A Response to Critics

Kale Baldock

DAVID FINKEL’S COMMENTS (ATC 122) about my book Is Iraq Another Vietnam?,
and about my position against immediately withdrawing the US
military from Iraq,
were well-informed and fair. So were the judgments of Gilbert Achcar in his
interview with Susan Weissman, though his focus was on the withdrawal issue
in general and not on my essay specifically. Likewise, Michael Schwartz’s
current ATC response reflects an impressive familiarity with Iraq
and the Middle East, and his critique of my analysis
is well-taken.

All these commentators share a genuine desire to see the best outcome for
the people of Iraq
amid the current crisis.

None agrees with my position that the U.S. military presence in Iraq is keeping a lid on all-out civil war, and
that a strategy of negotiations with insurgent groups toward cease-fire and
amnesty offers a logical next step to resolving the conflict. David Finkel
graciously accepts these differences and pleads for “a spirit of inclusion
and mutual respect” among those of us who all stand aghast at the Bush administration’s
stupid, arrogant, misguided venture in Iraq.

However, I think the judgment of whether this war was right or wrong has
been superseded by the more pressing concerns of how to get U.S. forces home,
without sacrificing the stability of Iraq in the process. Certainly, we should
continue to tell the truth about the distortions and lies which created this
disaster. That it was wrong (or at least a mistake) to launch the war in
the first place has become evident to the majority of Americans. But now we
are faced with a moral dilemma, the qualities of which have become, beyond
our wishes, unexpectedly complex.

The question now is: In the face of a crisis which threatens the future of
an entire nation that has unwillingly fallen hostage to American neoconservative
insanity, should we uncritically allow our emotional response to override
our reason?

After the Shiite Golden Dome mosque was blown up last February, the inter-sectarian
war escalated tremendously — not attacks on U.S. forces. Referring to an article
in the Los Angeles Times, the May 8 edition of Democracy Now! radio
reported that

“(A)t least 4,100 civilians were killed in Baghdad
during the first three months of the year. Many of the dead were found hog-tied
and shot execution style. Many bore signs of torture such as bruises, drill
holes, burn marks, gouged eyes or severed limbs. Execution-style killings
are now claiming nine times more lives than car bombings.”

Is it reasonable to conclude that the presence of U.S. forces is “causing”
this inter-sectarian bloodbath, and that it would just go away if the occupation
just went away?

Michael Schwartz makes a very good point that Washington has to some degree been pitting Sunnis
and Shiites against one another. (This despicable tactic is endorsed by esteemed
theorists of our elite political think-tanks.) He contends that “If the U.S.
were to leave, most (but not all) of the provocation generating the violence
would dissolve. If the U.S.
stays long enough, the hatred may be self-sustaining.”

I believe the hatred has already become self-sustaining. So does journalist
Nir Rosen, who in the winter of 2005 argued that if U.S. forces left Iraq, the motivation for insurgent violence would
collapse. Most recently, however, he dourly informed his national television
audience that he holds out no hope whatsoever for the insurgent forces in
to step back from the brink of an all-out civil war.

I freely admit, the most we can hope for from a well-intentioned but poorly
prepared (and consistently lied to) American military force in Iraq is to
provide a barely adequate lid on the bubbling strife which threatens to engulf
that beleaguered nation — and perhaps the region.

Another question: How can one interpret the suicide bombings against Iraqi
civilian as being “aimed at” U.S. forces? Only indirectly, for such acts are
geared to give Iraqis the impression that coalition forces can’t protect them,
and that they would be better off with them gone. Those who commit such acts
— by most accounts foreigners (though Schwartz adds that Sunnis are often
targeting Shiites) — obviously consider Iraqi lives as cheap sacrifices to
some other motive.

Dynamics of Rage

I think these are signs that a complex dynamic of rage and reaction are afoot
in Iraq,
not simply focused on the foreign occupation, and won’t likely be resolved
by that occupation’s prompt exit. So far, the civil war is largely taking
place surreptitiously, underground, through raids on buses, kidnappings and
the like, not openly in the streets. I believe that situation would quickly
change in the absence of the imperfect security apparatus now in place.

Finkel suggested that “No antiwar movement ever won by demanding pseudo-realist
‘intense negotiations for national unity’ or nostrums of that sort.” And if
the goal is simply to get the U.S.
out of Iraq,
then the straight-line “Out Now!” approach is the obvious answer. But shouldn’t
we also be asking some more nuanced questions, like what — or even if — the
antiwar movement and the Left in general will “win” if withdrawal doesn’t
work? Shouldn’t we be considering the Left’s own liability as a political

If indeed a U.S. withdrawal
does precipitate a cataclysm in Iraq,
the Washington spin-meisters with
total access to the mass media will almost certainly paint the antiwar movement
as the guilty party. In that case, our credibility will suffer and our struggle
to confront power will be severely set back.

True, if we support the prolonged presence of U.S. forces in Iraq and some type
of normalcy is achieved, the Bushites may be vindicated and the Left still
hung out to dry. The difference: thousands of more innocent Iraqi lives will
have been saved.

I realize that many readers will probably consider my judgments paternalistic,
detached, or worse. I often question myself as well, particularly in light
of polls showing 80% of Iraqis in favor of withdrawal, and 72% of U.S.
troops wishing to be home by the end of the year. I understand that both of
those parties, victimized by U.S.
governmental power, are exhausted, desperate and sick of the whole thing.

They just want it all to end; and I would likely echo their opinions if in
their shoes. But we should also keep in mind that desperate people often make
irrational choices. Who can blame them? Yet, isn’t it also the responsibility
of those who have the luxury of security to put their minds to work in the
spirit of well-intentioned reason — doing so in the service of what they think
will most likely benefit the victims of this tragedy?

Of course, if a unified Iraqi government demands the exit of foreign forces,
then exit they must. Hopefully it will speak with enough authority and cohesion
to merit the respect of the various insurgent groups who are currently putting
on a fast-track to national suicide.

It may be utterly naaive for me to demand that the U.S. change course in Iraq, and become focused on peace-making rather
than body counts. Washington’s war machine never managed
to do so in Vietnam. Why now? After all, the latest news from
our most recent international foray is nothing but more bleakness reflecting,
in Robert Bly’s words, “the insanity of empire.”

In the end, we’re all striving for the same basic goals, whether or not we
agree in our conclusions. I think that the complexity of the situation demands
we recognize our own opinions to be, necessarily, incomplete and to varying
degrees inaccurate. Nevertheless, let’s keep on responding, each in own way,
to the current conflict as we believe best serves all involved — especially,
of course, the Iraqis, whose predicament is the outcome of criminal statecraft
practiced by butchers in Baghdad and Washington alike.

ATC 123, July-August 2006