The Case for Staying in Iraq

Against the Current, No. 122, May/June 2006

Kale Baldock

I DON’T SUPPORT an immediate U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, because I think it would probably make an already bad situation much worse.  Of course, there’s no guarantee that continuing the occupation will succeed in allowing some form of stability to take hold—particularly if our military forces simply “stay the course” of brutality evidenced in Fallujah, Abu Ghraib, and the training of Iraqi death squads.  However, I believe it offers the best chance for the chaotic forces now at work in Iraq to settle, over time, into some type of a coherent nation.

Such a view does not discount the lies and criminality of the Bush Administration, which is of course the party responsible for the disaster in Iraq.  But to make the crimes of the American executive the point of departure for current and future policy in Iraq is to lose track of the reality on the ground as it promises to affect the Iraqi people themselves.  In that regard, it strikes me that many in the current anti-war camp are tempted into a knee-jerk identification with the Vietnam-era anti-war movement.

As I describe in my book Is Iraq Another Vietnam?  there are similarities between the Vietnam and Iraq Wars, but also important differences.  One of the key differences is that Vietnam had been engaged in a struggle for national liberation against France’s colonial occupation decades before significant American involvement began.  That struggle produced a popular, viable political movement instigated by the revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh, who became president of North Vietnam.

After the war with the French ended, Vietnam was scheduled to hold nation-unifying elections in 1956, which the U.S.’s South Vietnamese puppet president Ngo Dinh Diem canceled when it became obvious that Ho Chi Minh would win in a landslide.  But that didn’t stop the popular movement in the South, which grew into the guerrilla army of the National Liberation Front, better known as the Vietcong.

Well-organized, highly motivated, and increasingly well-supplied by the North, those forces held out against overwhelming American firepower and technological superiority until American forces withdrew.  In that setting, America’s antiwar movement was perfectly correct in demanding an immediate withdrawal from Vietnam, where our government’s ruthless aggression pointlessly killed millions and destroyed much of the country.  (Moreover, a number of leading anti-Vietnam War activists are currently cautioning against immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, recognizing the key differences between the two situations.)

Fractured Iraq

By contrast, Iraq is a socio-political basket case, with a democratically-elected but ineffectual government and a hopelessly fractured insurgency that lacks any common focus beyond wanting the Americans to leave.

Iraq was dominated by its Sunni Muslim minority from the time of the Ottoman invasion in the 17th century up through Saddam Hussein’s brutal reign.  Indeed, only ongoing institutionalized repression could keep simmering Shi’ite Muslim resentment at bay. Hundreds of years of discrimination, imprisonment, torture and mass murder are not easily forgotten, especially amidst the turmoil of American sanctions and wars that have torn Iraq’s social fabric to shreds.  (Add to this a large Kurdish minority, and various others, whose fates were similar.)

On the flip-side are the Sunnis, who are angry at losing their dominant status and fearful of the Shi’ite majority’s potential reprisals.  These various social-ethnic-religious forces threaten to overwhelm Iraq if left unchecked.

Most of those who are calling for a U.S. withdrawal point out that the occupation is fueling the Iraqi insurgency.  They are correct.  But what gets lost in this view is that the occupation is simultaneously holding an all-out civil war in check.

Proponents of withdrawal also often claim that a civil war is already going on. And again, they are correct.  Nir Rosen’s article in the December 2005 Atlantic, which focuses on this fact and the idea that the occupation is inciting the insurgency, is an authoritative example of this argumentative line.  But what I would urge those holding such opinions to consider is the degree to which what is happening now compares to what would likely happen if the mediocre framework of security now in place were to dissolve.

Twenty or thirty bodies of tortured and executed Sunnis or Shi’ites turning up in a ditch every few days is horrible enough.  But the thousands upon thousands of dead that would quickly mount from an all-out civil war, and the concomitant destruction of what’s left of Iraq’s physical and cultural reality, would make the current level of violence pale in comparison.  Nir Rosen contends that no such conflict would break out if the current occupation ended, a claim of which I am skeptical.

Regional War

Beyond those concerns, let’s consider Iraq in the wider context of the Middle East.  A civil war in Iraq will likely prompt surrounding countries to militarily aid their respective Sunni and Shi’ite brethren, exacerbating the long-standing Sunni/Shi’ite rift in the Muslim world.  The various dynamics of opposition also include Arabs vs. Persians (Iranians), fundamentalist Muslims vs. governments friendly with the West, and so on in an unpredictable set of potentials for chaos.

Dilip Hiro addresses this in his book Secrets and Lies: Operation “Iraqi Freedom” and After:

“Currently, the presence of an alien occupation force and the desire to get rid of it is providing Iraqis of diverse political hues with a common objective.  Once that state ends, the deep-seated ethnic and sectarian differences and rivalries are likely to come to the fore, paving the way for a likely civil war, which will suck in all six of Iraq’s neighbors.”

