The Logic of Withdrawal

by Anthony Arnove



The Logic of Withdrawal

by Anthony Arnove

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In this book, I argue the case for the immediate withdrawal of all

U.S. and international troops from Iraq. I stress immediate withdrawal, as opposed to various proposals for a timetable for withdrawal, gradual withdrawal, or withdrawal when the situation in Iraq has “stabilized” at some undefined point in the future. All of these, in the end, are recipes for continued occupation and bloodshed, for one simple reason: the people who will decide when the

U.S. military and its allies are prepared to leave are the very people who started the war in the first place and now have so much at stake in winning it.

The title of this book is borrowed from Howard Zinn’s prescient Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal, first published in 1967 by Beacon Press and republished in 2002 by South End Press.1 In that book, Zinn made a clear and convincing case for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam. In retrospect, we can see the enormous suffering caused by prolonging that war. As it became clear that the United States was losing in Vietnam, Washington did not at first retreat, but expanded the war to Laos and Cambodia. Tens of thousands more U.S. soldiers and literally millions of people in Indochina would die before the government finally was forced to withdraw all of its troops.

No historical analogies are ever exact, but the parallels between Iraq and Vietnam are significant. In both cases, the greatest military power in human history has encountered the limits of its ability to impose its will on a people who do not welcome its intervention. In Iraq, like Vietnam, soldiers themselves have begun to question the rationale for the war given by politicians and daily echoed by the dominant media, as they see on the ground the enormous contradictions in the claim that the United States is “bringing democracy” to a people it is brutalizing and repressing. In both cases, the war abroad is having profound costs at home, in terms of slashed social spending, families and communities torn apart by the war, and veterans abandoned by a government that seeks to silence dissent with its empty slogans insisting that we must “support our troops,” by which they mean we must uncritically support the war that is killing and maiming them needlessly. Today, the United States is also attempting to cover for its failures by pursuing an “Iraqization” of the conflict, much as it pursued “Vietnamization” before.

In many ways, though, the analogy to Vietnam understates what is at stake for the U.S. government in Iraq. In geostrategic terms, Iraq, which has the world’s second-largest oil reserves and sits in a region with two thirds of global oil reserves, is far more important to the United States today than was Vietnam in 1967. As Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen wrote, “where Iraq is really different from Vietnam” is that “there can be no premature, chaotic and shameful withdrawal. In the end,Vietnam didn’t matter. Iraq does.”2 In November 2005, the influential senator John McCain of Arizona echoed this view, calling for ten thousand more troops to go to Iraq, arguing that the “stakes are higher” in Iraq “than they were in Vietnam.”3

The supporters of “regime change” in Iraq made immense claims about changes not only in Iraq, but throughout the whole of the Middle East. In Iraq, the United States faces not just the prospect of retreat from those aims, but a serious reversal. The consequences of a defeat in Iraq are therefore far more significant. Politicians and planners in Washington know that their ability to intervene in other countries will be severely hampered if the United States is forced from Iraq without having achieved at least its main imperial objectives. This explains, in part, the commitment of the Democratic Party to “winning” the war in Iraq, a position that ties it in knots and leaves it incapable of leading any antiwar opposition.

We cannot rule out that the United States will crush Iraq, and will occupy the country for years to come, in order to achieve at the very least an appearance of victory. The war in Iraq will most likely end, though, as the war in Vietnam did, with a defeat of the United States. Either way, as with the Vietnam War, the highest price will be paid, and for years to come, by the occupied population, the Iraqi people, who have already suffered years of a dictatorship backed by the United States and years of war and sanctions.

