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An interview with Tom Engelhardt:
When withdrawal doesn't mean withdrawal

October 5, 2007 | Pages 6 and 7

TOM ENGELHARDT started TomDispatch following the September 11 attacks to provide commentary and collected press articles that challenged the United States' new imperial project. The Web site has since become an indispensable source of information and analysis for opponents of the U.S. "war on terror."

Engelhardt is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism, republished in a new edition that updates it for the war in Iraq, and Mission Unaccomplished, a collection of interviews with Howard Zinn, Cindy Sheehan and other antiwar activists and authors. Here, he talks with Socialist Worker's ALAN MAASS about the consequences of the U.S. occupation of Iraq and the latest myths about it spun by the political and media establishment.

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BY ALMOST any measure, the situation in Iraq has grown much worse this year--as your "by-the-numbers" analyses on TomDispatch have shown. So how did the mainstream media delude themselves into believing that Gen. David Petraeus and his congressional testimony have proven the Bush "surge" of combat troops is working?

YOU HAVE to start with the fact that this thing was called a "progress report." Petraeus said something during congressional hearings earlier this year about reporting back, and this quickly came to be called a "progress report." Nobody called it a "regress report."

What else to read

Tom Engelhardt's is an indispensable source of information on the U.S. occupation of Iraq and the war on terror in general. You can sign up on the home page to get TomDispatch delivered by e-mail. TomDispatch's latest "by the numbers" report on Iraq, titled "Launching Brand Petraeus," is a must-read.

Engelhardt's book The End of Victory Culture tracing the roots of American "triumphalism" has been published in a new edition that takes up the U.S. "war on terror" and the invasion of Iraq. Engelhardt is also the author of Mission Unaccomplished, a collection of TomDispatch's in-depth interviews with Howard Zinn, Cindy Sheehan, Chalmers Johnson, Mike Davis and others.

For an excellent new book on Iraq, see independent journalist Dahr Jamail's Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq, describing his time in Iraq reporting the other side of the story. Also newly published is In Praise of Barbarians, a collection of essays on U.S. imperialism and society by Mike Davis.

The crucial book on Iraq for antiwar activists is Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal, now republished in an updated paperback edition from the American Empire Project with a foreword by Howard Zinn.


So from the beginning, you have that word "progress," and the presumption is that you're going to talk about what progress has been made. It's a classic Vietnam word, by the way. We were always making progress in Vietnam.

Secondly, the president assigns Petraeus to carry out the surge plan. And then, he assigns Petraeus and our ambassador in Baghdad, Ryan Crocker, to assess the plan that they're carrying out.

This is very typical for every aspect of American operations. When there's a question about Blackwater providing security in Iraq for the State Department and one of the scads of incidents of violence associated with them, who investigates? The State Department. If it's the atrocity in Haditha, the Pentagon investigates.

So in this case, the person who was supposed to report back on the surge was the person most involved in carrying it out--and who has his whole reputation riding on it.

We know in addition--as of some time during the summer--that the report wasn't being prepared in Baghdad by the general and the ambassador, but was actually being prepared in the White House.

So they start with the presupposition of some kind of progress. But at the same time, if you look at the numbers pouring out of Iraq, it's clearly bloody chaos. They can't all be accurate, because who the hell can count in a situation like this, but they're stunning however you cut them.

Start with refugees--what I call the "bus people," because Bush said in one of his speeches that if we don't stay in Iraq, there would be something like the exodus of "boat people" after Vietnam. In fact, right now, you have 2.2 or 2.5 million Iraqi bus people throughout the Middle East. There are somewhere between 1.1 and 2.2 million internal refugees. There are hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, possibly over 1 million, who are dead. Nobody really knows for sure about the numbers, but we know that they're enormous.

You start to add this up in a country that only had about 25 million people as the war began, and you're talking about an almost unparalleled catastrophe. You don't have to be in Iraq or be particularly knowledgeable to realize this. You just have to not be caught in that world of the Washington consensus and the media that reports on it.

There's one other factor in all this. The main statistics that are being used in the media--other than the official figures of the U.S. military that Petraeus brought back from Baghdad--are statistics that come out of the Brookings Institution. And those figures are overseen by a guy named Michael O'Hanlon, who has been a major war supporter.

So they print up these charts, which get published in the New York Times every couple months, and they look very anodyne--some things are a little worse, some are a little better. But when you look at the actual numbers, whether or not they're better or worse this year than 2006, they're a nightmare.

AFTER BUSH'S televised speech last month, the media overwhelmingly reported that he was proposing a gradual "drawdown" of U.S. troops--even though because of the preceding surge, there will be more U.S. troops in Iraq through most of next year than were there at the beginning of this year. This seems to be another example of how, as you've described, the meaning of the word "withdrawal" is being twisted out of all recognition.

THE FIGURES on U.S. troops give you a very simple sense of where we are--though again, these are approximate.

When the president walked across that aircraft carrier deck on May 1, 2003, after his Top Gun landing to declare that major combat operations in Iraq were ended, there were about 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. At that moment, his key officials--the neo-cons like Paul Wolfowitz--were predicting that by August, just a few months away, there would be 30,000 American troops in Iraq, garrisoned on these big bases we were going to build.

