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Anthony Arnove on the worsening crisis:
Why Bush won't admit failure in Iraq

July 20, 2007 | Pages 4 and 5

ANTHONY ARNOVE is author of Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal, newly re-published with a foreword by Howard Zinn, and an editorial board member of the International Socialist Review. Here, he answers Socialist Worker's questions about conditions in Iraq after Bush's disastrous "surge"--and the challenges facing those who want to end the war.

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THE BUSH administration is trying to spin a report on its escalation of troops to Iraq to say that the "surge" is succeeding. What would an honest assessment be?

AN HONEST assessment would be that the war has been lost. No amount of surges or new "plans for victory" can alter the fact that the Iraqi people want the occupation to end--and that they will continue to resist it until all U.S. and international troops have left.

Attacks on U.S. troops are up. Troops are being killed at a higher rate since the so-called surge. Iraq is in complete collapse and is a full-scale humanitarian disaster. The U.S. is now in the weakest position it has been in--regionally and internationally--in years.

The world is now a far more dangerous place, and the effects of the invasion and occupation of Iraq will adversely shape geopolitics for decades to come.

SEVERAL WELL-known Republicans in the Senate are coming out against the White House on Iraq. What are they proposing?

What else to read

Anthony Arnove's Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal--now republished in a paperback edition with a foreword by Howard Zinn--is essential reading for every antiwar activist.

Anthony is also editor of the book Iraq Under Siege, and coeditor with Howard Zinn of Voices of a People's History of the United States. He writes regularly for the International Socialist Review--see his recent essay "The U.S. Occupation of Iraq: Act III of a Tragedy in Many Parts."

Independent journalist Dahr Jamail has provided indispensable reports and analysis about unfolding events in Iraq and the wider Middle East. His book Beyond the Green Zones: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq, will be published later this year by Haymarket Books. You can preorder it now through

For daily news updates and analysis of Iraq, see the Electronic Iraq Web site, as well as Juan Cole's Informed Comment Web site. The Iraq Veterans Against the War Web site has news and updates about war resisters and other initiatives.


THE REPUBLICANS now criticizing the White House realize that the surge strategy is a failure. In particular, they understand that the Republican Party is paying a high price domestically for President Bush's intransigence in the face of widespread opposition to the war. They fear a Vietnam-style loss of the "war at home."

So elements of the Republican Party are looking to forge a new "Washington consensus" around a more realistic assessment of U.S. interests in Iraq and internationally. They don't want to end the war, but repackage it to dampen domestic opposition, cut some of the worst losses and regroup.

The 2008 election is casting a long shadow over the party right now. Republicans running for office can see that John McCain, who jumped on the Bush surge bandwagon, has seen his support fall to virtually nil.

Bush's popularity rating is the lowest of any president other than Richard Nixon at the height of the Watergate scandal, and establishment military analysts now publicly proclaim Iraq the greatest strategic error in the history of U.S. foreign affairs.

So clearly a new approach is needed. The elements of this approach are actually similar to what many Democratic critics have in mind: troop reduction, not withdrawal; a greater reliance on air power and "over the horizon" forces rather than boots on the ground; a retreat to bases and the Green Zone in Baghdad; and a shifting of the blame from the United States and its allies to the Iraqis.

In effect, it's a "blame and hold" strategy. Blame the Iraqis for all the problems we created. Hold onto whatever the U.S. military can salvage in terms of military bases in Iraq--to have some influence over the future of Iraq's massive oil reserves and some ability to continue military operations in Iraq, and to project power against other countries in the region, particularly Iran.

SECTIONS OF the Bush administration appear to be looking for an exit strategy. For example, Defense Secretary Robert Gates is apparently developing a plan that involves pulling troops back to "super-bases." What should we make of this?

THE WALL Street Journal ran an article on July 3 outlining Gates' proposed plan, but it's not really an exit strategy. As the Journal puts it, "Defense Secretary Robert Gates and some allies in the Bush administration are seeking to build bipartisan political support for a long-term U.S. presence in Iraq."

"What Mr. Gates and some other high-ranking administration officials have in mind is a modern-day version of President Harry Truman's 'Cold War consensus,' a bipartisan agreement on the need to contain the Soviet Union," the Journal notes. "They hope lawmakers from both parties will ultimately agree to make a scaled-back U.S. mission in Iraq a central component of U.S. foreign policy even after Mr. Bush leaves office."

