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IRAQ: What Price Withdrawal?

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Reading Gary Hart's and Michael O'Hanlon's blog-thoughts on US military bases in Iraq prompted me to wonder whatever happened to the efforts of liberal Democrats and antiwar progressives who were trying to spark a debate on whether the United States should withdraw its troops from Iraq. Of course, George W. Bush has not considered their calls. But the folks who have urged the establishment of a timetable for a US pullout have not generated much of a public discussion, even as the opinion polls indicate Bush's war is becoming quite unpopular. This week a Gallup polled showed that 57 percent of the public did not believe it was "worth going to war in Iraq."

Earlier this year, several Democrats – including Senator Ted Kennedy and Representatives Lynne Woolsey and Marty Meehan – issued differing withdrawal proposals. At the time, I noted on my own blog (www.davidcorn.com) that, policy considerations aside, it did not seem a wise move to advocate retreat (which could be cast as a defeatist idea) when the Iraqi elections were causing – rightly or wrongly – positive news. Subsequently--or consequently-- none of their ideas caught fire. Democratic leaders in the Senate and House were not eager to identify the party with anything that could be portrayed as cutting-and-running.

Now that the news from Iraq is grim – an explosion of violence, political infighting within the new government – might there be renewed interest in withdrawal? I make no predictions about what will happen with public opinion, but my hunch is that the political system will remain frozen regarding Iraq. Bush-backers and war supporters want to hang tough and cannot admit error; skeptical Democrats and worried Republicans feel boxed in. And politics notwithstanding, some of those who might be inclined to urge a withdrawal (such as me) are tied up by the concern that such a move might worsen matters in Iraq.

Many on the left who advocate withdrawal have argued that it is the US occupation that is the problem. Remove the occupiers, and the problem goes away – or, at least, diminishes. "If we withdraw out troops," Woolsey told me in January, "we will remove a major cause for the insurgency." More recently, Tom Hayden, who did much to end the tragic war in Vietnam, wrote an open letter to Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean in which he warned that the party could lose the support of its progressive wing (or base) if the party does not "end its silent consent to the Bush Administration's Iraq War policies and stand for a negotiated end to the occupation and our military presence. " In that letter, Hayden said, "Our occupation is the chief cause of the nationalist resistance in that country."

It is this notion – that if the US troops were called home the dreadful situation in Iraq will improve – I question. One can make the argument that the war, as those poll respondents say, is "not worth it." One can recall John Kerry's powerful testimony as an antiwar leader in the Vietnam years: "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" The Iraq war was a mistake, and, according to another recent poll, half of the public has come to believe that Bush deliberately misled America about the WMDs to grease the way to the invasion of Iraq. Indeed, Hayden, in his letter to Dean, noted, "I do not believe the Iraq War is worth another drop of blood, another dollar of taxpayer subsidy, another stain on our honor." But the withdrawalists to whom I've paid attention do claim that by leaving Iraq the United States will not only save troops and money, it will weaken the insurgency.

This seems to me to be more an article of faith than an argument supported by facts, history and recent events in Iraq. Sure, it might happen that way. But, to be honest about it, there is no telling. The insurgency of late seems aimed against Iraqis. True, they are usually Iraqis in league with the Americans and are easier targets because US troops generally have pulled back to more secured positions. But will the Baathist thugs who appear to be driving the insurgency really call it a day if the Americans bug out? Are they really being fueled mostly by nationalistic and anti-occupation fervor? Or a more basic desire to take control?

In search of guidance on this issue, I emailed Juan Cole, a Middle East expert who was against the war and who writes a blog (www.juancole.com), and asked him to comment on Hayden's assertion that the US occupation is the "chief cause" of the insurgency. Cole wrote back, "If the US withdrew, the guerrillas would just kill Sistani and Jaafari and make a coup. It would be bloodbath. Americans should remember [what happened] when they walked away from Afghanistan from 1991."

Chilling? Is there any reason to take Hayden's analysis over Cole's – or vice versa? It strikes me that the get-out-now crowd wants to strengthen its position by maintaining a US withdrawal would make things better for Iraqis. But this may be more wishful thinking than unconventional wisdom. The honest approach is to acknowledge no one knows what will occur. I tend to believe that Cole has a strong – and scary – point. Still, it's possible he is overstating the case.

All this does not mean it's wrong to call for withdrawing the troops. One can argue that Bush's war - pitched to the public with the phony arguments that Saddam Hussein's regime was loaded with WMDs and in cahoots with al Qaeda – does not deserve the life of one more American soldier, one more Iraqi civilian, or one more emergency spending bill. I'm sympathetic to that case. But those pushing for withdrawal have to acknowledge that a pullout may well come with serious costs. In the short run, those costs might include more violence in Iraq and a more out-in-the-open civil war that yields a terrible outcome.

Before the war, I and others argued that an invasion of Iraq could lead to a situation in which there would be no good options. That prediction has come true. Bush has created a mess that defies an obvious and low-cost solution. Military experts of late have been saying that the insurgency probably will last for years (perhaps decades) and that establishing an effective Iraqi security force could take five years or more. Yet Bush refuses to admit these realities. He has not told the public what his five-year (or fifteen-year) plan is. He has refused to discuss the price the American public will have to bear for his misguided war in Iraq. Withdrawal, though, would come with a price, too. It may be the best of lousy alternatives. But its advocates ought to acknowledge it is not cost-free. Unless they want to risk comparison to the fellow who started the war.