War(s) With No Exit

Against the Current, No. 136, September/October 2008

The Editors

THE RAGING DEBATE on “war policy” between the corporate presidential campaigns has come down to this:

* John McCain says the “surge” in Iraq has succeeded, that victory is in sight by the end of his first term (2013). In addition more U.S. troops will be rapidly sent into Afghanistan; NATO allies need to be pressured into committing themselves to the same.

* Barack Obama says he can get “most” U.S. troops out of Iraq within his first 16 months (2010), enabling them to rapidly shift to Afghanistan while putting more pressure on NATO…you get the idea.

We’re not exactly shocked that the two capitalist candidates have pretty much converged around a policy that New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman (July 23, 2008) calls “McBama,” by which means he means “stick to a clear withdrawal timetable — post-surge Iraqi and American politics will tolerate nothing else — but leave yourself some wiggle room if things keep getting better, but not exactly on schedule.”

We’d like to offer a slightly less elegant but more descriptive term, “McBamoccupation:” a bipartisan perspective of “normalizing” the occupation of Iraq so that it recedes into the background noise of U.S. politics, keeping the war going as long as necessary. That’s what’s meant by “wiggle room,” just in case “improvement” proceeds a little slower than expected. If there’s a surprise, perhaps, it’s the sheer speed with which the Democratic presidential candidate has shed any pretense of responding to the wishes of his voting base to get out of Iraq right now, if not yesterday. (Elsewhere in this issue of Against the Current, Allen Ruff looks at Barack Obama’s global outlook and policies and Malik Miah explores the racial dimensions of the presidential election.)

We suspect that the Obama-Biden campaign’s immediate purpose — and we think it will mostly succeed — is to remove the Iraq war from any kind of debate inside the Democratic convention. At the nominating festival, underway as we go to press, antiwar voices are strictly disciplined to stay “on message,” to denounce the “blunders” of G.W. Bush and put no pressure on Obama for rapid withdrawal. Outside the convention, protesters were supposed to remain penned up in a “Freedom Cage,” separated from the convention center parking lot by concrete barriers topped by metal fences. Demonstrators refused to comply.

Meanwhile, on the Republican side John McCain will campaign on his record of being supposedly “correct about the surge,” the influx of extra U.S. troops that allegedly turned the tide of the war toward victory. The rhetorical fury of the pseudo-debate will disguise the relative closeness of the two parties’ actual policies. But there’s a small detail that’s destined to blow apart either the Obama or McCain variant of normalizing the occupation: the reality of Iraq. Despite an elite consensus that runs from John McCain to most of the liberal punditocracy, it’s not “the surge” that brought some semblance of “stability” to Iraq — and what “stability” exists is incredibly fragile.

The facts are expertly reviewed by Juan Cole in his blog (“A Social History of the Surge,” www.juancole.org, July 24, 2008). In the first place, much of the decrease in violence in Baghdad is simply because there are very few mixed Sunni-Shia neighborhoods left: “(T)he escalation troops began by disarming the Sunni Arabs in Baghdad. Once these Sunnis were left helpless, the Shiite militias came in at night and ethnically cleansed them…My thesis would be that the U.S. inadvertently allowed the chasing of hundreds of thousands of Sunni Arabs out of Baghdad (and many of them had to go all the way to Syria for refuge).”

Secondly, in Anbar province “the bribing of former Sunni guerrillas to join the U.S.-sponsored Awakening Councils had a big calming effect. This technique could have been used much earlier than 2006, indeed, could have been deployed from 2003, and might have forestalled large numbers of deaths…The technique was independent of the troop escalation. Indeed, it depended on there not being much of a troop escalation in that province [which] would have stirred up and reinforced the guerrilla movement.”

Third, regarding Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army: “Since the U.S. had inadvertently enabled the transformation of Baghdad into a largely Shiite city, a prime aim of the Mahdi Army, they could afford to stand down. Moreover, they were being beaten militarily by the Badr Corps militia of the pro-Iranian Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and by Iraqi security forces in Karbala, Diwaniyeh and elsewhere.”

Furthermore, even the “reduced” level of violence in Iraq remains double the monthly death toll in Sri Lanka and comparable to that in Somalia. And finally, given that “(s)ecurity in Iraq is demonstrably improved, for whatever reason, and the Iraqis want the U.S. out…what is the rationale for keeping U.S. troops in Iraq?”

Cole concludes that relative improvements in Iraq followed, but were not brought about by, the U.S. “surge.” In any case, “(t)here has been very little reconciliation between Sunni and Shiite,” with the provincial election in the explosively contested Kirkuk Province on hold, and prime minister al-Maliki’s government coalition in disrepair and his own Islamic Mission Party split.

All this is reflected in the Iraqi parliament’s failure to adopt the draft electoral law before its August adjournment. Meanwhile, U.S. politicians like “liberal” Democratic Senator Carl Levin say that Iraq should “cut a check” to the United States to pay back reconstruction aid, now that Iraqi oil is flowing and bringing in big profits. Back in the real world, a truly independent Iraqi government would be handing Washington not a check, but a bill — for hundreds of billions in reparations for destroying the country.

It is tragic that the declining visibility of the antiwar movement has enabled the Bush regime and the media to put across the fiction that a declining rate of U.S. troop deaths means that this criminal war is being “won” at last. The hideous costs that it will continue to inflict on our own society, for decades to come, are also being obscured by concerns over immediate economic issues — from the price of gasoline and heating oil to unemployment, the housing market and the financial crisis. But none of the causes of these enormous problems can be addressed while the United States — and ever successive administrations — remains committed to ruling the world.