Vietnam today still suffers the tragic consequences of U.S. intervention, for which no politician in Washington has ever assumed meaningful responsibility. To this day, people are suffering from the toxic chemical assault on the country. The United States dropped more than ten million gallons of Agent Orange and other defoliants containing deadly toxins.4 But Washington has long denied responsibility for these war crimes. As Andrew Metz of Newsday notes, “U.S. officials have long said the Vietnamese allegations of extreme health problems are unsubstantiated and exaggerated. The government has opposed . . . [a] class action suit, which covers as many as four million alleged victims, insisting that it would invite former enemies into American courts.” In March 2005, a Brooklyn federal judge dismissed charges that companies that produced chemical weapons used in Vietnam “violated international conventions on chemical warfare and ruled that the firms were shielded from liability anyway because they were contractors following military orders.” The U.S. companies responsible for the devastation also have refused to accept any responsibility. Scot Wheeler, a spokesman for Dow, the major manufacturer of dioxin, put the matter succinctly: “War damages people, lives and the environment,” so Dow can’t be held responsible for producing weapons of war.5

In urging the Brooklyn judge to dismiss the lawsuit against Dow and other companies, the Justice Department made clear its real objection: “The implications of [the] plaintiffs’ claims are astounding, as they would open the courthouse doors of the American legal system for former enemy nationals and soldiers claiming to have been harmed by the United States Armed Forces.” In addition, the Justice Department argued that recognition of the rights of Vietnamese who suffered from dioxin poisoning would pose “a dangerous threat to the president’s power to wage war.”6

In keeping with this logic, the Justice Department has sought to challenge restrictions on the right of the U.S. military to use torture or to conduct “extraordinary renditions” of anyone it deems an “enemy” or “unlawful combatant.” In the view of many in the Bush administration, the president and the executive branch are above all international law, and can conduct wars with only the most cursory congressional, judicial, or international legal oversight.7 Indeed, in February 2002, the Bush administration formally concluded that the Geneva Conventions do not apply to U.S. actions in the “war on terror.”8 The horrors of Camp X-Ray and Camp Delta in Guant‡namo, of Abu Ghraib and other U.S. prison camps in Iraq and Afghanistan, and of the outsourcing of torture to states known to abuse prisoners and detainees are all the logical outcome of this doctrine of impunity.

Other countries around the world now echo this same logic. Politicians who are accused of human rights abuses openly protest that they are merely protecting themselves against terrorism, like the United States, when they assassinate Palestinians, Chechens, or domestic dissidents. And, befriending Washington, a number of governments have signed on to be members of the “coalition of the willing,” providing support for the United States and hoping for economic and political rewards, including potential future oil concessions in Iraq. While it was easy to mock the list of members of the coalition, the United Kingdom, Australia, Spain, Italy, and a long list of countries sent troops in numbers sufficient to allow the Bush administration to use the pretext that it was “enforcing the international will” and acting to implement United Nations resolutions in its invasion of Iraq.

Of the more than one hundred and seventy-five thousand troops in Iraq at the end of 2005, some twenty-five thousand were from outside the United States. Though the numbers have been largely kept secret, roughly twenty thousand private security guards— mercenaries—were also in Iraq, double the second-largest national contingent, the United Kingdom’s.9 These mercenaries, among them people involved in torture at Abu Ghraib, have operated in a gray area largely outside international law.10

The countries that have supported the U.S. adventure in Iraq also bear responsibility for this war.

The invasion of Iraq in March 2003 and the subsequent occupation of the country have already had profound consequences for world politics, and will do so for years to come. The United States has made the world a more dangerous place, has fueled reactionary political currents in Iraq and beyond, has increased the likelihood of terrorist attacks at home and in the countries of visible U.S. allies, and has undermined the potential for democratic developments in the Middle East—contrary to all the claims of President Bush and his apologists.

In Iraq, the United States and its allies have run up against the limits of empire. Those responsible for this war may at some point seek to cut their losses, but it is incumbent on popular forces in the United States, in the rank and file of the U.S. military, and internationally to force the U.S. government to this conclusion at the soonest possible moment, before the consequences become far worse. We must also confront a much larger challenge: the need to transform the irrational economic and political system that led to the wars in Vietnam and Iraq and that is today very directly threatening the survival of the human species.

Copyright © 2006 by Anthony Arnove