Gates wants to secure that strategic goal "by moving toward withdrawing significant numbers of troops from Iraq by the end of President Bush's term," according to the article. Without such an adjustment, some "Bush administration officials fear" that "the U.S. could be forced into a hasty withdrawal that could have dire consequences both for the region and for U.S. stature in the world."

Bush is still talking about "winning' in Iraq, but at this point, elements of the administration are realizing that the United States is at best going to have to manage defeat.

WE'RE LIKELY to start hearing more from Democrats proposing "withdrawal" of U.S. troops from Iraq. But you've written that a lot of these proposals have provisions to allow a continued U.S. presence, in one form or another. Can you talk about these proposals for withdrawal or redeployment?

THE DEMOCRATIC proposals are all for limited, not complete, withdrawal. The one exception is Dennis Kucinich, though he would replace U.S. troops with UN troops.

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton would both keep troops in Iraq, only in smaller numbers. These troops would be engaged in "force protection" (an oxymoron, since you only need such troops if you are keeping bases and troops in Iraq), "counterinsurgency operations" (which of course is Bush's cover for the ongoing presence of troops in Iraq) and training ("Iraqization"). This is really a recipe for keeping troops in Iraq for years to come.

The redeployment plans come in a few varieties. Some Democrats would shift the base of U.S. operations to the Kurdish areas in Northern Iraq. Others would put troops "over the horizon," in Turkey, Kuwait, Qatar, Djibouti and other regional bases of U.S. power. The idea is that "rapid reaction forces" could be on alert, either within Iraq or nearby, to intervene as the U.S. deems necessary.

This strategy would most likely be backed up--as Vietnamization was before it--with massive use of U.S. air power. Already, U.S. air strikes in Iraq have doubled, as part of an unreported air war.

Some Democrats would like to shift some of the troops now in Iraq to Afghanistan, arguing that Iraq was a distraction from the real fight against terrorism taking place there. Others would like U.S. forces to regroup and be in a better position to strike Iran or to intervene in other countries where the U.S. may face strategic challenges.

THE NEW York Times published an editorial in early July proposing withdrawal from Iraq as quickly as the Pentagon can "organize an orderly exit." What's the significance of this, and what do you think of the specifics?

THE TIMES editorial is too little and too late, but nonetheless, it's significant.

While the editorial doesn't acknowledge this, the Times was instrumental in legitimizing and selling the invasion, by front-paging the administration's bogus claims about weapons of mass destruction and Iraq's ties to al-Qaeda. Even as more and more of the U.S. public and its own readership came to oppose the war and wish for a full withdrawal, the Times consistently made the argument that withdrawal would lead to chaos and civil war.

So for them to shift gears is important. It's a reflection of deeper divisions in the U.S. ruling class and a sign of the belated recognition of the fact that the U.S. has lost.

That's what the Times is really against--not the war itself, but losing the war. But it opens up much more room for the antiwar movement to push the argument for full and immediate withdrawal, and to raise the bigger questions the Times won't raise.

ALMOST EVERYONE outside of George Bush and Dick Cheney acknowledges that the occupation of Iraq has become a disaster, yet almost everyone in the ruling establishment wants to maintain the occupation, if under a new packaging. Why? What's at stake if the U.S. were to withdraw?

A LOT is at stake for the United States in Iraq. Iraq not only has the world's second- or third-largest oil reserves, it's in a region with two-thirds of world oil supplies and most of the world's natural gas supplies.

If the United States is defeated in Iraq, it will be a huge setback, not only for its immediate objectives of dominating and controlling Middle Eastern and Western Asian energy resources, but in terms of the legitimacy of U.S. imperial power globally.

So it will make it harder for the U.S. government to achieve its economic, political and military objectives in Latin America, Europe and everywhere else it has interests. It will also make it harder for the establishment to sell future interventions to the U.S. public, which is now likely to be more skeptical about claims that the U.S. has to send troops to spread democracy, topple a dictator, stave off a humanitarian crisis or end a civil war.

The consequences are far worse than the defeat in Vietnam and would only magnify all the political problems the United States hoped to overcome by invading Iraq. It would also leave Iran, a serious rival power in the region, far stronger than before the U.S. invasion.

