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U.S. soldiers take cover during a firefight with insurgents in the Al Doura section of Baghdad March 7, 2007.
News and Opinion

The Democrats’ Iraqi Dilemma

-- Ira Chernus

Pity the poor Democratic candidates for president, caught between Iraq and a hard place. Every day, more and more voters decide that we must end the war and set a date to start withdrawing our troops from Iraq. Most who will vote in the Democratic primaries concluded long ago that we must leave Iraq, and they are unlikely to let anyone who disagrees with them have the party’s nomination in 2008.

But what does it mean to "leave Iraq"? Here’s where most of the Democratic candidates come smack up against that hard place. There is a longstanding bipartisan consensus in the foreign-policy establishment that the United States must control every strategically valuable region of the world -- and none more so than the oil heartlands of the planet. That’s been a hard-and-fast rule of the elite for some six decades now. No matter how hard the task may be, they demand that presidents be rock-hard enough to get the job done.

So whatever "leave Iraq" might mean, no candidate of either party likely to enter the White House on January 20, 2009, can think it means letting Iraqis determine their own national policies or fate. The powers that be just wouldn't stand for that. They see themselves as the guardians of world "order." They feel a sacred obligation to maintain "stability" throughout the imperial domains, which now means most of planet Earth -- regardless of what voters may think. The Democratic front-runners know that "order" and "stability" are code words for American hegemony. They also know that voters, especially Democratic ones, see the price of hegemony in Iraq and just don’t want to pay it anymore.

So the Democratic front-runners must promise voters that they will end the war -- with not too many ideologically laden ifs, ands, or buts -- while they assure the foreign-policy establishment that they will never abandon the drive for hegemony in the Middle East (or anywhere else). In other words, the candidates have to be able to talk out of both sides of their mouths at the same time.

No worries, it turns out. Fluency in doublespeak is a prime qualification for high political office. On Iraq, candidates Dennis Kucinich and Bill Richardson don’t meet that test. They tell anyone and everyone that they want "all" U.S. troops out of Iraq, but they register only 1-4% in the polls and are generally ignored in the media. The Democrats currently topping the polls, on the other hand, are proving themselves eminently qualified in doublespeak.

Clinton: "We got it right, mostly, during the Cold War."

Hillary Clinton declares forthrightly: "It is time to begin ending this war…. Start bringing home America's troops…. within 90 days." Troops home: It sounds clear enough. But she is always careful to avoid the crucial word all. A few months ago she told an interviewer: "We have remaining vital national security interests in Iraq…. What we can do is to almost take a line sort of north of, between Baghdad and Kirkuk, and basically put our troops into that region." A senior Pentagon officer who has briefed Clinton told NPR commentator Ted Koppel that Clinton expects U.S. troops to be in Iraq when she ends her second term in 2017.

Why all these troops? We have "very real strategic national interests in this region," Clinton explains. "I will order specialized units to engage in narrow and targeted operations against al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations in the region. They will also provide security for U.S. troops and personnel and train and equip Iraqi security services to keep order and promote stability." There would be U.S. forces to protect the Kurds and "our efforts must also involve a regional recommitment to success in Afghanistan." Perhaps that’s why Clinton has proposed "that we expand the Army by 80,000 troops, that we move faster to expand the Special Forces."

Says her deputy campaign manager Bob Nash, "She'll be as tough as any Republican on our enemies." And on our friends, he might have added, if they don’t shape up. At the Take Back America conference in June the candidate drew boos when she declared that "the American military has done its job.… They gave the Iraqi government the chance to begin to demonstrate that it understood its responsibilities.… It is the Iraqi government which has failed." It's the old innocent-Americans-blame-the-foreigners ploy.

More importantly, it’s the old tough-Americans-reward-friends-who-help-America ploy. We should start withdrawing some troops, Clinton says, "to make it clear to the Iraqis that … we're going to look out for American interests, for the region's interests." If the Iraqi government is not "striving for sustainable stability…. we'll consider providing aid to provincial governments and reliable non-governmental organizations that are making progress."

Clinton’s message to the Iraqi leaders is clear: You had your chance to join "the international community," to get with the U.S. program, and to reap the same benefits as the leaders of other oil-rich nations -- but you blew it. So, now you can fend for yourselves while we look for new, more capable allies in Iraq and keep who-knows-how-many troops there to "protect our interests" -- and increase our global clout. The draw-down in Iraq, our signal that we have given up on the al-Maliki government, "will be a first step towards restoring Americans moral and strategic leadership in the world," Clinton swears.

"America must be the world’s leader," she declared last month. "We must widen the scope of our strength by leading strong alliances which can apply military force when required." And, when necessary, cut off useless puppet governments that won't let their strings be pulled often enough.

Hillary is speaking to at least three audiences: the voters at home, the foreign-policy elite, and a global elite she would have to deal with as president. Her recent fierce criticism of the way President Bush has handled Iraq, like her somewhat muddled antiwar rhetoric, is meant as a message of reassurance to voters, but also to our elite -- and as a warning to foreigners: The next President Clinton will be tough on allies as well as foes, as tough as the old cold warriors. "We got it right, mostly, during the Cold War.… Nothing is more urgent than for us to begin again to rebuild a bipartisan consensus," she said last year in a speech that cut right to the bottom line: "American foreign policy exists to maintain our security and serve our national interests." That's what the bipartisan consensus has always believed.

Obama and Edwards: Don’t Tread on Us.

That seems to be what Barack Obama, another loyal member of the foreign-policy establishment, believes too. "The single most important job of any president is to protect the American people," he affirmed in a major foreign-policy statement last April. But "the threats we face…. can no longer be contained by borders and boundaries…. The security of the American people is inextricably linked to the security of all people." That’s why the U.S. must be the "leader of the free world." It is hard to find much difference on foreign policy between Clinton and Obama, except that Barack is more likely to dress up the imperial march of U.S. interests in such old-fashioned Cold War flourishes.

