesn’t want you.
Mirza: I think ethically you can reverse it. We’ve gone in and made this mess, and then we say, “Oh, too bad, you guys just handle it” …
Imhoff: That’s the one way we can’t do it.
Mirza: So ethically we have this issue of “Do we at least have to minimize the pain?” I’m not disagreeing with you necessarily, but that’s the real dilemma. And if history serves us on this question, it’s Afghanistan, because after the 1980s, you had several mujahadin factions in a coalition against the Soviets, and when that war ended, the United States abruptly left. And the real dysfunction that took place was after that.
Imhoff: There’s a really good analogy with Afghanistan. We created the mujahadin, just like we’re creating the Sunni groups and funding the Shia government …
Mirza: But what came afterwards was, in Afghanistan?
Hilderbrand: The Taliban.
Mirza: The Taliban, right. So this is the dilemma the United States faces. I think we could have engaged the Taliban. We had the opportunity.
Matray: It’s a little bit simplistic to say, “We’re going to leave now.” I think Clinton actually has the most intelligent take on the situation in Iraq: She’s calling for a phased withdrawal, and she’s made it very plain that it’s very possible that U.S. troops will never completely leave. I think she’s been the most realistic of the three in terms of the future, most of all emphasizing that we can’t just pick up and leave tomorrow.
Even if Obama gets elected, he’s going to have to back off on his campaign promise, because he’ll get pressure from the military and from the international community saying, “You can’t just pick up stakes and leave.” What’s going to have to be done is see if [the new administration] can sit down and work out an agreed-upon plan for a phased withdrawal and phased transition to a government that actually has widespread support in Iraq. And that’s the rub, because you have three separate groups [the Kurds, the Shia and the Sunni], each with very, very different views of the future. So I think we’re going to have to have a military presence there for a considerable period of time.
Imhoff: I think the Bush administration could legitimately say we’ve won. We’ve got control over the energy resources; we’ve got all these permanent bases there to make sure we’ll have a presence for the foreseeable future. What more do we want? Sure, the Iraqis are killing each other, but that’s not a problem for us.
Matray: I disagree.
But the cost …
Imhoff: What two sectors of the economy are doing really well right now? War profiteers and oil.
Mirza: I think the analogy of the boat works really well. When you have two levels of the deck and the people down below don’t get water, they’re going to dig a hole, and it’s going to bring everybody down. I think the miscalculation is they didn’t realize how serious the [American economic] situation would become …
Imhoff: I don’t think they do now.
Mirza: Well, I think some are beginning to feel it. But just like we say Bush and his corporate cronies lucked out on this one, it’s also a dream come true for al-Qaeda.
Imhoff: Oh, yeah! Of course, in a war on terror, you need an enemy that’s actually worth fighting …
Mirza: Right. But al-Qaeda cannot match America militarily; their strategy is to bleed America to death, a slow-bleeding death, and that’s what they’re doing.
Imhoff: So both sides can claim victory, then. It depends on the fight they want.
Mirza: It is an epic battle. The thing is, when we come back to the question of victory, it is a fight to the death. Without looking inward and making some sort of readjustment of our values and re-evaluating what our interests are, it’s a fight to the death, and it’s not going to end until somebody dies.
Hilderbrand: I think that as a nation we need to recognize we’ve come to the end of the line. We cannot do this anymore. We cannot continue to consume the way that we do, we can’t continue to grow our empire the way that we do. I think we need to start being good allies, honest brokers. If we want to continue fighting, we’re going to go down. If we want to change course, we need a president who gives the opportunity to imagine something different.
Mirza: If only every society would look inward, we’d have a much better world.
Grosscup: I disagree; I don’t think we need to look inward. All we have to do is uphold the principle of national self-determination, which allegedly is the governing principle by which nation-states relate to each other. The fact is if you want the Iraqis to take responsibility, you withdraw and say, “This is your right to choose your own destiny.”
I get confronted on this issue. “Oh, there’ll be chaos.” Well, there is chaos. “There will be a civil war.” Well, there is a civil war, allegedly, under occupation. There are intervening variables, as we political scientists like to say.
Mirza: I follow your point, but I think that gives an air of detachment that is false, because we continue to pull strings all around them. We pull strings in Iran, Saudi Arabia, etc. So the whole region doesn’t really have the ability to self-determine its destiny; we’re giving them very strong constraints within which to operate.
Grosscup: Don’t tell them that, because they think they do.
Matray: You know what’s interesting, Beau, about self-determination—if you think about it for a moment, when the United States went into Iraq, Bush believed he was acting in the name of national self-determination. His belief was that Saddam Hussein was preventing the people of Iraq from deciding their own destiny.
Now, it’s pretty clear that his vision of what they would choose is very different from what they did choose. And there’s another element to it, and that is in order to have national self-determination you have to have a sense of nationhood, and there’s never been a sense of nationhood in Iraq.
What words of advice would you give to the next president, in terms of either solving the problem of Iraq or healing the wounds that have occurred as a result of this invasion and occupation?
Grosscup: Simply to say, “I’m sorry, we’ve been at war on you since 1991, at great suffering of your people. We’re going to leave, and when you get your house in order, we’ll be happy to establish a more constructive relationship. In the meantime, we’re going to look internally, look at how our dependence on oil is destroying us and destroying our economy, and it will be the basis of our relationship.”
Matray: That’s not the advice I’d give. My advice would be to first and foremost establish a perspective that takes into account how the other players in the region view their place in the region, what their interests are and how best to advance those interests.
After doing that, look at the problem in Iraq in a regional context and pursue a foreign policy that assumes the United States is not going to leave, but rather that the United States has interests in the region that it has a right to protect while recognizing the rights of other players in the region. I don’t agree with just picking up and leaving, but that’s not going to happen anyway.
Grosscup: I agree with that.
Mirza: I would say, to advise the next president, shake the grip of corporate power off policy and off the media.
Trent: Look toward the people for support—get people involved and not let our corporate greed sway our principles.
Hilderbrand: And to piggyback on the two of you, I think we need to be honest about how Iraq will be rebuilt. The way the money is flowing is from the government to the American corporations back to Iraq. Of course, the money needs to come from our country, but we need to hire Iraqis and Iraqi corporations.
Mirza: We do hire Iraqis—we pay them $30 a month and our consultants $300 an hour.
Schibsted: What I would want to say to our next president is to call on the American people to sacrifice. We have such huge problems that we’re facing. We’ve been told for years now that we can keep doing the same thing. To have this war with tax cuts? Insane. We’re not feeling the cost of this war, though economically we’re starting to.
Maybe we all haven’t seen the costs, but certainly there are select people who have—people like Alexandra and families of the military.
Schibsted: Part of the problem of this war is there haven’t been as many casualties because of the great medical care that’s on the battlefield.
Trent: There are plenty of amputees.
Grosscup: That’s the point—the deaths haven’t been as many, but the injuries and the lifelong experience with injuries come as a result.
Trent: And the emotional and psychological toll it’s been taking on our troops. People have been going into the region over and over and over again. The repercussions of that are going to play a huge factor in my generation.
Mirza: When we look at what’s happened just to our troops and our society, imagine the impact on generations of Iraqis, Afghanis and Palestinians from the past 20 years. What kind of society will that be?