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Why the U.S. must withdraw from Iraq

Vietnam proved that offensive occupations are doomed. In his arrogance, Bush is repeating the same blunder.

By Peter Dale Scott

Oct. 28, 2004 "Salon.com"
-- In 1991, after the Gulf War, President George H.W. Bush proclaimed, "The specter of Vietnam has been buried forever in the desert sands of the Arabian Peninsula." But the specter he and the Pentagon had feared for over a decade, of a devastating shrinkage of U.S. influence following a military withdrawal, had always been a phantom. 

That "specter," of defeat in Vietnam, proved in time to be as harmless as a Halloween ghost. Asia did not tip as predicted toward the Communist camp after America withdrew; Asia tipped decisively the other way. And it did so precisely because America's troops stopped fighting where they did not belong, leaving space for other Americans to come in and do more constructive forms of business. 

We face a different specter today: the sibling specter of escalation and imperial overstretch. The true Vietnam syndrome is our country's proven pathological history of involvement in unnecessary and unwinnable wars. 

These sibling Vietnam specters, one of withdrawal and one of escalation, haunt different sectors of our bitterly divided country. The first haunts those who fear America might lose control of the world. They are haunted also by memories of domestic antiwar opposition, as in Oliver North's revealing complaint to Congress that the Vietnam War was lost, not in Asia, but in the streets of this country. (This complaint recently surfaced in ugly partisan form when the so-called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, enraged at Sen. John Kerry's opposition to the war in Vietnam, smeared his honorable service there.) 

The second Vietnam specter haunts those who fear America is becoming trapped again by delusional dreams of domination. The immediate danger in Iraq, unfortunately, is not that we will pull out our troops and come home. On the contrary, it is that we will commit more and more troops, incur greater and greater casualties on all sides, and quite possibly expand the war beyond Iraq's frontiers, before we finally reach the relatively happy and simple outcome of withdrawal. 

Last April U.S. Marines attacked the city of Fallujah with tanks and helicopter gunships, in reprisal for the killing of four American contract workers. According to Iraqi doctors, at least 600 people were killed, mostly civilians. This was more than the total number of civilians killed by the Iraqi insurgents in the previous year. As John Pilger noted, the slaughter could be compared to the S.S. killing of 600 French civilians in the village of Oradour, in revenge for the kidnapping of a German officer. 

Such brutal acts are the inevitable consequence of sustained offensive occupation in a foreign land, where troops at war are not welcomed. The assaults are not easily forgotten. Given any publicity, they are far less likely to cow opponents than to mobilize them. This is why, for almost 50 years, offensive occupations have led to defeat, not victory, for the invader. 

One would have thought therefore that America might admit its error last May in Fallujah and take steps to make sure it is not repeated. This is what the British in India did after the notorious Amritsar massacre of 1919, which killed 379 civilians and galvanized Indian resistance into Gandhi's Non-Cooperation Movement. 

But America is not about to reconsider. After backing off last May, the current U.S. plan is to soften up Fallujah with heavy air strikes before Marines and Iraqi troops go back in. This policy is supported by both the presidential candidates. Kerry, in the first presidential debate, said that Bush was wrong to "back off of Fallujah and other places and send the wrong message to terrorists." 

Meanwhile the Christian Science Monitor recently reported that the result of the recent intense bombardment of Fallujah is "new fear that is tearing at family social fabric, which Iraqis say has only hardened attitudes against American efforts." One Iraqi mother whose family decided to flee Fallujah after witnessing civilian casualties said, "What did this teach us about the Americans? First we thought the Americans came to liberate our country, but now our conclusion is the opposite. We know they came to destroy our country." 

Kerry has said he wants more troops in Iraq (which of course will mean more casualties). He has called for adding 40,000 troops, while Sen. John McCain wants 90,000. However, these figures may not begin to match what the Bush administration has in mind if it remains in the White House. 

