PEACE in Action

An Exit Strategy for America from Iraq

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Policies for International Peace
An Exit Strategy for America from Iraq

When it comes to outlining a credible exit strategy for U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq, American politicians of both major parties seem stricken by paralysis.   While President Bush pledges to keep U.S. troops in the country "until the job is done" (that is, indefinitely), most Democratic Party leaders, declaring that we cannot just "cut and run," call for Mr. Bush and others to pour more troops into the Iraqi cauldron.   Meanwhile, the war continues, moving to the back pages of the news even as it takes an increasingly ruinous toll in American and Iraqi lives, treasure, and moral capital.

Are there alternatives to the current armed struggle? It depends.   If the U.S. is not waging a war of conquest aimed at securing control of Iraqi oil resources and dominating the Muslim world, conflict resolution principles can help the United States and Britain to withdraw their forces with honor, in such a way as to leave behind a functioning, independent society.   If the U.S. intends to make Iraq a satellite state and a base for further incursions in the Middle East, however, the war will almost certainly continue until America consolidates her imperial hold on the region or is forced to withdraw.

A real problem: popular insurgency

Alternatives to armed struggle may be feasible depending on US long-term intentions

In an article for USA Today dated August 20, 2003 ("Withdraw the Troops"), I noted that "violent attacks against the occupying troops, their allies, and their Iraqi collaborators have taken place at the rate of approximately thirteen assaults per day, and the pace is stepping up.   Unfortunately, the measures adopted by U.S. forces to combat the resisters are virtually guaranteed to expand and strengthen the resistance movement."   Four months later, notwithstanding the capture of Saddam Hussein, attacks by the Iraqi insurgents have more than doubled.   The resistance has become bolder, better organized, and more effective.   More Americans, allied troops, Iraqis, and civilians of other nationalities have died than were killed in the invasion.   The violence has spread to embrace new territories and targets, and the brutal "get tough" measures adopted by General Abizaid's occupying forces in "Operation Iron Hammer" are creating massive resentment even among those who detested Saddam Hussein.

"Operation Iron Hammer" breeding massive resentment

Is there an alternative to this failed policy? Yes, say Bush regime strategists like Wayne Downing, recently Mr. Bush's Deputy National Security Advisor and now Chair of the new Center for Combating Terrorism at the U.S. Military Academy: "Intensify the violence!" Writing in the Washington Post on December 7, Downing applauds the American troops' new "willingness to enter known insurgent strongholds and directly engage the enemy even though these areas might be heavily populated." He hails the "destruction of insurgents' homes with smart bombs," and cheers the "sweep operations that round up all likely suspects and turn them over to trained Arab interrogators for determination of their true status." These "daring and risky" operations, says Downing enthusiastically, "are very much like those employed by the Israeli Defense Forces." What he does not mention is that the new U.S. tactics include the use of assassination teams trained by these same Israeli Defense Forces.   Evidently, unlike four chiefs of the Israeli Secret Service, Downing considers Israel's perpetual war against the Palestinian Intifadah a success.

New policy not welcome

One reads this apologia for current policy in Iraq with disbelief.   Not only does it excuse wholesale violations of human rights, it also refuses to recognize that killing terrorist "suspects," blowing up family dwellings, dropping 1000-pound bombs on urban neighborhoods, breaking down people's doors and carrying off their young men, establishing detention centers, and interrogating thousands of innocent people only fan the flames of hatred and revolt.   The rationale for this strategy offered by Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and his colleagues is that the Iraqi insurgency is limited to a handful of Saddamist die-hards and foreign Islamists active in the "Sunni Triangle." But more careful observers understand that the resistance has broad and deep support in the Sunni community; that the country's Shiite majority despises the occupation ("No to Saddam, No to the Americans!" remains the popular slogan); and that the Kurds will continue to tolerate the U.S. presence only insofar as it advances their interest in Kurdish regional autonomy.

