Column: Undercurrents: Progressives Must Start Thinking About What To Do About Iraq

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday November 17, 2006

Three years ago, when the United States invaded Iraq, I put up a map of that country on my wall—as the old-timers used to do in other wars—so I could follow the course of the battles. I also bought two or three Middle Eastern history books, so that I might have a better knowledge of that part of the world, and a better understanding of the ancient racial, ethnic, and religious conflicts that we—America—had now thrust ourselves into. 

Though the map is still there, I haven’t looked at it more than once or twice since the President’s infamous “mission accomplished” speech on the aircraft carrier, and the Iraq conflict turned from a battle over cities and river crossings to a battle of shadows, where control of territory is fleeting, and has little or no meaning. And while I finally came to understand—I think—what originally drove Shi’a against Sunni and the nervousness of Arab nations about Turkey, that was little help in following the complex, bewildering, and all-but-overwhelming interplay between the new Iraqi government and all Iraq’s peoples—including the Kurds—the militias, the religious organizations, and the various surrounding nations. 

Instead, like so many Americans who identify themselves by the broad category of “progressives,” I long ago came to the broad conclusion that “we” should not be “there,” and the sooner out, the better. So long as our Republican friends were in power, both in Congress and in the White House, that was an easy position to take, since no thoughtful dialogue seemed possible with the Rumsfelds of the world, and it appeared that events—rather than reasoned argument—would be the determining factor. 

And so, events have. The balance of American opinion tipped against the Bush Administration’s Iraq policy, driving the Republicans out of the majority in both houses of the national congress, putting the Democrats back into national legislative power. Despite the Bush administration’s stubborn insistences to the contrary, American policy in the Iraq war is going to change. But in which direction? And how much? And to what end? That has yet to be determined and, in the determining, the future of both our country and our world will be determined. We are at that sort of pivotal, historic point. The decisions this country is about to make need both our close attention, and our studious and determined participation. 

We have not won the political battle over American foreign policy, in other words, so much as we have gained entrance to the battleground as participants. 

The famous line from Irish poet William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming” poem—“things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”—is too often quoted to apply to too many things, but in this instance, at least, it seems appropriate. 

The center, in this instance, is the current Bush policy in Iraq—whatever that policy may happen to be—keeping roughly the same number of troops on the ground with roughly the same strategies and tactics. If the history of the last three years has taught us anything, it is that this policy is a halfway measure that retains the worst of both worlds—draining the blood and treasure and moral authority and international good will of the United States on the one hand, while it fails to either diminish the violence in Iraq or advance appreciably towards a democratic Iraq run by the Iraqis themselves. 

That leaves the country with two alternatives, advocacy of which combined together to make up the national disaffection that led to the overthrow of Republican Congressional power in this month’s general elections. 

The first alternative—now articulated by U.S. Senator John McCain—is to overwhelm the opposition in Iraq—whoever they are—by escalation, increasing the number of U.S. troops in the country. 

The second alternative—embraced by the Democrats—involves a reduction in the active U.S. military participation in the Iraq wars. But how fast a reduction? And how much? And to where would the troops be sent? To barracks in Baghdad? Back into Afghanistan to reinvigorate the war against Al Queda and the Taliban? To permanent, Middle East bases as a strike force rather than an occupying army? To Tehran or Pyongyang, to take out the nuclear reactors? Or back home? Those destinations were left deliberately, and appropriately, vague by Democrats during the fall election cycle. But the election is over, and the time has come for concrete planning and implementation, in which vagueness is no longer permissible. 

What are the Democrats to do? 

What should progressives—whoever they are—advocate? 

One of the central questions in this discussion will be our national policy towards “terrorists” and “terrorism.” 

There ought to be a general consensus among progressives that the indiscriminate violent targeting of innocents—one of the central definitions of what we call “terrorism”—is wrong, abhorrent, and cannot be supported. 

But one of the major reasons progressives cringe and fail to take that fatal step forward to join the current American anti-terrorist drumline is that the Bush Administration and too many of our brothers and sisters in the conservative camp have defined the terms “terrorist” and “terrorism” too broadly when it comes to people they don’t like—allowing them to harass and jail nonviolent anti-war demonstrators, for example, or keep Congolese or Cuban folkloric dancers out of the country—while simultaneously applying the terms too narrowly when it comes to people they support. This has led to the type of skewed thinking that somehow America has the right to bring foreign nationals to this country—by kidnap, if necessary—for trial for crimes against American citizens that did not take place on American soil, but that somehow, this doesn’t then automatically confer that right on other nations—Germany, for example, in the case of the war crimes accusations against outgoing Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld. It has also allowed the turning of a blind eye to people like Ann Coulter, who have for years been tossing out phrases that extol violence against American citizens who disagree with their political or social positions. The Coulters of the world are excused by saying that this is, after all, merely free speech and lively rhetoric. But when does this cross the line into the encouragement of violence, and, therefore, terrorism? When some young man listens long enough, takes it seriously enough, and decides to mail threats and fake anthrax to progressive and liberal figures?  

But with Democrats coming back into power, progressives can no longer avoid a public discussion on terrorism—how it should be defined, how it should be addressed, how it should be stopped—since much of what will drive the new Democratic Congress’ agenda is what is suggested and promoted by the left. 

A good place to start, for progressives, is a discussion of what we think should be done with and to Al Queda and the organization’s leader—Osama bin Laden—and, in a broader question, what we advocate to do to prevent the growth of terrorism and terrorists in the world. This should not a device to convince the middle that the left is serious about national security. It should be a means of plumbing into our own souls and consciences, to delve into what we actually feel and stand for, and what we are willing to do to protect the people we love. 

While I have my own thoughts on the matter, I am purposely not advocating a particular outcome of this discussion, only that a discussion is needed. Get out of Iraq. Get out of Iraq! GET OUT OF IRAQ! In order to be heard over the deliberate obfuscation and national bedlam, we have had to continue a single-minded chant-and-shout over these past three years. 

But the time for shouting has ended, friends, at least for the present, and we have come into a brief, breathless moment in which we can have a quiet talk among ourselves about what we now want to do, and who we want to be. 

Let us not waste it.