Predicting a war against Islamic terrorism that "will continue for several years," the private research group Stratfor recently reported that "there will be a massive increase in the size of the U.S. military in 2005." It foresaw that the occupation and "pacification" of several countries -- not just Iraq -- will require the presence of ground forces "far in excess of those needed to defeat an enemy armored force." 

Such grandiose visions are reinforced by books like Niall Ferguson's "Colossus." Ferguson argues that "imposing democracy on all the world's 'rogue states' would not push the defense budget much above 5 percent of GDP" and "would pay a long-run dividend." Failure to step up to this challenge, he warns, could lead to imperial decline "from within." 

Not mentioned by Stratfor, but certainly pertinent, are U.S. plans for permanent bases in Iraq. The Bush administration's National Security Strategy document of 2002 announced that "the United States will require bases and stations within and beyond Western Europe and Northeast Asia." There was much press alarm about the uncertain political future of Saudi Arabia, then the home of America's largest bases in the Gulf. Journalist Jay Bookman predicted that "having conquered Iraq, the United States will create permanent military bases in that country from which to dominate the Middle East, including neighboring Iran." 

John Pike, director of GlobalSecurities.org, has since identified no less than 12 "enduring bases" being constructed by the U.S. Army in Iraq (two less than the 14 reported by the Chicago Tribune last March). Those bases will have to be both manned and defended, while some are eager to use them for still wider wars. (Gen. John Abizaid, head of U.S. Central Command, told Americans to be ready for a "long war in the Middle East and Central Asia.") 

Stratfor, in talking of multiple occupations, recognized that the Army cannot be seriously expanded by present policies and that a draft as an alternative is politically unacceptable. Its solution: "There is no way around an expanded force and there is no way, therefore, around vastly increased pay and benefits for the troops." 

A trial balloon for an expanded force may have also been floated in a long article on Iraq strategy by Michael Gordon in the Oct. 19 New York Times. In his piece, "many military officers and civilian officials" blamed the problems so far in Iraq on a tactical miscalculation: the failure to have sent enough troops. One suggestion from military advisors was that the United States should match the troop-to-population ratios that saw the U.S. succeed in occupying Bosnia and Kosovo. 

An equivalent ratio in Iraq would mean something between 360,000 and 480,000 troops. This would be in line with the "several hundred thousand" that in 2002 Gen. Eric Shinseki, then the Army's chief of staff, testified would be needed - a figure that deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz derided as "wildly off the mark." 

Many news stories by the Times' Gordon and his frequent coauthor Judith Miller have uncritically presented the current mindset of the pro-war clique in the Pentagon. A now-notorious story he co-wrote with Miller that ran on Sept. 8, 2002, promoted the claim, later refuted, that aluminum tubing observed in Iraq was "intended for a nuclear weapons program." It failed to acknowledge that this allegation was (as the Times admitted two years later) the subject of "bureaucratic infighting ... so widely known that even the Australian government was aware of it." The story provided the centerpiece for Dick Cheney and others' erroneous case that Saddam was pursuing nuclear weapons. 

Whether the initial deployment of a much larger U.S. force would have prevented the Iraqi insurgency from becoming so entrenched is debatable. But it should be noted that Gordon's discussion of successful troop levels in Bosnia and Kosovo fails, as do the military planners he cites, to make an elementary distinction. In both Bosnia and Kosovo, U.S. troops were welcomed by the majority of the local population, against a hated Serb minority who were seen as foreign oppressors. In Iraq, on the other hand, the only groups actively desiring a U.S. invasion were the unrepresentative exiles of the Iraqi National Congress, along with the non-Arab Kurdish minority in the north. 

It was not the number of U.S. troops that made the difference, it was acceptance by the people. U.S. officials assumed that the Iraqi people were so desperate to be rid of Saddam that they would welcome American troops as liberators. There was perhaps a brief period of time when that could have been true, but if it ever existed it is gone. And it is unlikely that the U.S. Army as we know it was capable of doing the job, when its political action officers were mostly reservists with only one weekend of special training. 