The Bush administration itself tacitly recognizes the depth and breadth of this opposition.   This is why, in desperation, it has announced a seemingly dramatic new turn in policy.   We will junk the hapless Governing Council and oversee the appointment of a new "provisional government" that will later draft a constitution, hold elections, and introduce Iraq to Western-style democracy.   "No, no," says the chief Shiite leader, Ayatollah Ali Sistani.   "Let us have the elections now!" But American satrap L. Paul Bremer refuses to agree…and so it goes, with Mr. Bush and his subordinates preaching democracy while the coalition authority handpicks an "Iraqi" government, suppresses anti-occupation political groups, closes down opposition newspapers, and decides in advance what sort of state and economy the Iraqis will be compelled to accept.

Iraq is Vietnam In the making

As the administration and its friends continue to remind us, Iraq is not Vietnam.   But Vietnam was not "Vietnam" either until the US Government's imperial ambitions, its support of corrupt warlords, suppression of independent opponents, and crude reliance on military force united virtually everyone who was not on the Defense Department payroll against the American occupation.   The new policy of assassinating those accused of being mid-level resistance fighters is a replica of "Operation Phoenix," the CIA assassination program in Vietnam that is estimated to have taken 40,000 lives.   Clearly, Iraq is Vietnam in the making.

A pseudo-problem: postoccupation "chaos"

Many who acknowledge the force of this argument have adduced an additional reason for declining to specify an exit strategy for coalition forces in Iraq: fear of the "chaos" that would follow a U.S. withdrawal, with a divided society warring against itself, terrorists using the country as a base from which to wreak regional havoc, and the world concluding that the Americans lack the will to fight long wars far from home.

These grim scenarios contain a few grains of truth.   Iraq is a deeply divided society -- one in which the major groupings (Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds, Turkmen, et al.) have had virtually no opportunity to discuss with each other their fundamental grievances and needs or their visions for the future.   It is also a highly-militarized society, with ownership of guns and other weapons widespread, and semi organized militias representing each major group and, in some cases, sub-groups within the larger groups.   And many people might well view an American withdrawal from Iraq as a Vietnam-style defeat.

The occupation has plunged Iraq into chaos

The problem, however, is that the outcomes most feared by reluctant supporters of the Iraq War are more likely to eventuate as a result of continued U.S. occupation than as a result of withdrawal.   I will show in a moment that, if our exit from Iraq is well conceived and conducted, these risks can be minimized.   But it is the occupation, and the inevitable opposition to it by independence-loving Iraqis, that has plunged that nation into chaos! It is the occupation that prevents the Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish communities from freely choosing their own representatives and negotiating with each other about the shape of the future of Iraq.   It is the occupation that keeps the nation under arms, with the coalition authority now training interrogators and spies and arming Iraqi hit squads to conduct "dirty war" operations against suspected resistance fighters and sympathizers.   It is the occupation that suppresses independent political organizations, blocks the development of civil society, and makes the imprisoned Saddam Hussein a hero to many who formerly despised him, just as it made Ho Chi Minh, another ruthless dictator, a hero to the Vietnamese.

Ending the occupation is key

To put it in a nutshell, the occupation of Iraq is not a solution to that nation's problems per se.   And ending the occupation is the key to a principled and effective U.S. exit strategy.

Basic principles of an exit strategy

An American withdrawal from Iraq need not be a defeat for long-term U.S. interests -- not if it is based on socioeconomic and political realities rather than fantastic Napoleonic dreams of exporting "democracy" at gunpoint.   An exit strategy that makes sense, it seems to me, will have four main components:

  • a declaration reflecting the intentions of the U.S. and Britain to withdraw their troops and political officials from the country by a date certain in the near future;
  • the devolution, during this short transition period, of political power and security functions to the Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish communities;
  • the immediate commencement of facilitated negotiations between recognized leaders of the major communities over the future of the Iraqi state and economy; and
  • the formation of a regional organization to begin considering, among other things, the best methods of exploiting and using Iraq's enormous oil resources for the benefit of her people.

