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International Socialist Review Issue 36, July–August 2004

The Case for Withdrawal


Eric Ruder is a reporter for Socialist Worker newspaper. He is author of "Q & A: The Truth Behind Their War," ISR 26, November—December 2002.

EVERY DAY seems to reconfirm just how disastrously the occupation of Iraq is proceeding for the United_States, bringing with it fresh news of U.S. casualties, stiff resistance to U.S. troops, political bungling by the George W. Bush administration, and stories of torture and abuse of Iraqis that only serve to further embitter the Iraqi civilians whom the U.S. seek to persuade of its good intentions.

Even high-level military officials are growing more strident in their condemnations of the Bush administration’s war plans and the need for an exit strategy sooner rather than later. "We have failed," said retired Lt. General William Odom, who’s now a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute, in early May. "The issue is how high a price we’re going to pay–less by getting out sooner, or more by getting out later."1 Prodded during his appearance on the Today Show about whether withdrawal could "harm the reputation of the U.S.," Odom replied, "I think you’ve misunderstood what I said. We have already failed. Staying in longer makes us fail worse."2

For the antiwar movement, these developments should provide the perfect opportunity to move into higher gear and attract new recruits among the millions of people in the U.S. horrified by what’s taking place. But there is still a hesitancy to demand the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops–even among some of those who agree that the U.S. war on Iraq is unjust. We in the U.S. have a responsibility, goes the argument, to see through what we started and not turn our backs on a mess that we created. This position, however, leaves the antiwar movement significantly behind even military officials like Odom, not to mention ordinary people across the U.S. who are rejecting Bush’s war and are looking for some alternative to Bush’s doomed "stay the course" approach. This is reinforced by the support many in the antiwar movement are willing to give to the other pro-war candidate, John Kerry.

From the beginning, the ISR has argued that this war was never about liberation, weapons of mass destruction, bringing democracy, or any of the other justifications floated by the Bush administration. As every one of these lies has been knocked down, it becomes irrefutable that this war had as its aim the plundering of Iraq’s oil and the goal of using Iraq’s strategic location at the heart of the Middle East to project U.S. military power. The sooner the U.S. leaves Iraq, the sooner Iraq can begin to recover from the devastation wreaked upon it by the U.S.

The risk of civil war

The most common objection to an immediate U.S. withdrawal is that the troops must stay in order to protect Iraqis from the lawlessness and likely civil war that would fill the vacuum left by the United States. But the opposite is true. The continuing U.S. presence is the greatest threat to the safety of Iraqi civilians and the greatest source of instability. From the beginning of the drive to dominate Iraq, U.S. officials have played on ethnic divisions in Iraq, hoping to co-opt the majority Shiites as their loyal colonial administrators while holding at bay the minority Sunnis and northern Kurds. The U.S. initially saw rooting out Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party, which is dominated by Sunnis, as a key task. And it sought alliances with Shiites and found enthusiastic support among Kurds, who long suffered under Saddam’s oppressive rule. But now, the U.S. is realizing that it can’t freeze out all Baath officials, especially given the experience that Baath Party officials have in running Iraq’s repressive institutions. And the Kurds will pay dearly for the mistake of thinking that the U.S. would actually serve the cause of Kurdish liberation. In fact, the resentment felt by Iraqis against Kurds who joined the U.S. military effort will almost certainly set back their struggle for independence. The U.S. about-face on the question of "de-Baathification" also confirms another argument of the antiwar movement–that the U.S. has no problem with dictators, as long as they are friendly to U.S. interests. The U.S. wanted to get rid of Saddam after being his number one patron throughout the 1980s because he dared to thumb his nose at U.S. demands. The U.S. wants Saddam’s repressive state–only without Saddam.

Having fanned the flames of ethnic rivalry, American officials warned of the possibility of civil war if U.S. military forces weren’t kept in place to "maintain peace" between rival groups. Thus, the U.S. argues it must stay to head off a civil war whose likelihood the U.S. intervention has dramatically increased! But the truth is that Washington’s dire predictions of civil war have grown more remote as Shiites and Sunnis have joined forces to fight back against the U.S. occupation. When resistance forces in the Sunni city of Fallujah began identifying with Moqtada al-Sadr’s Shiite resistance in Najaf and Karbala, it signaled an alarming development in the eyes of Bush administration officials, setting the stage for further fanning of ethnic tensions by the U.S. in classic divide-and-conquer fashion.