Meanwhile the air strikes continue, in Fallujah and elsewhere. (According to Knight Ridder 3,487 Iraqi civilians were killed in U.S. attacks between April 5 and Sept. 19, more than twice the number killed by insurgents.) The fallacious assumption is that one can kill off a resistance by using tactics which cause that resistance to grow. This might have been possible in past centuries, when brutal tactics could be covered by a shroud of secrecy, but is now highly unlikely in a world of mass communications and growing public opinion. 

Why does America persist in a tactic that is doomed to fail? In the short run, of course, it is because January's elections in Iraq cannot meaningfully take place if parts of the country are not under central Iraqi control. But this does not answer the question why America initiated an offensive occupation that to outsiders seemed certain to arrive at just this dilemma. 

To understand this, I believe we must examine that other specter, the inner momentum to overstretch, that has escalated previous U.S. military offensives, particularly in Vietnam. 

Recent history has shown that an army can occupy a foreign country without alienating it. Despite occasional tensions, U.S. troops have been able to stay without major crises for over 50 years in Germany, Japan and South Korea. Sentiment in these three countries is still more pro-American than in France, where U.S. troops are not stationed at all. 

Troops can even fight in a foreign land and be popular, if it is clear that they are expelling foreign occupiers rather than becoming invasive occupiers themselves. This was the U.S. experience in Kosovo and Bosnia, just as in 1944 the Americans were welcomed in France, and the Russians at least tolerated in Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. (Western propaganda notwithstanding, the Russian presence in those countries did not become doomed until after the disastrous oppressions of Budapest in 1956 and Prague in 1968.) 

Even the American experience in Vietnam can be divided into two phases. Before Americans began a heightened offensive campaign in 1964-65, American troops, admittedly still relatively few in number, were generally tolerated by most South Vietnamese. They were indeed welcomed by some, including the large Catholic minority. 

But the U.S. Army's search-and-destroy tactics (of the type repeated this year at Fallujah) soon guaranteed that the U.S. would be fighting a war it could not win. As Daniel Ellsberg reports in "Secrets," there was no shortage of American observers who knew this. He and other Americans in Vietnam felt uncomfortably like the British redcoats sent to quell the American Revolution. 

Compare the situation in Thailand, where Americans had been active since about 1950, and U.S. combat troops had been introduced in 1962. The U.S. troops were concentrated in the northeast (Isan) territory, where there was an active pro-communist resistance and the allegiance of most people to Bangkok was far from secure. By 1965 the U.S. troops (mostly Air Force) were active combatants, supporting heavy anti-civilian bombing campaigns in northern Laos, along the Ho Chi Minh trail, and occasionally inside North Vietnam. 

But wisely, U.S. troops were never committed to the counterinsurgency campaign inside Thailand itself. As a result anti-Americanism never became widespread, even though the CIA had helped to install a series of oppressive and uncharacteristically violent military dictators in Bangkok. Soon after U.S. troops were withdrawn from Thailand in 1976, the era of military dictatorships and violence came to an end. 

Today the Thai people and rulers alike are resolutely pro-American. Thailand at last has a civilian democratic government. The pro-communist insurrection in the northeast has ended. But these results were not and could not have been achieved until after the U.S. troops withdrew. 

Ironically America was the victim of its own early successes in containing communism and stabilizing Thailand, in part by developing a Thai counterinsurgency force, PARU. This led America, step by successful step, into the increasing follies of using PARU in rollback campaigns, in Laos and Vietnam. This pattern of momentum to overstretch from success has since been repeated, most recently in Afghanistan (1980, 1984, 2001) and Iraq (1991, 2003). 

Mediocre minds often learn bad lessons from military success. Though the examples of Hitler and Napoleon leap to mind, a more recent example is neocon Max Boot's cheery assertion in 2002 that "Afghanistan and other troubled lands today cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs." (The English, for the record, totally failed to administer Afghanistan.) 

Such untroubled thinking inspired the Bush White House, also in 2002, after Afghanistan but before Iraq. According to Ron Suskind, who related the conversation in the New York Times Magazine, a senior Bush advisor told him then that people like Suskind were ''in what we call the reality-based community.'' The advisor defined it as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality ... That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he said. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too." 