We know that Muslim fundamentalists have often been inspired by foreign examples, as when Iran’s 1979 revolution provided the incentive for “the worst of the worst” to emerge from the periphery of Muslim societies and step into the role of “freedom fighters” against the Soviets in Afghanistan—the whole thing a CIA operation aimed at re-establishing U.S. control over the region.  Likewise, they are responding in high numbers to serve in Iraq, where they make up the bulk of suicide bombers, who are so effective at indiscriminately killing anyone they choose, especially innocent civilians.  In light of this very real potential for chaos, we should consider Dilip Hiro’s description of

“the scenario most feared by the U.S. policy makers: Iraq, possessing the world’s second-largest oil reserves, consumed by a civil strife, that would suck in all its six immediate neighbors, three of them oil-rich, and have a devastating effect on oil prices.  The last major civil war in the region was in Lebanon, which does not have oil; it lasted more than fifteen years … and consumed 150,000 lives….  [I]t sucked in not only neighboring Israel and Syria, but also Egypt, Iraq, Libya, France, the United States, Britain, and Italy.”

Thus, what if, in the ensuing mayhem of Iraq, extremists in Saudi Arabia attracted enough popular support to overthrow the despised royal family?  Our initial sense of satisfaction might quickly turn to fright as the world economy ground to a halt without its precious petroleum fix.”

And how long, do you suppose, it would take the Hindu nation of India to preemptively strike its neighboring Muslim enemy Pakistan with nuclear weapons if fundamentalists there finally succeeded in overthrowing Pakistan’s secular government and got their hands on nukes?

These scenarios may seem far-fetched and alarmist.  However, I would suggest that the Middle East is a more volatile place today than it was before the current Iraq War, and indeed before the previous two decades of increasingly direct American involvement there in pursuit of controlling the region’s oil supplies.

Ironically, the Iraq War is so far the U.S.’s most successful venture in fueling the terrorism it claims to be fighting in the Middle East.  More numerous than ever, those who opt for tactics of terror are the likely catalyst in setting off wider conflicts in the region, not to mention beyond.  In this vein, even the stodgy ruling class organ Foreign Affairs recently allowed Peter Bergen and Alec Reynolds the space to observe that “the Iraq war has expanded the terrorists’ ranks: the year 2003 saw the highest incidence of significant terrorist attacks in two decades, and then, in 2004, astonishingly, that number tripled.”

Likewise, Roger Spiller, professor emeritus of military history at the Army Command General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, recently told The Kansas City Star, “I’m simply worried about the degree to which this [Iraqi] insurgency can turn into a global insurgency….  You have the Philippines.  You have Indonesia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran.”

Toward Stability and Amnesty

In 2006, we can expect a bevy of politicians running for re-election to call for withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq.  Of course, most will have voted for the war, and only now that their own measly political skins are at stake will they pretend to do penance for their initial irresponsibility.

True opponents of wars for oil should stand above the convenient posturing of such self-serving hacks and insist that the U.S. do its utmost to secure some form of stability in Iraq.  In my opinion, this effort would revolve around an attempt to achieve a general cease-fire based on amnesty for all combatants.  However repugnant, even the murderers of children would be included.  Let us not forget that gruesome circumstances in South Africa, Rwanda and Northern Ireland have been successfully mitigated by similar approaches.

In Is Iraq Another Vietnam?  I posited that “As long as the current [U.S.] military force remains in Iraq, prospects for peace there, and for stability in the Middle East generally, are questionable.”  But I directly followed up that statement by insisting:

A U.S. withdrawal must be backed up with intense negotiations by all Iraqi parties and factions.  Unconditional cease-fire and amnesty should be the goals.  A coalition of world powers should be involved, to save the process from the taint of appearing to be a purely American project imposed on Iraq Since then, no such international effort at broad-based negotiations has emerged.  In fact, most of the world is keeping its distance, leaving the U.S. to deal with Iraq’s quagmire in the same “go it alone” fashion it pursued in opting for war. Alas, if that’s where we’re at, it’s where we must start over from.  For all the reasons cited above, I maintain that it is best not to let our desire to see the Bush Administration defeated and humiliated overcome our concern for the fate of the Iraqi people.  If I thought they were best served by leaving them to their fate within the turmoil created from outside, I too would demand that the U.S. quit Iraq, and fast.  But like it or not, support the war or not, we have as a nation inherited the consequences of our leaders’ actions If we on the Left are forced to practice our own version of realpolitik, and in doing so find ourselves ironically supporting the desperate attempts of a criminal leadership to salvage the remnants of a terrible mistake, let us not lose sight of those whose futures are most directly on the line in this ongoing tragedy: the people of Iraq.

Kale Baldock is the author of Is Iraq Another Vietnam? available at  He lives in Kansas City, Missouri.

ATC 122, May-June 2006