But in January 2007, just before the surge begins, how many U.S. troops were in Iraq? Approximately 130,000.

Then we have the surge, and the president buys time. We were told we needed to wait until September to hear the progress report, and then when the progress report comes in September, we're told we have to wait until next March to get the real progress report--because the surge has to go on.

And now, if Petraeus is accurate in his testimony, by mid-July 2008, there will be how many troops in Iraq? 130,000.

So by the end of the surge period, the president will have cut back troops to exactly where we were when we began.

Plus, there's the fact that all the statements of this administration have an "if" attached that people never seem to notice--that we're going to do this or that if the situation warrants it, if the situation stabilizes, and so on.

I'm 63 years old, and it helps in certain ways to have lived through the Vietnam period--not because Vietnam and Iraq are simple analogs, but because Americans have never gotten Vietnam out of their minds, and as soon as a situation like this starts up again, they begin recycling the Vietnam experience, without even knowing they're doing it.

If you lived through the Vietnam period, you went through years and years of supposed withdrawal proposals. There were endless numbers of what I called in my book, The End of Victory Culture, "non-withdrawal withdrawal" proposals.

We're in that period now with Iraq--a period where this administration and the candidates to be its successor don't actually want to withdraw from Iraq, certainly not totally. So they make various proposals that kind of sound like drawdowns or cutbacks, but they don't add up to a hell of a lot in reality.

One of the trickiest aspects of the whole withdrawal discussion over these last months is that when you look carefully, the presidential candidates and others are almost invariably talking about the withdrawal of "combat forces." That sounds to any normal American like the withdrawal of U.S. troops, but it's actually a technical term.

Combat forces aren't all of the U.S. forces in Iraq. There are the trainers, whose numbers are supposed to go up. There are the soldiers guarding bases and a whole range of other types of troops. If a U.S. withdrawal were only a withdrawal of combat troops, you'd be talking about perhaps half or slightly less than half of the actual U.S. forces in Iraq--that's my guess, based on what I've read.

A similar thing went on during the Vietnam period. When Nixon supposedly withdrew U.S. troops, the advisers, the guards and so on were still left. There were probably still 70,000 American troops of various sorts left in Vietnam after the "withdrawal of U.S. ground troops" in the "Vietnamization" era.

Another subject that TomDispatch has covered relentlessly because practically nobody else has--with the exception a very good early piece by Seymour Hersh, and one or two others--is air power.

The U.S. occupied Iraq, and for perfectly obvious reasons, the Bush administration and American commanders didn't want heavy American casualties, so ever since, in increasing numbers and increasing amounts, they've been calling in air power against urban areas--to strafe, for support and so on.

This is another Vietnam analogy, though Iraq isn't anywhere near the level of Vietnam, obviously. But when American troops came out of Vietnam, and American attention at home went down as casualties went down, what happened was the U.S. used air power in brutal amounts to compensate. This was an underwritten and underreported story at the time and since.

I think you're going to find a version of this taking place as we begin to draw down American ground forces from Iraq. We already know that air power is ratcheting up there, as in Afghanistan.

Linked to this question of air power are the enormous bases that the U.S. has established in Iraq.

Balad Airbase is supposed to have more air traffic than O'Hare International in Chicago. The Al-Asad Marine Airbase in western Iraq, where Bush went in September, has a 17-mile perimeter. Seventeen miles! Imagine that. It has at least two or three bus routes, it has fast-food restaurants, it has a movie theater. These are huge, fortified American towns, sometimes housing 10,000 or 20,000 or 30,000 people.

Billions and billions of dollars have gone into them, and yet reporters don't talk about them. They stand on the bases and report on what General Petraeus or President Bush said, but they never describe the bases themselves. And yet when Americans, who know next to nothing about them, are asked in polls if they approve of permanent bases in Iraq, they're against them by significant majorities.

The American consensus and the Washington consensus are two very different things at this point--and have been for the last year or two. I honestly believe that Americans formed their own Iraq Study Group and came to conclusions so far out of sync with Washington that it's striking.

THERE SEEMS to be a recycling of the idea, from Republicans and Democrats, that the only thing standing in the way of civil war in Iraq is the U.S. troop presence--and if the U.S. withdraws, things will only get worse in Iraq.

DURING VIETNAM, the antiwar movement constantly lived through the charge that if we withdrew, there would be a terrible bloodbath. And it's the same thing now--that if we left Iraq, there would be a genocidal civil war, and it's only because we're staying that it hasn't happened.

In Vietnam, this, of course, never happened. There were horrible things that did happen in Cambodia--that's another story that we could go into--but it had nothing to do with what anybody expected. In Vietnam itself, there was no bloodbath--or rather, the bloodbath happened while they were talking about the bloodbath to come.

The same is true about Iraq. We don't know what might happen in the future, but we do know that what's going on now is of such a bloody nature that we can't even assess the full numbers of dead. Who could truly count under such circumstances?