Those "other new realities," according to other Bush advisors, would include not just Iraq, but Syria, Iran and possibly North Korea. 

Defeat can be an even more powerful motive for overstretch. "The specter of Vietnam" (meaning the embarrassment of a forced withdrawal) obsessed U.S. strategic and military minds after 1975. It clearly was a motive in the graduated crescendo of U.S. interventions that began with Grenada and Panama and climaxed with the Gulf War of 1991. (And of course George H.W. Bush's premature announcement that "the specter of Vietnam has been buried forever.") 

America's wars since 1950 can all be seen in the light of this recurring paradigm. Time after time they began as limited interventions in the name of containment, and these goals were achieved. But time after time, in Southeast Asia, in Central Asia and most recently in Iraq, the mobilizations for the limited goal of containment (the Gulf War in 1991) have unleashed internal U.S. forces that have carried America into unwinnable offensive occupations of rollback (Iraq in 2003). 

The message is clear, even if one does not often hear it from geostrategists and military historians. American interventions have been successful when limited in their goals: containment, support of the local populations, and maintenance of international order. But these very successes have also led to disasters, when, time after time, the momentum of war has propelled American strategy beyond those limits. 

The example of Korea in 1950 most easily illustrates the paradigm. American-led troops quickly expelled the invaders from South Korea, but then suffered heavy losses after they moved north and became invaders themselves. The same can be said of the North Koreans in South Korea: Indeed a key event in creating two countries out of one was the war itself, leading most people to identify with their local army and regard the other as invasive oppressors. 

In the end, after many casualties and much loss of civilian life, America could point to the success of an independent and now prosperous South Korea. But that success could have been achieved, and had already been achieved, before the folly of crossing the 38th parallel north. 

One can make a similar observation about America's proxy war in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The campaign to expel Russians from Afghanistan was successful, but its very success led to an expansion of U.S. goals beyond Afghanistan's borders. America made a secret decision in 1984 to train foreign Islamist troops to cross the Amu Darya north, for the sake of separating the Muslim peoples of Central Asia from the Soviet Union. This rollback campaign was also successful, but in a way inimical to the United States. 

For the U.S. decision to train Muslim foreigners in offensive terrorism outside Afghanistan's borders was a key factor in the emergence of the al-Qaida menace that we (as well as the Russians) face today. The U.S. is now paying dearly for its 1980s excesses in Afghanistan, which our intelligence experts persist in calling the "most successful covert action program in American history." 

This pattern of historic momentum toward overstretch underlies all of the world's recent offensive occupations, both foreign and even domestic. Russia's efforts in Chechnya today date back to Czar Nicholas' order in 1829 to his commander in chief in the Caucasus, I.F. Paskevich: "Thus, having completed one glorious campaign [against Turkey], you are to launch another one, ... to pacify the mountainous nations once and for all." So began the failed military efforts, described vividly by Tolstoy, that are still failing today. 

The ill-fated Indonesian campaign to subdue Timor Leste was similarly fuelled by misleading momentum. As Indonesian officers told a Catholic missionary there in 1981, "We did the same thing [that is, terrorize the population] in Java, in Borneo, in the Celebes, ... and it worked." 

Perhaps the most relevant example of internal momentum leading to overstretch is the now 37-year-old Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Born of the euphoria of the lightning-quick 1967 war, the occupation has become a wound that will not heal. 

In general, nations have been able to send troops overseas and achieve their objectives when the objectives are both limited and locally supported. But for almost half a century neither America nor any other country has been able to win what was clearly a major offensive occupation in a hostile foreign land. 

(The last successes were won by the British, against the Chinese in Malaya, 1948-1957, and against the Mau Mau in Kenya, 1952-1956. Both campaigns were against well-defined ethnic minorities in limited areas. Meanwhile the French failed spectacularly to maintain their former colonial dominance even in Algeria, which had been governed as part of metropolitan France.) 

