Page 1 of 2 DISPATCHES FROM AMERICA A slo-mo withdrawal from Iraq
By Tom Engelhardt
The George W Bush administration invaded Iraq in March 2003 with a force of
approximately 130,000 troops. Top White House and Pentagon officials like
former deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz were convinced that, by
August, those troops, welcomed with open arms by the oppressed Iraqis, would be
drawn down to 30,000-40,000 and housed in newly built, permanent military bases
largely away from the country's urban areas. This was to be part of what now is
called a "strategic partnership" in the Middle East.
Almost five-and-a-half years later, the United States still has approximately
130,000 troops in Iraq. Top administration officials are now talking about
"modestly accelerated" rates of troop withdrawal, if all goes well. By August
2010, the Barack Obama
administration expects to have only 30,000-50,000 troops housed mainly on
American mega-bases largely away from urban areas, part of a special
American/Iraqi strategic partnership in the region.
This passes for progress in Iraq.
A history of the bicycle in Iraq
In imagistic terms, the Bush administration biked into Iraq. Back in its salad
days, when all was green and upbeat, its top officials loved the idea that they
were training the eager Iraqi kid in how to ride the bike of democracy. Bush
liked to talk about the moment when we might take the "training wheels" off the
Iraqi bike and let the little fella ride into the democratic sunset on his own.
His secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld ran with an allied image - the
difficult moment when a parent has to decide whether to take that steadying
hand off the bike seat and let the tyke pedal on his own. "[Y]ou're running
down the street," as he put it in 2004, "holding onto the back of the seat. You
know that if you take your hand off they could fall, so you take a finger off
and then two fingers, and pretty soon you're just barely touching it."
Some years later, after kid and parent had made it around one of those
"corners" they were always turning on the way to various "tipping points" in
the Iraq War - and found themselves instead at the "precipice", after Rumsfeld
had, in fact, been asked to resign by his president, he wrote a final memo, the
last of his famed "snowflakes", to the White House, on "new options" in Iraq.
In it, he suggested: "Begin modest withdrawals of US and coalition forces
[start 'taking our hand off the bicycle seat'], so Iraqis know they have to
pull up their socks, step up and take responsibility for their country."
His tenure could qualify as the longest biking lesson in history and still, it
seemed, the Iraqis couldn't do without that hand on the seat. Even when his
president followed him two years later, their imagery of choice remained
behind. This March, for instance, the chief American military spokesman in
Iraq, Major General David G Perkins, discussing a possible draw-down of
American forces, said: "We need to take our hands off the handlebars, or the
training wheels, at some point."
And then, two weeks ago, Colonel Timothy R Reese, an American adviser to the
Iraqi military's Baghdad command, created a front-page New York Times stir when
a memorandum he had written was leaked. In a distinctly imagistic mode, he
began: "As the old saying goes, 'Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three
days.' Since the signing of the 2009 security agreement, we are guests in Iraq,
and after six years in Iraq, we now smell bad to the Iraqi nose."
While the official Obama-era target for an American withdrawal remains (as it
was in the last months of the Bush era) the end of 2011, Reese urged that all
US forces be pulled out on an expedited schedule by August 2010 - the moment by
which, according to present plans, only American "combat brigades" are to be
removed. Resurrecting a Vietnam-era suggestion of Vermont Republican Senator
George Aiken (ignored then, as it will be now), he headlined his memo: "It's
Time for the US to Declare Victory and Go Home."
And there, in the midst of a generally scathing assessment of the deficiencies
of the Iraqi military (and the Iraqi government), was that bicycle again:
SA [Bush-era security agreement between the US and Iraq] outlines a series of
gradual steps towards military withdrawal, analogous to a father teaching his
kid to ride a bike without training wheels ... We now have an Iraqi government
that has gained its balance and thinks it knows how to ride the bike in the
race. And, in fact, they probably do know how to ride, at least well enough for
the road they are on against their current competitors. Our hand on the back of
the seat is holding them back and causing resentment. We need to let go before
we both tumble to the ground.
It just goes to show. Under the
pressure of war, images that won't go away, like people, have the capacity to
change. The Iraqi child with the training wheels is now, according to Reese,
old enough to enter an actual bike race.
Who exactly will bike out of Iraq under the Obama withdrawal plan, however,
still remains to be defined. After all, at the end of his memo, the most urgent
call for withdrawal from Iraq yet to emerge from the higher levels of the US
military, Reese offers his version of a full-scale American withdrawal. "During
the withdrawal period," he writes, "the USG [United States government] and GOI
[government of Iraq] should develop a new strategic framework agreement that
would include some lasting military presence at one to three large training
bases, airbases, or key headquarters locations. But it should not include the
presence of any combat forces save those for force protection needs or the
And keep in mind: his proposal has, with rare exceptions, been rejected out of
hand by all and sundry, in and out of the military high command and in
In other words, even the most Xtreme American biker of this moment still
imagines us in Iraq forever and a day.
A history of experts on Iraq
Once upon a time, the playing field, the stadium, and sports events were
regularly compared to war, even considered suitable preparation for actual
battle. Ever since the First Gulf War in 1991, this has been reversed. Now, war
- or at least its coverage - is based on sports.