That delights neoconservative guru Robert Kagan, who summed up Obama’s message succinctly: "His critique is not that we’ve meddled too much but that we haven’t meddled enough.… To Obama, everything and everyone everywhere is of strategic concern to the United States." To control everything and everyone, he wants "the strongest, best-equipped military in the world.… A 21st century military to stay on the offense." That, he says, will take at least 92,000 more soldiers and Marines -- precisely the number Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has recommended to President Bush.

Like Hillary, Barack would remove all "combat brigades" from Iraq, but keep U.S. troops there "for a more extended period of time" -- even "redeploy additional troops to Northern Iraq" -- to support the Kurds, train Iraqi forces, fight al Qaeda, "reassure allies in the Gulf," "send a clear message to hostile countries like Iran and Syria," and "prevent chaos in the wider region." "Most importantly, some of these troops could be redeployed to Afghanistan…. to stop Afghanistan from backsliding toward instability."

Barack also agrees with Hillary that the Iraqi government needs a good scolding "to pressure the Iraqi leadership to finally come to a political agreement between the warring factions that can create some sense of stability…. Only through this phased redeployment can we send a clear message to the Iraqi factions that the U.S. is not going to hold together this country indefinitely.… No more coddling, no more equivocation."

But Obama offers a carrot as well as a stick to the Iraqis: "The redeployment could be temporarily suspended if the parties in Iraq reach an effective political arrangement that stabilizes the situation and they offer us a clear and compelling rationale for maintaining certain troop levels…. The United States would not be maintaining permanent military bases in Iraq." What, however, does "permanent" mean when language is being used so subtly? It is a question that needs an answer, but no one asks it -- and no answer is volunteered.

John Edwards offers variations on the same themes. He wants a continuing U.S. troop presence "to prevent a genocide, deter a regional spillover of the civil war, and prevent an Al Qaeda safe haven." But he goes further than either Obama or Clinton in spelling out that we "will also need some presence in Baghdad, inside the Green Zone, to protect the American Embassy and other personnel."

Around the world, Edwards would use military force for "deterring and responding to aggressors, making sure that weak and failing states do not threaten our interests, and … maintaining our strategic advantage against major competitor states that could do us harm and otherwise threaten our interests." His distinctive touch is to stress coordinated military and civilian efforts for "stabilizing states with weak governments…. I would put stabilization first." "Stabilization" is yet another establishment code word for insuring U.S. control, as Edwards certainly knows. His ultimate aim, he says, is to ensure that the U.S. will "lead and shape the world."

Running for the Imperial Presidency

The top Democrats agree that we must leave significant numbers of U.S. troops in Iraq, not only for selfish reasons, but because we Americans are so altruistic. We want to prevent chaos and bring order and stabilization to that country -- as if U.S. troops were not already creating chaos and instability there every day. But among the foreign policy elite, the U.S. is always a force for order, "helping" naturally chaotic foreigners achieve "stability." For the elite, it is axiomatic that the global "stability" that keeps us secure and prosperous is also a boon for the people we "stabilize." For this to happen in Iraq, time must be bought with partial "withdrawal" plans. (It matters little how many foreigners we kill in the process, as long as U.S. casualties are reduced enough to appease public opinion at home.) This is not open to question; most of the time, it's not something that even crosses anyone's mind to question.

Well, perhaps it is time we started asking such questions. A lost war should be the occasion for a great public debate on the policies and the geopolitical assumptions that led to the war. Americans blew that opportunity after the Vietnam War. Instead of a genuine debate, we had a few years of apathy, verging on amnesia, toward foreign affairs followed by the Reagan revolution, whose disastrous effects in matters foreign (and domestic) still plague us. Now, we have another precious -- and preciously bought -- opportunity to raise fundamental issues about foreign policy. But in the mainstream, all we are getting is a false substitute for real public debate.

With an election looming, the Democrats portray themselves as the polar opposite of the Republicans. They blame the Iraq fiasco entirely on Bush and the neocons, conveniently overlooking all the support Bush got from the Democratic elite before his military venture went sour. They talk as if the only issue that matters is whether or not we begin to withdraw some troops from Iraq sometime next year. The media report this debate in excruciating detail, with no larger context at all. So most Americans think this is the only debate there is, or could be.

The other debate about Iraq -- the one that may matter more in the long run -- is the one going on in the private chambers of the policymakers about what messages they should send, not so much to enemies as to allies. Bush, Cheney, and their supporters say the most important message is a reassuring one: "When the U.S. starts a fight, it stays in until it wins. You can count on us." For key Democrats, including congressional leaders and major candidates for the imperial Presidency, the primary message is a warning: "U.S. support for friendly governments and factions is not an open-ended blank check. If you are not producing, we'll find someone else who can."

The two sides are hashing this one out in a sometimes strident, sometimes relatively chummy manner. The outcome will undoubtedly make a real difference, especially to the people of Iraq, but it's still only a dispute about tactics, never about goals, which have been agreed upon in advance.

Yet it's those long-range goals of the bipartisan consensus that add up to the seven-decade-old drive for imperial hegemony, which got us into Vietnam, Iraq, and wherever we fight the next large, disastrous war. It is those goals that should be addressed. Someone has to question that drive. And what better moment to do it than now, in the midst of another failed war? Unfortunately, the leading Democratic candidates are not about to take up the task. I guess it must be up to us.

Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Monsters To Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin.

Copyright 2007 Ira Chernus. Reprinted with permission of TomDispatch.

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