This simple truth -- that an offensive occupation of an unwilling foreign nation is now unwinnable -- can rightly be seen as a subversive one. For it is at odds with assumptions underlying the Bush national security doctrine of Full Spectrum Dominance over the rest of the world. Indeed it calls into question why America has 725 military bases scattered over the world, down from a Cold War peak of 1,700 in about 100 countries. 

To to understand the case for withdrawal, we need to remember that withdrawal from Vietnam was the key to the ultimate U.S. success in Southeast Asia. The hot Vietnam War that only began in 1965 was a late and unnecessary stage of a U.S. Southeast Asian deployment that began in Thailand in the early 1950s and continued incrementally but continuously thereafter, into Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. It passed from being a campaign of containment to a doomed campaign of rollback, when America began a campaign to reverse the neutralism decreed for Indochina by the Geneva Agreements of 1954. 

This U.S. war in Southeast Asia was largely successful in its primary strategic goals, even though it failed in the secondary goal of "saving" Indochina. It succeeded above all in restricting communist governments to Indochina, whereas in 1950 there were serious fears that communism might spread through Southeast Asia. (The "domino theory," though irrelevant by 1965, had been a legitimate concern in the early 1950s.) 

The U.S. succeeded in winning the hearts and minds of the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia for Western capitalism, rather than Chinese communism. And it succeeded in securing and protecting large tracts of the South China Sea for offshore exploration and development by Western oil companies. Those successes, along with parallel and related successes in Japan, were important if not vital in presenting a contemporary vision of capitalism that is global rather than Eurocentric. 

In retrospect we can see that it was precisely the early U.S. successes in Thailand that misled America into an unwinnable hot war. One can debate at what point the U.S. should have been willing to rest on its limited defensive achievements. I would personally put the optimum checkpoint at 1954. The U.S. could, I believe, have achieved all that it ultimately did achieve in Southeast Asia, if it had decided to accept the 1954 Geneva Agreements for a political resolution in Indochina. 

That the United States did not do so must be attributed chiefly to the paranoia of the Cold War. American officials saw insurgencies in Vietnam and even Laos as part of a global game plan being masterminded in the Kremlin. Today even the imperialist hawk Niall Ferguson can admit, in "Colossus," that it was a "tragic error" to have seen North Vietnam "as a mere instrument of world communism." But it is just as paranoid, and just as tragic, to see the predictable nationalist resistance to our troops in Iraq as part of a global Islamist conspiracy. There is less excuse for this latest folly: America knows far more about Iraq in 2004 than it did about Indochina a half century earlier. 

The important point is that whereas a limited strategy of containment succeeded in achieving America's strategic goals, an unnecessary hot war led only to a defeat still bitterly remembered. And the U.S. displacement of a neutralist government in Cambodia led to the brief dominance there of the Khmer Rouge, one of the most infamous by-products of America's propensity to enlarge its wars. Our excesses helped produce killers in Southeast Asia then, as they are doing in Central Asia today. 

Above all the eventual happy outcome of the war in Southeast Asia must be seen as a success for America, not as a victory. It was far more a product of the many smaller things America let happen, than of the bigger things, some of them disastrous, that America made happen. Paradoxically this success could only be fully realized after the U.S. withdrew its troops, with which it had been seeking vainly to impose other unworkable outcomes. America's success came from its finally permitting Southeast Asians do things democratically for themselves. 

Here we see the complex analogy with Iraq, and the only reasonable road ahead. The wisdom of the elder Bush in withdrawing after the Gulf War in 1991, produced, even within his own administration, forces frustrated by this acceptance of limited victory. Intoxicated by victory, they wished instead to impose a more forceful U.S. presence upon Iraq and the Middle East. 

Both the moderates and the hawks of the Bush I administration were again represented in the administration of Bush II. But the moderates who had prevailed in 1991, notably Colin Powell, were now conspicuously overshadowed by the neocon hawks who then had lost, notably Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz. The scores to be settled were not against external enemies alone. 