In short, a “McBama” scenario of keeping U.S. troops in place “until Iraq achieves reconciliation and stability” is a probable formula for open-ended “McBamoccupation.” For an Obama presidency in particular, as another expert observer Thomas Powers (in the New York Review of Books) has pointed out, the new president would either have to decisively initiate a withdrawal process within a few short months of taking office, or else would “own” the war and be unable to risk responsibility for “losing” it. Barack Obama is leaving little doubt about the choice he has already made.

But whatever differences McCain and Obama continue to hold over a “timetable” for escaping the quagmire of Iraq, they seem entirely unified in sinking into the quicksand of Afghanistan. As aptly stated in a “CODEPINK Action” bulletin (“Afghanistan: Obama is dead wrong,” codepink@mail.democracyinaction.org, July 25, 2008):

“(U)nlike Barack Obama, we don’t want to see our troops removed from ‘the bad war’ in Iraq only to be sent to fight ‘the good war’ in Afghanistan… (I)nnocent Afghans continue to be killed by our troops, more U.S. soldiers are now dying in Afghanistan than in Iraq, the Taliban are gaining new strength, opium production has soared, and Osama bin Laden has not been found. The Afghan people continue to be among the poorest in the world, women continue to be oppressed, and the U.S. government reneged on its promise of a ‘Marshall Plan’ to rebuild Afghanistan …more troops will only mean more violence, more suffering, more killing of innocents, and more recruits for the Taliban.”

Far from any “Marshall Plan,” the U.S./NATO “counterinsurgency” strategy amounts, at best, to the equivalent of “fighting” a fire with a mixture of 50% water and 50% gasoline. This is all the more true since U.S. aid to Pakistan’s military goes partly to its arms race with India, partly to fighting Pakistan’s own Islamist insurgents, and partly to the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) which supports and subsidizes the Afghan Taliban and their allies inside Pakistan.

We don’t claim to have an instant formula for solving Afghanistan’s ruinous cycle of civil war and foreign intervention, but any serious discussion has to begin with this: Stop funding it. That means ending U.S. military aid to Pakistan, which is probably the Taliban’s second biggest funding source (only behind the opium trade).

Barack Obama’s and the Democrats’ argument against the Bush administration is that its Iraq obsession “diverted resources from the war on terror” in Afghanistan. There’s an element of truth in the charge, but it overlooks what the antiwar movement understood from the beginning: The invasion of Afghanistan wasn’t fundamentally about Afghanistan at all, but a curtain-raiser for a sequence of “regime change” blitzes that would sweep to Iraq and then Iran and Syria. No wonder then that the military and economic resources committed to post-Taliban Afghanistan were woefully “inadequate to finish the job.”

The Democrats went along 100% with the Bush regime’s initial invasion of Afghanistan, leading directly to today’s intractable mess. This is inextricably enmeshed with Pakistan’s deepening political crisis, where the dictator Pervez Musharraf, on whom Bush relied, has been forced out and the government coalition has crumbled. Inside Afghanistan, hundreds of civilian deaths from U.S. air strikes only strength the Taliban’s support. Part of Obama’s appeal to U.S. elites, including the military, is the hope that a fresh, untainted new administration might exert more leverage on reluctant allies to commit their own forces to this hopeless effort. That’s no excuse for the progressive movement to fall for it.

Rebuild the Movement!

There are certainly forces who aren’t falling for it. More than 500 delegates to the July 12 Green Party convention, who gathered in Chicago to nominate Cynthia McKinney and Rosa Clemente for president and vice-president, were clear on the question of rejecting the two war parties. Supporters of Ralph Nader/Matt Gonzalez’s independent presidential campaign are clear about it.

Four hundred activists who gathered in Cleveland on the weekend of June 21-22 for the National Antiwar Assembly understood the need for bringing the antiwar movement back into the streets with the greatest possible urgency, both before the election with activities scheduled for October 11 and as soon as possible afterward with a spring mass mobilization. The turnout in Cleveland exceeded most of the organizers’ expectations and represents some possibility for a new antiwar “surge,” although the limitations of the movement in its currently organized form remain. The conference also voted to link withdrawal from Afghanistan to the “Out of Iraq” demand, and for a strong statement of support for an international campaign against Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.

The tasks of rebuilding a mass antiwar movement that makes a real difference are daunting. As important as we believe the Green and independent presidential campaigns are — and we see the McKinney/Clemente campaign particularly as representing the potential for forging a party with principled grassroots politics and People of Color leadership — the votes for McKinney and Nader combined will be less than one-tenth of the real antiwar sentiment in the country. By far most voters who loathe the war will cast ballots for Barack Obama, a far-from-antiwar candidate of a mainstream party of imperialism.

Those antiwar Obama voters weren’t present at the Cleveland conference either, as of course they weren’t expected to be. Those who see Obama as the hope for ending the carnage in Iraq and the whole Bush nightmare have their own priorities — above all, getting out the vote in November. It will be important to convince those Obama activists, first, that Obama by himself couldn’t end the war, without an organized mass antiwar movement in the streets, no matter how much he might want to. Then, if perhaps slowly at first, may come the realization that he has no intention to do so.

One point absolutely essential in the current electoral period and immediately afterward is this: The parties of capitalism and war can’t be allowed to get away with squabbling over how long to stay in Iraq, Afghanistan and Central Asia, as if the United States had any right to go there in the first place. Occupation cannot and must not be “normalized.”

ATC 136, September-October 2008