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    Middle East
     Feb 21, 2008
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How never to withdraw from Iraq
By Tom Engelhardt

Think of the top officials of the Bush administration as magicians when it comes to Iraq. Their top hats and tails may be worn and their act fraying, but it doesn't seem to matter. Their latest "abracadabra", the President's "surge strategy" of 2007, has still worked like a charm. They waved their magic wands, paid off and armed a bunch of former Sunni insurgents and al-Qaeda terrorists (about 80,000 "concerned citizens," as the President likes to call them), and magically lowered "violence" in Iraq. Even more miraculously, they made a country that they had already turned into a cesspool and a slagheap - its capital now has a "lake" of sewage so large that it can be viewed "as a big black spot on

Google Earth" - almost entirely disappear from view in the US.

Of course, what they needed to be effective was that classic adjunct to any magician's act, the perfect assistant. This has been a role long held, and still played with mysterious willingness, by the mainstream media. There are certainly many reporters in Iraq doing their jobs as best they can in difficult circumstances. When it comes to those who make the media decisions at home, however, they have practically clamored for the Bush administration to put them in a coffin-like box and saw it in half. Thanks to their news choices, Iraq has for months been whisked deep inside most papers and into the softest sections of network and cable news programs. Only one Iraq subject has gotten significant front-page attention: How much "success" has the president's surge strategy had?

Before confirmatory polls even arrived, the media had waved its own magic wand and declared that Americans had lost interest in Iraq. Certainly the media people had. The economy - with its subprime Hadithas and its market Abu Ghraibs - moved to center stage, yet links between the Bush administration's two trillion dollar war and a swooning economy were seldom considered. It mattered little that a recent Associated Press/Ipsos poll revealed a majority of Americans to be convinced that the most reasonable "stimulus" for the US economy would be withdrawal from Iraq. A total of 68% of those polled believed such a move would help the economy.

Anyone tuning in to the nightly network news can now regularly go through a typical half-hour focused on Obamania, the faltering of the Clinton "machine", the Huckabee/McCain face-off on Republican Main Street, the latest nose-diving market, and the latest campus shooting without running across Iraq at all. Cable TV, radio news, newspapers - it makes little difference.

The News Coverage Index of the Project for Excellence in Journalism illustrates that point clearly. For the week of February 4-10, the category of "Iraq Homefront" barely squeaked into tenth place on its chart of the top-ten most heavily covered stories with 1% of the "newshole". First place went to "2008 Campaign" at 55%. "Events in Iraq" - that is, actual coverage of and from Iraq - didn't make it onto the list. (The week before, "Events in Iraq" managed to reach #6 with 2% of the newshole.)

True, you can go to Juan Cole's Informed Comment website, perhaps the best daily round-up of Iraqi mayhem and disaster on the Web, and you'll feel as if, like Alice, you had fallen down a rabbit hole into another universe. ("Two bombings shook Iraq Sunday morning. In the Misbah commercial center in the upscale Shiite Karrada district, a female suicide bomber detonated a belt bomb, killing 3 persons and wounding 10 ... About 100 members of the Awakening Council of Hilla Province have gone on strike to protest the killing of three of them by the US military at Jurf al-Sakhr last Sunday, in what the Pentagon says was an accident ... Al-Hayat reports in Arabic that officials in Baqubah are warning that as families are returning to the city, they could be forced right back out again, owing to sectarian tensions ...") But how many Americans read Juan Cole every day ... or any day?

On that media homefront, the Bush administration has been Houdini-esque. Left repeatedly locked in chains inside a booth full of water, George W Bush continues to emerge to declare that things are going swimmingly in Iraq:
...80,000 local citizens stepped up and said, we want to help patrol our own neighborhoods; we're sick and tired of violence and extremists. I'm not surprised that that happens. I believe Iraqi moms want the same thing that American moms want, and that is for their children to grow up in peace ... The surge is working. I know some don't want to admit that, and I understand. But the terrorists understand the surge is working. Al Qaeda knows the surge is working ...
Having pulled the "surge" rabbit out of his hat - even stealing the very word out of the middle of "insurgent" - Bush then topped that trick by making Iraq go away for weeks, if not months, on end. Talk about success!

Forever and a Day
If you're wondering why in the world this matters - after all, won't the Democrats get us out of Iraq in 2009? - then you haven't come to grips with Bush's greatest magic trick of all. Though a lame-duck president sporting dismally low job-approval ratings, he continues to embed the US in Iraq, while framing the issue of what to do there in such a way that any thought of a quick withdrawal has ... poof! ... fled the scene.

Admittedly, somewhere between 57% and 64% of Americans, according to Rasmussen Reports, want all US troops out of Iraq within a year. We're not talking here about just the "combat troops" which both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama seem prepared to withdraw at a relatively stately pace. (Obama has suggested a 16-month schedule for removing them; Clinton has only indicated that she would start withdrawing some of them within 60 days of coming into office.) Combat troops, however, represent perhaps half of all US military personnel in Iraq - and Republicans are already attacking even their withdrawal as cut-and-run-ism, if not outright treason.