For a decade after the elder Bush's defeat in 1992, neocons had been calling for a reversal of his self-imposed limits on the containment of Iraq. Success in the Gulf War, as much as earlier defeat in Vietnam, fueled their distaste for any limitations on the scope and exercise of American power. 

Once in power, they were not shy about advertising their ambitions. In February 2003 Undersecretary of State John Bolton told Israeli officials that after defeating Iraq, the United States would "deal with" Iran, Syria and North Korea. A month later Jeffrey Bell of the Weekly Standard revealed that the administration was preparing for a "world war between the United States and a political wing of Islamic fundamentalism ... a war of such reach and magnitude [that] the invasion of Iraq, or the capture of top al Qaeda commanders, should be seen as tactical events in a series of moves and countermoves stretching well into the future." 

It is time for Americans to go back to a saner Middle East policy that once again rejects impossible rollback ambitions in Iraq and the rest of the region. We need above all a policy that will help the Middle East to resolve its own problems, rather than seek to impose a solution. There will always be the fear that these solutions could work against the United States. But the example of Southeast Asia suggests the opposite: that the Middle East will choose what is best for it, and this will work to America's favor. 

We need more laissez-faire abroad politically. This will include cutting back on state efforts to impose laissez-faire economically. It will be relatively easier to work for a defense of U.S. strategic interests, including assured access to the oil of the region, without the fantasies of maintaining permanent U.S. bases there, to say nothing of dictating the cultural and political future of a much older civilization. 

But first, it is time for America to realize not only that its continued military presence in Iraq serves no purpose, but also that it is a source of danger for America, the region and the world. 

There have been numerous withdrawals by former imperial powers in the last half century. Of all these only one, the overly delayed Soviet withdrawal from Eastern Europe, failed to strengthen the global position of the great power in question. This means that there is more than one available model for the U.S. to emulate in Iraq. 

William Pfaff, of the International Herald Tribune, has proposed the option of negotiated unilateral withdrawal. He points out that when Charles de Gaulle negotiated independence for Algeria in 1958, his courageous act "did not leave France revealed as 'a pitiful, helpless giant' (as Nixon said would be the case if the United States left Vietnam). It strengthened France, freeing it to deal with real issues of political and economic reform." (Although Pfaff did not mention this, it also enabled French oil companies to participate in the peaceful development of Algeria's oil and gas resources.) 

Pfaff reports that, according to the available polls, 98 percent of the Iraqis want the Americans to leave. Meanwhile a poll by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations has shown that more than two-thirds of both the U.S. public and U.S. leaders agree that the United States should withdraw from Iraq if a clear majority of Iraqi people want it to do so. 

Nevertheless, as was the case with Vietnam 30 years ago, both of our political parties have failed to respond to this groundswell of public opinion. Although the Democratic challenger may have felt it necessary to stake out a more hawkish position in the debates than he actually holds, Kerry seemed to categorically rule out a withdrawal: "Now that we're there, we have to succeed. We can't leave a failed Iraq ... Nobody's talking about leaving ... We're talking about winning and getting the job done right." 

At the same time, Kerry has distinguished himself from Bush in two important ways. He has said that he would make it clear that the U.S. has no interest in permanent bases in Iraq, or in controlling Iraqi oil. He has said also that we must "internationalize [the U.S.] presence and de-Americanize what is perceived as an occupation." He believes that then it will be possible to begin to withdraw U.S. troops in six months and get them all out in four years. 

Kerry's proposal to keep prosecuting the war aggressively, while training Iraqis and bringing home U.S. troops, is distressingly similar to Nixon's solution of "Peace with Honor" for Vietnam. Prominent Canadian commentator Richard Gwyn has retorted that this trying to have it both ways "is the worst option of all ... During the Vietnam War, public opinion turned against the conflict once Americans realized they were sacrificing their lives in a futile mission." In addition, it is clear that most nations will only contemplate a security role in Iraq that has nothing to do with the Typhoid Mary of a protracted U.S. presence. 

