April 30, 2008
The New York Review of Books

Iraq: Will We Ever Get Out?

by Thomas Powers

Invading the Middle East is the kind of imperial overreach that breaks the spine of great powers. Secretary of State Colin Powell tried to warn Bush against the magnitude of the undertaking with reference to the homespun "Pottery Barn rule" - if you break it, you own it. Did anyone go further and attempt to explain that Iraq was a seething cockpit of warring religions, political movements, social classes, and ethnic groups, many influenced by Iran? Did the President worry about the difficulty of occupying and rebuilding a country of nearly 30 million people with ancient scores to settle?

It appears that he did not. Going to war in Afghanistan and then Iraq was what the President wanted to do and he let nothing stand in his way. Afghanistan was not a hard sell but Iraq took real resolution. The arguments for war were weak to begin with and got weaker with time. The UN inspectors found none of the Iraqi weapons cited to justify war and asked only for some months to verify disarmament; the Security Council refused to pass a resolution for war; only Britain among America's most important allies joined the coalition of the willing to fight the war. But no setback cracked Bush's resolution and he went ahead. John McCain is content with the wars he will inherit if fate touches him with its finger, but Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama do not like the situation as they expect to find it. The war in Iraq promises only expense and failure, and the mix includes other daunting troubles - a Turkish military hovering just across the border from Iraq's quasi-autonomous Kurdish region, with one Turkish eye on the oil of Kirkuk; deepening connections between the Shiite government in Baghdad and Shiite Iran, which continues to ignore American threats of military action if it does not believably abandon its nuclear program; a safe haven for the Taliban in the Pakistani provinces bordering on Afghanistan; and loss of Pakistani support for American desire to take the war into the tribal areas. That safe haven made it impossible for the Russians to win, and it will soon obsess the Americans as well.

But set Afghanistan aside. Iraq is the big war. Getting out of Iraq will require just as much resolution as it took to get in - and the same kind of resolution: a willingness to ignore the consequences. The consequence hardest to ignore will be the growing power and influence of Iran, which Bush has described as one of the two great security threats to the US. Israel shares this view of Iran. No new president will want to run the risk of being thought soft on Iran. This is where the military error exacts a terrible price. A political conflict transformed into a military conflict requires a military resolution, and those, famously, come in two forms - victory or defeat. Getting out means admitting defeat.

Is it possible that the new president will have that kind of resolution? I think not; . . .


[Iraqi critics point out that the agreement contains no limits on numbers of US forces, the weapons they are able to deploy, their legal status or powers over Iraqi citizens, going far beyond long-term US security agreements with other countries.--Seumas Milne, "Secret US Plan for Military Future in Iraq," Guardian, April 8, 2005]

Enver Masud, "Iraqis Pay? The Arrogance of the U.S.," The Wisdom Fund, April 12, 2008

[Our forces would then be consolidated in Baghdad, from where they would withdraw along the road to Kuwait, known as Route Tampa, until eventually all American forces would be gone. This could be done safely in 10 to 12 months and would result in comparatively few casualties, as it would play to our strengths.--Lawrence Korb, "The Road to Kuwait: Iraq War advocates overstate the difficulties of withdrawal," American Conservative, May 19, 2008]

[The British occupation force was opposed by an Iraqi resistance "terrorists", of course - and the British destroyed a town called Fallujah and demanded the surrender of a Shiite cleric and British intelligence in Baghdad claimed that "terrorists" were crossing the border from Syria, and Lloyd George - the Blair-Brown of his age - then stood up in the House of Commons and said that there would be "anarchy" in Iraq if British troops left. Oh dear.

So let us turn at last to T E Lawrence. Yes, Lawrence of Arabia. In The Sunday Times on 22 August 1920, he wrote of Iraq that the people of England "had been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information... Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows." Even more presciently, Lawrence had written that the Iraqis had not risked their lives in battle to become British subjects. "Whether they are fit for independence or not remains to be tried. Merit is no justification for freedom."--Robert Fisk, "A historic day for Iraq - but not in the way the British want to believe," Independent, May 1, 2009

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