Just as, sooner or later, the smoothest players and savviest coaches depart the
"field of battle" for the press box and the TV spotlight, for pre-game, game,
and post-game commentary, so the commanders of the last war now leave the
battlefield for the TV booth and offer us their expertise on the next war. As
former Houston Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy has had to discuss the decisions of
his brother Stan, coach of the Orlando Magic, in ESPN playoff commentary, so
the commanders of our previous wars cover next wars and their commanders,
possibly even officers once under their own command.
We now live with the ESPN version of war, including slo-mo replays, and the
logos, interactive charts, and fabulous graphics of the sports world. And once
anointed as experts, our John Maddens of war, like their sports counterparts,
never go away. Back in April 2008, for instance, New York Times journalist
David Barstow wrote a front-page expose focused on the many retired military
officers who had been hired as media consultants for the Iraq War. As a group,
they made up, he suggested, a "kind of media Trojan horse", because most of
them were marching to a carefully organized Pentagon campaign of disinformation
on the war. In addition, most of them had ties, not acknowledged on the air,
"to military contractors vested in the very war policies they are asked to
Barstow's piece concluded:
To the public, these men are members of a
familiar fraternity, presented tens of thousands of times on television and
radio as 'military analysts' whose long service has equipped them to give
authoritative and unfettered judgments about the most pressing issues of the
post-September 11 world. Hidden behind that appearance of objectivity, though,
is a Pentagon information apparatus that has used those analysts in a campaign
to generate favorable news coverage of the administration's wartime
Barstow named names and made connections. Those
names included, for example, retired Air Force general and Fox News senior
military analyst Thomas G McInerney, retired Army general and NBC/MSNBC
military analyst Montgomery Meigs, retired Army general and NBC/MSNBC military
analyst Barry R McCaffrey, and retired Marine Colonel and Fox News military
analyst William V Cowan. After the expose appeared, they seem to have just
carried right on with their media duties.
Some of the print media has similarly adhered to the principle of
once-an-expert-always-an-expert. For instance, on the fifth anniversary of
Bush's disastrous invasion of Iraq, the New York Times decided to ask a range
of "experts on military and foreign affairs" to look back on that fiasco - and
then rounded up the usual suspects. Of the nine experts it came up with, six
were intimately involved in that catastrophe either as drumbeaters for the
invasion, instigators of it, or facilitators of the occupation that followed -
Kenneth Pollack, Danielle Pletka, and Frederick Kagan (enthusiasts all),
Richard Perle (aka "the prince of darkness"), L Paul Bremer (the
administration's first viceroy in Baghdad), and General Paul D Eaton (who
trained Iraqi troops in the early years of the occupation).
Notably absent was anyone who had seriously opposed the invasion. The closest
was Anne-Marie Slaughter, a "liberal hawk" who wrote a supportive New York
Times op-ed on March 18, 2003, two days before the invasion began, headlined,
"Good Reasons for Going Around the UN".
The Times anniversary spread appeared in March 2008. Jump ahead a year-plus and
the Times once again launched what undoubtedly was a mighty search for experts
who might consider Colonel Reese's suggestion that we take our hand off that
Iraqi bike - and came up with a typical crew of seven:
One, retired Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl, is president of the Center for a New
American Security, and was an advisor to General David Petraeus, former top US
commander in Iraq, now Central Command chief overseeing the wars in Iraq and
Afghanistan. A second, Stephen Biddle, senior fellow for defense policy at the
Council on Foreign Relations, was also an advisor to Petraeus and most recently
on the "team" that advised General Stanley A McChrystal, the top US commander
in Afghanistan under Petraeus, in his recent review of Afghan War strategy. A
third, Anthony Cordesman, Arleigh A Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for
Strategic and International Studies, was on the same McChrystal team.
A fourth, Thomas Ricks, former Washington Post military reporter and now senior
fellow at Nagl's Center, is the author of the bestselling book The Gamble,
a highly complimentary account of Petraeus' role in Iraq in which Nagl is, of
course, a figure. (Ricks, by the way, has long made it clear that he believes
we will be in that country for years to come.) A fifth, Kori Schake, now at the
Hoover Institution, was a former national security adviser on defense issues to
President George W Bush. A sixth, Jonathan Morgenstein, is a senior national
security policy fellow at Third Way, another Washington think-tank, and just
recently returned from Iraq where "he was a military transition team adviser to
the Iraqi army".
Not surprisingly, all six of these experts, with the most modest of caveats,
dismissed Reese's suggestion out of hand ("The pace of progress in Iraq will be
slow, but we can't throw up our hands and walk away ... "), agreeing that it
was in no one's interest to expedite an American departure. Only a seventh
expert, author and retired Colonel Douglas Macgregor, agreed with Reese.
Consider that a little history of expertise about our recent wars. There's a
corollary. If you're not anointed an expert, you're never likely to be. Among
those automatically disqualified for expertise on Iraq: just about anyone who
bluntly rejected the idea of invading Iraq or predicted any version of the
catastrophe that ensued before it happened. Disqualified above all are any of