So the United States can't just walk away from Iraq. It will need to find some other strategy for continuing to exert influence in the country and in the region more generally, as well as to limit the fallout from its defeat.

SOME ANTIWAR activists look at the current situation, with even Republicans defecting from the White House, and conclude that the occupation will end soon--with U.S. troops perhaps "home by Christmas." What do you think?

I SEE no sign of that all.

Right now, U.S. troop levels are at about 160,000. That's as high as at any point since the invasion. You have, in addition, some 126,000 private security forces, a significant number of whom are mercenaries, and maybe 15,000 international troops. Then, in Baghdad, the United States is building the largest embassy of any government in the world, and the U.S. military is also building bases around the country.

Plus, as I mentioned earlier, the withdrawal plans now being discussed all would leave significant numbers of troops in Iraq for years to come. A number of the plans leave loopholes that would allow the president to declare that national security interests necessitate keeping troops in Iraq at or near current levels.

Throughout the occupation, we have seen periodic headlines in the media about imminent troop withdrawals, projections of a smaller force and so on. I think these headlines have a lot more to do with taking the pressure off elected officials than with any real planning.

It's an effort to lull the public into complacency: What's the point of marching or protesting if the troops are coming home soon anyway? In reality, we see more troops being sent over now, and tours of duty being extended.

WHAT WILL it take to end the occupation?

I THINK it will take much more pressure at home and also within the rank and file of the U.S. military in Iraq.

We have to take advantage of the cracks that are opening within the establishment to campaign vocally and publicly against the war, involving greater numbers of the people and communities affected by the war at home--which has gone hand in hand with the war against the Iraqi people.

We need to put pressure on both the Democrats and Republicans, and not simply collapse into a lobbying wing for the Democratic Party.

There will be immense pressure on the antiwar movement to give up its independence and get behind whatever candidate the Democrats put forward in 2008, no matter what their limitations. People will tell us this is how we can be relevant.

I think the antiwar movement would be irrelevant, though, if we did this. We'll be much more effective if we articulate our own principles and demands--including immediate withdrawal--and fight for them.

And we also need to defend and support those soldiers who in greater numbers are speaking out, refusing service, declaring conscientious objection and, at great personal risk, organizing against the war.

In particular, I think we all need to help build Iraq Veterans Against the War, which is playing a vital role in building a movement of Iraq vets and also active-duty troops who can bring an end to this occupation.

SHOULD WE be optimistic? Is the antiwar movement stronger or weaker today?

I THINK we should be sober. On the one hand, we have come a long way. The majority of the country is with us--and on a whole range of issues, public opinion if shifting leftward.

The November 2006 elections were a clear vote against the war and for a serious change in priorities. And the frustration with the Democrats' betrayals since November is leading to some very interesting ferment in the country--some of which we saw at the U.S. Social Forum in Atlanta, and which is reflected in the growth of IVAW.

On the other hand, we have a long way to go. The level of organization of the antiwar movement is still low relative to the depth and breadth of antiwar sentiment. The level of public protest is still low compared to the stakes for U.S. empire in Iraq.
And, as we discussed earlier, the pressure on the movement to limit itself to an electoral strategy focused on the 2008 presidential elections is going to be significant.

But there are definite grounds for optimism. One is that the U.S. public has come to its stance against the war by using its own reasoning, in the face of repeated pro-war propaganda from political elites and the establishment media.

You also see more and more people looking for alternative news sources, such as Democracy Now! and the dispatches of the journalist Dahr Jamail. You see Jeremy Scahill's exposé Blackwater reaching the New York Times bestseller list.

So there are grounds for optimism, but it will take a lot more than hoping for the best to end the occupation--and also to avert other disasters in Iran and elsewhere.

You need optimism. You need hope. But you also need organization and a focus on involving more people in active participation in democratic movements for more fundamental change over the long term.

As Martin Luther King Jr., said in his important Riverside Church speech against the Vietnam War, "The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality, we will find ourselves organizing 'clergy and laymen concerned' committees for the next generation.

"They will be concerned about Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about Mozambique and South Africa. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy."

But I'm optimistic that more people within the antiwar movement are reaching that conclusion and are beginning to work toward those more profound and significant changes, which we urgently need to bring about if we are to have any meaningful future on this planet.

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