Saturday, November 24, 2007

Still in Iraq...

The Primary Point of the Occupation of Iraq is the Occupation Itself

By Joshua Holland, AlterNet
Posted on November 23, 2007, Printed on November 24, 2007

Over in Iraq special coverage, I'm running a piece by Jeffrey Feldman, who argues that we're about to see a monumental shift in the discourse around Iraq. Here's the nut of it:

The change can be summed up in 4 simple words:

troops leave, violence drops

As the deafening hubbub of propaganda drowns out every attempt to talk real policy change on Iraq, this simple descriptive formula--troops leave, violence drops--cuts through it all…

The British pullout from Basra, and the subsequent logic of violence dropping as a result of that pullout, will change the debate again by reimposing a simple logic of up and down, in and out.

The up-and-down-in-and-out logic of this description is more powerful than any protest argument about the war to date, and has an almost unlimited potential to sweep through both the broadcast media and face-to-face conversations that make up American political debate.

He's got much more to say, so be sure to read the whole thing.

I don't mean to single out Jeffrey Feldman here -- he's a good guy, and a contributor to AlterNet from time to time -- but I want to highlight the piece because it's such a good example of the kind of perfectly rationalist analysis that dominates in progressive America. There's a persistent belief that if opponents of the occupation could only win the "debate" over Iraq on the merits, then a U.S. withdrawal will somehow follow.

There are a number of problems with this idea, not least of which is the fact that to a very significant degree we've already won the debate -- majorities of Americans now say that it is no longer possible for the U.S. to "win" in Iraq (whatever that means) and favor a timetable for pulling troops out -- but the public's views have so far had only minimal impact on the foreign policy elite.

But more than that, the commonly-held rationalist analysis denies a crucially important reality: that for various (and differing) reasons, a significant portion of Washington's strategic class is determined to maintain a "soft" occupation of Iraq for a long time to come, and that means that regardless of how soundly opponents of the occupation thrash whatever the argument du jour for keeping troops in the country may be, there will always be a new and pressing need to maintain U.S. forces in the country. The goalposts will always be perfectly mobile, and they'll keep shifting until something changes structurally.

The point of the occupation, at this point, is the occupation itself, and I'm not sure why so many people fail to see that. After all, the U.S.-led "coalition" could, reasonably, claim to have successfully:

  • Guaranteed that Iraq does not possess stockpiles of illicit weapons, including those which Donald Rumsfeld said were known to be "in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, south and north somewhat"
  • Deposed the evil dictator (the one we helped to power and supported for three decades), and killed his devil-spawn sons

Yet after both of those previous rationales for keeping U.S. boots on the ground evaporated, there was no widespread call for declaring victory and pulling out. Instead, U.S. forces became necessary to A) keep Iraqis from slaughtering one another wholesale, and, later, B) to keep "al Qaeda in Iraq" in check. Both arguments were, in my view, ridiculous on their face -- "unembedded" journalist Dahr Jamail addressed the first one best when he said: "The bogus idea that if the U.S. leaves things will worsen is both inherently racist and ignorant," and Raed Jarrar and I have argued that only the occupation itself has allowed al Qaeda in Iraq to operate -- but they were accepted by the media and political establishments as legitimate rationales in their time.

And the dance continues to this day. Last month, the military declared that it had defeated al Qaeda in Iraq, yet no new calls for withdrawal followed the announcement.

And just as the disappearance of one excuse for staying in Iraq has had zero impact on the discourse, there's no reason to expect, that a drop in the levels of violence in Iraq is likely to cause a shift in the national debate. Consider for a moment how the decrease is being framed in the traditional media. The following, from Matt Frei of the BBC's Washington bureau, is typical of the narrative emerging this week:

Compared to the beginning of the year, attacks against Iraqi civilians have declined by 55% in the country as a whole and by 75% in Baghdad, according to US military figures confirmed by the UN…

Military commanders on the ground are very careful not to crow about the successes. Nor is the White House doing so. They are hoping that the facts will eventually speak for themselves.

The idea of the White House allowing anything resembling the facts to "speak for themselves" is preposterous -- we're talking about the same administration that used a plastic turkey for a Thanksgiving photo-op in Iraq. One can choose to believe that they're not hyping the drop in violence with the same gusto that they've spun past "benchmarks" and "milestones" of "success," as does the BBC's Frei ("In the past, boastful words have turned to dust almost as soon as they were uttered"), but the idea of rhetorical caution among supporters of the occupation is, simply, incongruous with everything we've seen from the war's supporters during the past four years.

The truth is that the drop off in violence poses a serious messaging problem for Iraq hawks. In arguing again and again that U.S. troops need to remain in order to keep some portion of the violence in check, they've painted themselves into a rhetorical corner. The situation is now ripe for someone in Congress, perhaps one of the presidential candidates, to declare victory in Iraq and call for the troops to come home. That would be a very appealing message for an American public that doesn't approve of the war but is also averse to losing.

If the drop in violence persists -- history suggests that absent a broader and widely accepted political settlement it won't -- the next justification for maintaining forty or fifty thousand troops in Iraq will be to check the creation of a "Shiite Crescent" in the region, led by Iran. That new rationale will be linked, but somewhat independent of any charge of Iranian "meddling" in Iraq. It will never be fully explained why the American public should give a shit about the emergence of that Shiite Crescent, and most reporters won't even think to ask the question -- it will simply become conventional wisdom.

What our rationalist friends need to understand is that A) the reasons for the invasion still stand today, and B) the concept of not "wasting lives" -- soldiers' lives -- is sufficiently powerful to keep our troops in Iraq for the 50 years that Bush has predicted.

As regular readers know, I think all monocausal explanations for what motivated the U.S. invasion of Iraq miss the mark. In even a nominal democracy, no policy as serious as an unprovoked attack of a defenseless country like Iraq happens with just one constituency pushing for it. And all the various goals that originally motivated different constituencies to push for the attack -- whether it was opening the Iraqi economy to foreign investment, selling the DoD gazillions of dollars in military hardware, securing our energy supply chain, compensating for the loss of military bases in Saudi Arabia, taking out a supposed threat to Israel, etc., -- they're all still as relevant today as they were in 2003. In some cases, even more so.

And the idea that pulling troops out of Iraq -- conceding "defeat" -- would mean that the American blood shed over there was in vain (Iraqi lives don't enter into the equation), is not going to go away while it retains any rhetorical power. Progressives need to grasp the simple fact that we didn't invade Iraq to bring peace or stability or democracy to the Iraqi people -- we invaded to advance what are known, I think euphemistically, as "U.S. interests" -- and we're not staying for any other reason.

Joshua Holland is an editor and senior writer at AlterNet.

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