If you look at Iraq Body Count, which only counts Iraqi deaths that are reported in the media and can be cross-checked with another source, the number of casualties is already up to about 80,000 Iraqi civilians. The Lancet study offered a median average for deaths from violence at 600,000, and that was in the middle of 2006. The most recent study that we have, from a British group that did a survey asking Iraqis who had died in their households, estimated a staggering 1.2 million deaths.

There's a bloodbath of unparalleled proportions going on, but in the meantime, we're told to focus on a future bloodbath.

A process has been let loose by the Bush invasion that has been really dreadful, and the U.S. military has been--and at least to some extent continues to be--a, if not the, motor that drives the violence in Iraq.

For instance, when you look at suicide bombings, that's obviously Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence. But the suicide bombers have tended to be Sunni extremists killing Shiites in their neighborhoods. Whenever U.S. troops moved into Shiite neighborhoods, it forced the local militias off the street, and this in essence opened the way for the suicide bombers to come in. So in that literal sense, the U.S. military was a motor for at least parts of the specifically civil war violence.

This is, of course, a process that's taken on a life of its own by now. There's no question that the United States has been, in some complicated and confusing ways, helping to arm both sides.

It's an extraordinary mess. And we're deeply, deeply implicated in all of those dead people--even if we didn't kill every one of them, which we obviously didn't.

YOU'VE WRITTEN a lot about how the U.S. war on Iraq fits into the larger imperial project since the "war on terror" began, and the echoes of past colonial experiences in what the U.S. wants to do. Could you talk about that?

HUMAN BEINGS are lousy predictors. We're not very good at foreseeing the future. On the other hand, there's some history that applies here which is so obvious, it's staggering.

For example, there was no reason not to expect that there would be an insurgency in Iraq, maybe multiple insurgencies. In the history of the last couple hundred years, the importance of sovereignty, however defined in a given place, and the increasing difficulties of major powers directly occupying other countries are completely obvious.

If you wanted to look at who the first "Sunni fundamentalist insurgents" were, they were probably the Catholic peasants of Napoleonic Spain of the early 19th century--relatively unorganized peasants who stopped Napoleon's army, the most powerful army in Europe, dead.

What's happened in Iraq is so expectable. I find it startling that the Bush administration was so bedazzled by a very narrow definition of American military power that they couldn't imagine the obvious. They really believed that Iraq was just their first stop on an express trip through the Middle East.

They weren't simply Machiavellian. Certainly, they thought they were manipulating the American people, but--and you find this with ruling groups generally--they also performed an act of self-hypnotism. They believed a lot of the stuff that they were also using to manipulate others--that they would be greeted as liberators, and that this wouldn't be terribly complicated at all.

You have to start with September 11, and of course we all know now that there were people sitting at the top of the Bush administration who wanted to take out Saddam Hussein.

But these same people also felt the American presidency had been shackled, from the Nixon period on. This isn't actually a very accurate description of what took place post-Watergate, but it was what they believed.

You have to put this in the context of a quarter-century-long right-wing revival, in which conservatives talked endlessly about small government, but that was only when it came to strangling off services to people. Otherwise, they were actually intent on strengthening the oppressive aspects of state power.

So September 11 happens, and they immediately declare war on the world. They want to unshackle the presidency--to loose it from the fetters of any kind of American set of checks and balances. The imperial presidency had been going this way for a long time, but they wanted more.

And once you've declared war, even if on a small terrorist group, you're in "wartime," and you have a commander-in-chief presidency. And once they had the commander-in-chief presidency, they believed they were freed to do almost anything.

I've always thought that this was the real significance of their fascination with torture. Undoubtedly, some in the Bush administration believed that torture would get them information, and I don't mean to say that they necessarily even thought this out--some of them may have, or they may not have.

But I think the real significance of torture--and the reason they reached for it so quickly, with Rumsfeld and his aides already talking about "taking the gloves off" with captives like John Walker Lindh, the "American Taliban," on the Afghan battlefield--was that if you can get the right to torture people without restraint, you can get the right to anything.

Almost none of these people had been in the U.S. military. But they all had fallen in love with the military. They were romantics about American military power.

They had a kind of double dream. There was the foreign policy dream, which was a Pax Americana of global domination. And there was Karl Rove's domestic dream, which was a Pax Republicana for generations. Dominant abroad, and dominant at home.

Their friends and pundits started referring to the U.S. as the most dominant power since Rome--that was a phrase of Charles Krauthammer--or a new Rome, or, if you were a liberal war hawk, an empire lite.

So there was this imperial vision based on a total misreading of global power--they actually believed that the American military would send everything fleeing before it.

And they were proved wrong so fast. The first country they went into was Afghanistan, and that looked okay for a little while, but if you look at it now, you can see that they didn't succeed.

And in the second country they went into, a ragtag insurgency--certainly in those early years, no more than 10,000 or 15,000 people, modestly armed, at least in terms of what the U.S. military had--stopped the mightiest military on the planet on the first stop of what was to be the neo-con march across the Middle East. This was an amazing moment, if utterly grim, in global history.

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