The most fundamental requirement of a workable exit strategy is acceptance of the principle that Iraq's fate as a nation, including the ownership and control of her oil resources, must be left to her people and, more generally, to the peoples of the Middle East/Gulf States region.   The world's oil consumers, including the United States, must become participants in a new system based on fair and transparent negotiations with producers who have their own people's interests to consider.   If the United States seeks to replace Britain as the imperial ruler of Iraq and the chief controller of her resources, the war will continue indefinitely, spreading to other lands and producing the nightmare scenarios wrongly attributed to an American-British withdrawal.   On the contrary, if it becomes clear that this is not America's intention, the nightmares will begin immediately to dissolve — and there will be a real incentive for the producer nations to democratize themselves.

Iraq's fate as a nation must be left to her people

With these principles in mind, the U.S.-led coalition should announce that it will withdraw its troops from Iraq by Dec 1, 2004.   Simultaneously, the coalition authority should begin to transfer political power on a regional basis to the peoples of the Shiite dominated south, the Sunni dominated center, and the Kurdish dominated north of Iraq.   The United Nations, Arab League, or other accepted multinational authority should immediately offer to help oversee elections in each region, and to facilitate problem solving negotiations between the dominant regional group and significant minorities (e.g., Shiites in the Baghdad region and Arabs and Turkmen in the north).   At the same time, security functions can be transferred to existing militias, some of which already function as de facto regional armies, and others of which will require negotiations inter se in order to prevent internal competition and strife.

The risk of civil war can be minimized

Some will decry this as the "balkanization" of Iraq.   But conflict resolution specialists have learned that, in seriously divided societies, to recognize local identities and empower local authorities is often the necessary prerequisite to a just and workable integration of peoples.   The peace processes implemented or under way in Mozambique, Sudan, Northern Ireland, Cyprus, and Sri Lanka, for example, are all based on a combination of withdrawal by interfering Great Powers, recognition of local communities and leaders, integration of guerrilla forces into regular armies, and negotiation between leaders of the major communities over an acceptable form of national integration.   Following an American withdrawal from Iraq, the risk of civil war can be minimized by making it clear that the Iraqis themselves, and no outside party, will decide whether to create a centralized, federated, or confederated state, and that the vast resources of this state will be for them to dispose of as they see fit.

Negotiations between major religious and ethnic groups should begin immediately

Negotiations between representatives of all major religious and ethnic groups should, therefore, commence immediately, facilitated not by the United States or Britain, which lack the necessary impartiality and acceptability to the parties, but by a multinational or regional organization acceptable to the parties.   The subjects to be negotiated will include all those issues currently being decided by fiat of Mr. Bremer and the coalition authority, ranging from the proper method of constructing an Iraqi constitution to the method and timing of national elections, the creation (or not) of unified armed forces, Iraq's relations with other states, and the extent of public or private ownership of economic resources.   Americans may remember that, in their postrevolutionary period, issues like these were decided exclusively by the representatives of the excolonial states, without foreign interference -- one reason, perhaps, that a successful consensual result was finally reached.

The Coalition should announce withdrawal of troops by December

Finally, as Johan Galtung and others have urged, steps should be taken immediately by the Iraqis and their neighbors to create a Middle East and Gulf States Organization for Security, Cooperation, and Development.   This organization, which Israel would also be invited to join, would provide the ultimate answer to the terrorist threat in Iraq and in the region at large.   Its basic mandate would be to aggregate its members' economic and political power, and to translate that increased prosperity and influence into programs for the development of all of the region's peoples, particularly the poorest, most vulnerable, and most disenfranchised.

This is the real answer to the nightmare scenario of Iraq as a terrorist base — the end of a century of Euro-American domination and the birth of real regional autonomy, with its indispensable concomitant: the right to decide one's own fate and make one's own mistakes.   Like all strategies, this one is not risk-free.   Nevertheless, nothing less than ending the occupation can extract the United States from its current no-exit dilemma. Nothing less deserves the name of liberation.

Richard Rubenstein is Professor of Conflict Resolution and Public Affairs at George Mason University and is a former director of the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution where he has worked since 1987. He is the author of several books and articles on political violence and religious conflict, including When Jesus Became God (2000) and Aristotle's Children: How Muslims And Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Dark Ages (2003).

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Special thanks to Ashleigh Brilliant
(Brilliant Enterprises; 117 W. Valerio St.; Santa Barbara, CA 93101 USA)
for permission to use his Pot-Shots postcards.

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