Column: Undercurrents: Figuring Our Way Out of Iraq

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday July 20, 2007

In my younger days, with more time on my hands but less patience, I used to try to figure out ways to make the water run out of the bathtub faster. Short of taking a hammer to the bottom of the tub, you can’t. It’s a mass-space-flow kind of thing. You can slow the water down or stop it back up altogether, I finally found, but you cannot speed up the water running out of the bathtub. 

So it is with Iraq. 

Later historians will have a better take on this, of course, but the plug seems to have gotten pulled out of the Iraq War tub sometime in the early spring of this year, about the time some of our Republican and conservative friends began recognizing the lost causiness quality of this particular American endeavor, something like our Confederate friends did in the winter months of 1865. Therefore, sometime during the first year of the first term of the next President of the United States, unless some unforeseen event intervenes, you can expect to see the end to U.S. combat operations between the Tigris and Euphrates. 

The narrow drainpipe keeping that from happening sooner is the administration of President George W. Bush. It is clear to all who have eyes to see that Mr. Bush has made the decision that a withdrawal from Iraq will not take place on his watch and, again short of busting out the bottom of the bathtub with a hammer, there is little that can be done to force him to do otherwise. It is not easy to stop a president in the midst of a war under any circumstances, and extricating from this one will be more difficult than most. Not the least of the problems with any withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq is the danger inherent in such an operation. This would not be anything like General Kutuzov offering Napeoleon and the Grand Army of the Republic a golden bridge to the West. The various factions attacking U.S. soldiers now would be expected to increase—not decrease—those attacks as the American combat presence wound down, making the planning and carrying out such a withdrawal more dangerous and difficult than anything American forces have so far done in Iraq. It would be a hard job for a president committed to such a withdrawal, a potential disaster for one—like Mr. Bush—who could only be made to do the task at the end of the whip. Knowing this, and knowing that responsible Congressional war opponents know this, Mr. Bush can afford to dawdle. In another six months, with the 2008 presidential campaign in full howl, most in the country will be looking to put the solution into the next President’s hands, and Mr. Bush will be off the hook. 

The most important question at that point will probably not be whether U.S. troops should be withdrawn from Iraq, but rather in what form that withdrawal should take place, and what type of American military/diplomatic/political/economic Middle East policy should come afterwards. 

I raised this issue in this column in November of 2006, shortly after Democrats won majorities in both houses of Congress, writing then that progressives should use that opportunity to begin a public discussion on terrorism—“how it should be defined, how it should be addressed, how it should be stopped.” 

The 2006 November victories—coming in no small part thanks to help from progressive actions and ideas—gave progressives an opportunity to enter the national defense debate in a serious way. 

“A good place to start, for progressives,” I wrote, “is a discussion of what we think should be done with and to al Qaeda 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. … 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.” 

But, of course, we did waste it, bless our hearts, spending most of the last six months trying to figure out ways to force Bush to end the war or to force Democrats to force Bush to end the war—how to make the water go faster out of the tub, in other words—with little thought to what will come next, or what we might do to influence it. 

On Wednesday, for just one example, after Senate Republicans defeated a war-ending measure during an all-night session, the Huffington Post sponsored a live online chat on “ending the war,” with readers spinning off various scenarios on how it might be done. 

When someone named RK in Fishkill, New York asked as one war-ending solution “Could we consider a modified partition? Define separate Sunni, Shia and Kurd havens of self-government (and safety), while internationalizing Baghdad and the oil (revenues to be split between the three entities according to a formula to be negotiated).”the moderator, Huffington Post columnist Tom Mattzie replied, “Bluntly, its none of our damn business what the geographic boundaries are inside Iraq . The Iraqis should decide that.” 

While that seems a reasonable enough rock upon which progressives can build their church of the world view—a throwback to the old let-everybody-do-their-own-thing days of my youth—how would such a doctrine square with other things that progressives might want to accomplish in the world? “Let Iraqis decide what’s best for Iraqis” runs into trouble when you are forced to decide how to define “Iraqis,” for example. Sadaam Hussein and his followers, with considerable historical evidence to back it up, once said that the split between Iraq and Kuwait was an artificial boundary drawn by Europe for the economic benefit of Europe, that Iraq and Kuwait were historically one, and that Kuwatis were actually Iraqis. Should Mr. Hussein, therefore, have been allowed to reclaim the diasporan Iraqis for the mother country? Further, at what historical point should we freeze the world’s geographical boundaries and declare that this was the legitimate point where everything was divided up fair, and everything that was changed afterwards was false? When Europe got into the picture? Does that mean European imperialism was bad but, say, that practiced by the emperor of China was not? It’s a slippery slope, friends. 

Meanwhile, if it’s “none of our damn business” what geographical boundaries are inside of Iraq, then, by extension, wasn’t it “none of our damn business” what geographical boundaries were inside of South Africa during the time of apartheid, and all the world’s efforts to intervene—including some valiant work by progressives—was a meddling in the internal affairs of a sovereign nation? Further, during the period when the United States set up its own internal geographical boundaries, dividing White communities from Black in the system called “segregation” and punishing the Black person who dared overstep those boundaries, was the old Soviet Union wrong to raise a fuss about it, and was the United Nations right to refuse to intervene at the request of such progressives as Paul Robeson and a Boalt Hall graduate named William Patterson, who charged that the United States was committing genocide upon its African-American citizens? 

And if it’s none of our damn business what happens within Iraq, is it none of our damn business what happens in Dafur, as well? 

Though I don’t know Mr. Mattzie that well, and I haven’t asked him the question, my guess is that he would believe otherwise. The problem is, how do you decide to draw the lines, and by what standards do you judge each situation? 

In the old, old, olden days—long before people even started using the term “back in the day”—we used to operate on what people then called “ideology.” This was not so much a set of do’s and don’ts—like an expanded Ten Commandments—but more a generalized view of the world and our place and responsibilities in it. Marxists used to be the main folks talking about ideology in that time—before the Marxist view of the world got cast down into darkness, and its proponents relegated to serving on school boards or corporate boards or city councils in Oakland and Berkeley and other such places—and it was a way they attempted to hold a general balance in their views and actions and keep from contradicting themselves from moment to moment. It was often a painful exercise, and it did not always work out so well in practice, but it was heads and shoulders above what we have now, where people seem perfectly content to alter their positions from situation to situation, depending upon the political direction from which and to which that particular wind is blowing. Mr. Clinton should be condemned because because lying to a grand jury under oath is a serious matter, for example, but Mr. Libby should be forgiven because lying to a grand jury under oath is not a serious matter. Progressives easily see that particular toothpick stuck in conservative eyes, to paraphrase the Bible, but not the plank in their (our) own. 

A progressive ideology would be a nice thing to have right about now, a sort of unified political theory that tied together issues of race and racism and global warming and environmental health and health care and economic policy and families and child-raising and war and such in a package that allowed each to be understood, and saw each in relation to the others. An overall progressive American defense strategy might be good as well, looking at how progressives think Americans should defend ourselves in a troubled world. But all of that is a lot to ask for, given the time constraints. I would just settle for knowing what general conditions progressives want in the Middle East, both involving America and not involving America, once the war in Iraq is over. That seems more than enough for progressives to think about and develop, while we’re waiting for the water to run out of the tub, and preventing our Republican and conservative friends from stopping up the drain.