Americans may not have noticed, but the policy that a large majority of them want is no longer part of polite discussion in Washington or on the campaign trail. The spectrum of opinion in the capital, among presidential candidates, and in the mainstream media ranges from Senator McCain's claim that even setting a date for withdrawal would be a sure recipe for "genocide" - and that's the responsible right - to those who want to depart, but not completely and not very quickly either. The party of "withdrawal" would still leave American troops behind for various activities. These would include the "training" of the Iraqi military. (No one ever asks why one side in Iraq needs endless years of "training" and "advice", while the other sides simply fight on fiercely.) In addition, troops might be left to guard our monstrous new embassy in Baghdad, or as an al-Qaeda-oriented strike force, or even to protect American security contractors like Blackwater.

Hard as it is for the audience to separate the mechanics of a magician's trickery from the illusion he creates, it's worth a try. Before the surge began in February 2007, as five combat brigades were dispatched mainly to Baghdad, there were perhaps 130,000 American forces in Iraq (as well as a large contingent of private security contractors - hired guns - running into the tens of thousands). The surge raised that military figure to more than 160,000.

The Bush administration's latest plans are to send home the five combat brigades, but not all the support troops that arrived with them, by the end of July. This will still leave troop levels above those of February 2007. At that point, as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates suggested only last week, the administration is likely to "pause" for at least one to three months to assess the situation. In other words, when Americans enter their polling places this November 4, there will probably still be more troops in Iraq than at the beginning of 2007.

TIME Magazine typically put the matter this way:
The pause, which could last up to several months, would be designed to ensure that the smaller U.S. footprint in Iraq doesn't embolden insurgents to reignite the civil war that ripped the country apart in 2006 and the first half of 2007.
That smaller footprint, however, will be marginally larger than the one that preceded the surge. So consider this a year-long draw-up, not a drawdown. In the meantime, though the mainstream media has hardly noticed, the Pentagon has been digging in. In the last year, it has continued to upgrade its massive bases in Iraq to the tune of billions of dollars. It has also brought in extra air power for an "air surge" that has barely been reported on here - and nobody in Washington or on the campaign trail, in the Oval Office or the Democratic Party, has been talking about drawing down that air surge, even though there has recently been a spate of incidents in which Iraqi civilians, and some of those "concerned citizens" backing American forces have died from US air strikes.

The Bush administration is also quietly negotiating a Status of Forces Agreement with the weak Iraqi government inside Baghdad's Green Zone. It will legally entrench American forces on those mega-bases for years to come. In a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice denied that the administration was trying to bind a future president to Bush's Iraq policies. ("In short, nothing to be negotiated in the coming months will tie the hands of the next commander in chief, whomever he or she may be.") This, however, is obviously not the case. The agreement is also being carefully constructed to skirt the status of a "treaty", so that it will not have to be submitted to the Senate for ratification. All of this, in the grand tradition of Vice President Cheney, might be thought of as the Bush administration's embunkerment policy in Iraq.

In the surge year, when administration officials and top commanders speculated about withdrawal, they increasingly emphasized the Herculean task involved and the need to take the necessary time to carefully remove every last piece of military equipment in-country. "You're talking about not just US soldiers, but millions of tons of contractor equipment that belongs to the United States government, and a variety of other things," Gates told Pentagon reporters last July. "This is a massive logistical undertaking whenever it takes place."

As TIME Magazine's Michael Duffy described it, included would be "a good portion of the entire US inventory of tanks, helicopters, armored personnel carriers, trucks and humvees ... They are spread across 15 bases, 38 supply depots, 18 fuel-supply centers and 10 ammo dumps," not to speak of "dining halls, office buildings, vending machines, furniture, mobile latrines, computers, paper clips and acres of living quarters." Some top military commanders claimed that it would take up to 20 months just to get part of the American force out. More recently, it has been suggested that it would take "as many as 75 days" for each combat brigade and all its equipment to depart - and this would, of course, be done one brigade at a time.

When it comes to withdrawal, the highest priority now seems to be frugality in saving all US property. In other words, as the Bush administration continues to dig in, each of its acts makes leaving ever more complicated.

If the subject at hand weren't so grim, this would be hilarious. An analogy might lie in an old joke: A boy murders his father and mother and then, arrested and brought to court, throws himself on the mercy of the judge as an orphan.

The administration that rashly invaded Iraq, used it as a laboratory for any cockamamie scheme that came to mind, and threw

Continued 1 2 

Iraq's broken
pieces don't fit together
 (Feb 13, '08)

The state of the (Iraqi) union (Jan 30, '08)

A bitter taste to Iraqi reality (Jan 29, '08)

1. Blessed are the pre-emptors

2. Wealth destruction gathers pace

3. In Pakistan, the revenge of democracy

4. The breakdown of Wall Street alchemy

5. 'Known unknowns' of the Mugniyah killing

6. The quicksand of deficit spending

7. The Indonesian candidate

(Feb 19, 2008)


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