However, Kerry's promise to "internationalize" suggests a range of other options for withdrawal: by handing over the future of the country to multilateral supervision or the United Nations. In 1954 the French accepted the multilateral Geneva Conference as a way to withdraw their troops successfully from Indochina. This too facilitated an ongoing French economic presence for another two decades: the French did not finally lose their rubber plantations in Cambodia until after the United States destroyed that country. 

A U.N. presence would clearly require new countries to enforce it. Newsday reported on Oct. 18 that "President George W. Bush rebuffed a plan last month for a Muslim peacekeeping force that would have helped the United Nations organize elections in Iraq, according to Saudi and Iraqi officials." Initially, the Saudis pressed to create a full-fledged peacekeeping force, possibly made up of several thousand Muslim troops. But the Bush administration objected because the special force would have been controlled by the U.N. instead of by the United States. 

If Kerry is sincere in being ready to renounce U.S. bases and U.S. interests in Iraq, the multinational option may still be a live one. It is true that U.N. forces have been less than brilliant as peace-keepers, but assuredly they would do less to aggravate the problem than the current U.S. presence. 

It is easy to list the risks of a weak multinational peace-keeping force. There could be civil war between Sunnis and Shiites. The country could split into Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish territories, potentially destabilizing neighbors like Turkey. Or Iraq, beset by tribal conflicts, could become a failed state like Afghanistan (another beneficiary of U.S. liberation). 

One risk often cited, that Iraq would become a new haven for terrorists, is unlikely. Most non-U.S. observers see the alleged influence of al-Zarqawi and foreign terrorists in Iraq as vastly inflated by Washington for propaganda purposes. Just as it is the U.S. presence that has made Iraq a honeypot for foreign terrorists, so the best plan to disperse them is for the U.S. itself to go away. The once-held fantasy of attracting terrorists to destroy them is now a nightmare, because of the planners' failure once again -- to factor in Iraqi public opinion. 

In short, staying the present course does not look preferable to what might happen after U.S. withdrawal. As Richard Cohen wrote in the Washington Post, we now "all have to face the prospect that Iraq will end up a mess no matter what. The administration's own national intelligence estimate raises the possibility that civil war may erupt by the end of next year." 

He and other Americans, both liberal and conservative, from Pfaff to Robert Novak, have begun to contemplate withdrawal as the only solution for Iraq. They tend to do so from a sense that the game is over and America's original hopes for a better society there are no longer relevant. 

I do not know the Middle East, but the example of Southeast Asia makes me somewhat more optimistic. I believe that a short American intervention, followed by swift withdrawal, could still result in an improved situation, even a gradual evolution toward more open and democratic societies in the region. 

But for this to happen unilateralist hopes for an enduring or even short-term American presence must be clearly renounced. Moderate politics can only begin to prevail in Iraq and neighboring countries after we put fears of the withdrawal "specter" behind us and get our armies out of Iraq. This will not even mean abandoning the Middle East, where small states like Qatar are still eager to have a protective U.S. presence. 

Meanwhile the specter of escalation grows steadily more frightening. As Colin Powell acknowledged in September, "we have seen an increase in anti-Americanism in the Muslim world" since the war began, and the insurgency in Iraq itself is "getting worse." This rise in Islamist terrorism is as dangerous for Israel as it is for the United States. In the words of a report from the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, "Iraq has now become a convenient arena for jihad, which has helped Al Qaeda to recover from the setback it suffered as a result of the war in Afghanistan." A report Tuesday from the head of Australian intelligence reached the same conclusion. 

Back in 2003 Gen. William Odom, former head of the U.S. National Security Agency, accurately predicted, "Right now, the course we're on, we're achieving Bin Laden's ends." 

About the writer: Peter Dale Scott is a former Canadian diplomat and a professor of English at the University of California. His last book was "Drugs, Oil, and War" (2003). This article is a distillation from his next book on imperial overstretch. In 2002 he was given the Lannan Poetry Award. His Web site is http://www.peterdalescott.net. 

Copyright: Salon.com >> 

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