A Response to Critics

— Kale Baldock

DAVID FINKEL'S COMMENTS (ATC 122) about my book Is Iraq Another Vietnam?, and about my position against immediately withdrawing the US military from Iraq, were well-informed and fair. So were the judgments of Gilbert Achcar in his interview with Susan Weissman, though his focus was on the withdrawal issue in general and not on my essay specifically. Likewise, Michael Schwartz's current ATC response reflects an impressive familiarity with Iraq and the Middle East, and his critique of my analysis is well-taken.

All these commentators share a genuine desire to see the best outcome for the people of Iraq amid the current crisis.

None agrees with my position that the U.S. military presence in Iraq is keeping a lid on all-out civil war, and that a strategy of negotiations with insurgent groups toward cease-fire and amnesty offers a logical next step to resolving the conflict. David Finkel graciously accepts these differences and pleads for "a spirit of inclusion and mutual respect" among those of us who all stand aghast at the Bush administration's stupid, arrogant, misguided venture in Iraq.

However, I think the judgment of whether this war was right or wrong has been superseded by the more pressing concerns of how to get U.S. forces home, without sacrificing the stability of Iraq in the process. Certainly, we should continue to tell the truth about the distortions and lies which created this disaster. That it was wrong (or at least a mistake) to launch the war in the first place has become evident to the majority of Americans. But now we are faced with a moral dilemma, the qualities of which have become, beyond our wishes, unexpectedly complex.

The question now is: In the face of a crisis which threatens the future of an entire nation that has unwillingly fallen hostage to American neoconservative insanity, should we uncritically allow our emotional response to override our reason?

After the Shiite Golden Dome mosque was blown up last February, the inter-sectarian war escalated tremendously -- not attacks on U.S. forces. Referring to an article in the Los Angeles Times, the May 8 edition of Democracy Now! radio reported that

"(A)t least 4,100 civilians were killed in Baghdad during the first three months of the year. Many of the dead were found hog-tied and shot execution style. Many bore signs of torture such as bruises, drill holes, burn marks, gouged eyes or severed limbs. Execution-style killings are now claiming nine times more lives than car bombings."

Is it reasonable to conclude that the presence of U.S. forces is "causing" this inter-sectarian bloodbath, and that it would just go away if the occupation just went away?

Michael Schwartz makes a very good point that Washington has to some degree been pitting Sunnis and Shiites against one another. (This despicable tactic is endorsed by esteemed theorists of our elite political think-tanks.) He contends that "If the U.S. were to leave, most (but not all) of the provocation generating the violence would dissolve. If the U.S. stays long enough, the hatred may be self-sustaining."

I believe the hatred has already become self-sustaining. So does journalist Nir Rosen, who in the winter of 2005 argued that if U.S. forces left Iraq, the motivation for insurgent violence would collapse. Most recently, however, he dourly informed his national television audience that he holds out no hope whatsoever for the insurgent forces in Iraq to step back from the brink of an all-out civil war.

I freely admit, the most we can hope for from a well-intentioned but poorly prepared (and consistently lied to) American military force in Iraq is to provide a barely adequate lid on the bubbling strife which threatens to engulf that beleaguered nation -- and perhaps the region.

Another question: How can one interpret the suicide bombings against Iraqi civilian as being "aimed at" U.S. forces? Only indirectly, for such acts are geared to give Iraqis the impression that coalition forces can't protect them, and that they would be better off with them gone. Those who commit such acts -- by most accounts foreigners (though Schwartz adds that Sunnis are often targeting Shiites) -- obviously consider Iraqi lives as cheap sacrifices to some other motive.

Dynamics of Rage

I think these are signs that a complex dynamic of rage and reaction are afoot in Iraq, not simply focused on the foreign occupation, and won't likely be resolved by that occupation's prompt exit. So far, the civil war is largely taking place surreptitiously, underground, through raids on buses, kidnappings and the like, not openly in the streets. I believe that situation would quickly change in the absence of the imperfect security apparatus now in place.

Finkel suggested that "No antiwar movement ever won by demanding pseudo-realist 'intense negotiations for national unity' or nostrums of that sort." And if the goal is simply to get the U.S. out of Iraq, then the straight-line "Out Now!" approach is the obvious answer. But shouldn't we also be asking some more nuanced questions, like what -- or even if -- the antiwar movement and the Left in general will "win" if withdrawal doesn't work? Shouldn't we be considering the Left's own liability as a political movement?

If indeed a U.S. withdrawal does precipitate a cataclysm in Iraq, the Washington spin-meisters with total access to the mass media will almost certainly paint the antiwar movement as the guilty party. In that case, our credibility will suffer and our struggle to confront power will be severely set back.

True, if we support the prolonged presence of U.S. forces in Iraq and some type of normalcy is achieved, the Bushites may be vindicated and the Left still hung out to dry. The difference: thousands of more innocent Iraqi lives will have been saved.

I realize that many readers will probably consider my judgments paternalistic, detached, or worse. I often question myself as well, particularly in light of polls showing 80% of Iraqis in favor of withdrawal, and 72% of U.S. troops wishing to be home by the end of the year. I understand that both of those parties, victimized by U.S. governmental power, are exhausted, desperate and sick of the whole thing.

They just want it all to end; and I would likely echo their opinions if in their shoes. But we should also keep in mind that desperate people often make irrational choices. Who can blame them? Yet, isn't it also the responsibility of those who have the luxury of security to put their minds to work in the spirit of well-intentioned reason -- doing so in the service of what they think will most likely benefit the victims of this tragedy?

Of course, if a unified Iraqi government demands the exit of foreign forces, then exit they must. Hopefully it will speak with enough authority and cohesion to merit the respect of the various insurgent groups who are currently putting Iraq on a fast-track to national suicide.

It may be utterly naaive for me to demand that the U.S. change course in Iraq, and become focused on peace-making rather than body counts. Washington's war machine never managed to do so in Vietnam. Why now? After all, the latest news from our most recent international foray is nothing but more bleakness reflecting, in Robert Bly's words, "the insanity of empire."

In the end, we're all striving for the same basic goals, whether or not we agree in our conclusions. I think that the complexity of the situation demands we recognize our own opinions to be, necessarily, incomplete and to varying degrees inaccurate. Nevertheless, let's keep on responding, each in own way, to the current conflict as we believe best serves all involved -- especially, of course, the Iraqis, whose predicament is the outcome of criminal statecraft practiced by butchers in Baghdad and Washington alike.

ATC 123, July-August 2006