The very presence of the U.S. also puts Iraqi civilians at risk. As author and activist Tariq Ali puts it, "This is what happens in a colonial situation–you’re attacked, you go and punish people who attacked you, lots of innocent people are killed, the killing of Iraqi innocents then creates more anger, and more people join the resistance. This is the iron law of resistance movements."3 And increasingly, as the U.S. faces a growing insurgency made up of and supported by angry civilians, the U.S. military will end up regarding the entire population as the enemy, just as it did in Vietnam. Arguing that the troops must stay, especially now, lets Bush off the hook as he is forced into making ever more tortured justifications for staying in Iraq. "I have directed our military commanders to make every preparation to use decisive force, if necessary, to maintain order and to protect our troops," said Bush at his April 13 press conference, one week after U.S. troops in Fallujah slaughtered Six hundred Iraqis, including hundreds of women and children. But the easiest way–by far–to protect the troops is to bring them home now. To justify the use of deadly force by invoking the need to protect troops who have no right–moral or otherwise–to be there is simply absurd. Violence on the part of an occupying army can never be logically called "self-defense," any more than a rapist can claim self-defense when he fights off an attack by someone trying to prevent him from raping his victim.

In truth, all the talk about Iraq descending into chaos without the U.S. to bring stability amounts to nothing more than a twenty-first century version of the white man’s burden–the once-discredited justifications of early twentieth century colonialism. They’re not "ready for democracy," goes the argument–they need our tutelage. This is no different from the old colonialist argument that the world’s brown peoples are too uncivilized to be granted self-determination.

"‘We can’t leave a vacuum there.’ I think it was John Kerry who said that," writes Howard Zinn.

What arrogance to think that when the United States leaves a place, there’s nothing there! The same kind of thinking saw the enormous expanse of the American West as "empty territory" waiting for us to occupy it, when hundreds of thousands of Indians lived there already. The history of military occupations of Third World countries is that they bring neither democracy nor security. The long U.S. occupation of the Philippines, following a bloody war in which American troops finally subdued the Filipino independence movement, did not lead to democracy, but rather to a succession of dictatorships, ending with Fernando Marcos.4

As an activist during the movement against the U.S. war in Vietnam, the logic of the "we must stay" argument is familiar for Zinn. "That is exactly what we heard when, at the start of the Vietnam escalation, some of us called for immediate withdrawal. The result of staying the course was 58,000 Americans and several million Vietnamese dead."5

Bringing democracy to Iraq

The Bush administration claims that it cannot leave Iraq until the proper conditions have been set for free and fair elections. But every day that the U.S. stays, it erects more obstacles to the ability of Iraqis to govern in their own interests. In fact, early on the U.S. worked to head off the possibility of elections, fearing that such elections might actually express the will of the Iraqi people and their resentments against the brutality of the U.S. war, the thousands of Iraqi civilians killed, and the lucrative contracts that the Bush administration sought for its pet corporate pals at Halliburton and Bechtel.

[E]ven while U.S. occupation officials were pointing to the lack of a census as an obstacle to a vote, they were quietly vetoing a detailed plan to conduct one in time for elections. In December (12/4/03), the New York Times revealed that census experts in the Iraqi Planning Ministry had compiled a comprehensive proposal to hold a national population tally followed by elections within the space of 10 months. The plan was completed in October–a month before the U.S.-backed "caucus" plan was unveiled–but the Americans secretly rejected it and never told the Iraqi Governing Council of its existence. When they found out about it, Governing Council members were furious. "This could have changed things," an aide to a Shiite council member told the Times.6

Instead, the U.S. has installed, without any voting at all, two Iraqi governments, dissolved one, and created the other without the slightest whiff of democracy.

Losing the battle for hearts and minds

Sometimes–or maybe most of the time–it seems that the Bush administration lives in a parallel universe that exists only in their minds, a place where facts are nothing more than inconveniences waiting to be transformed by the administration’s spin doctors. "Coalition forces and the Iraqi people have the same enemies–the terrorists, illegal militia and Saddam loyalists who stand between the Iraqi people and their future as a free nation," Bush said to a fawning audience at the Army War College on May 24. "Working as allies, we will defend Iraq and defeat these enemies."7

Beyond the threadbare attempt to attribute the Iraqi resistance to "terrorists" and "Saddam loyalists," the article of faith that goes unquestioned by Bush is that Iraqis actually want the U.S. in Iraq, despite all the evidence to the contrary. Even the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council clashed with the United States in late May, accusing U.S. overseer of Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, of trying to force through his choices for posts in the government to which "limited sovereignty" will be transferred on June 30. "Mr. Bremer won’t let the council vote [on its choices], and he says if we vote, he won’t accept the results," said Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of the council. "He is a dictator. I don’t know how he can behave like that. He’s imposing his will on everybody."8

The mainstream media generally echo the Bush administration’s argument that most Iraqis still feel gratitude towards the U.S. for removing Saddam Hussein, but the truth is that the vast majority of the population opposes the U.S. presence in Iraq. Even as the Iraqi Governing Council chafes at its rough handling by U.S. overseers, the very fact that the council is U.S.-backed discredits it in the eyes of most Iraqis. In a poll taken in late March and early April–that is, prior to the torture revelations that fueled even more anger at the U.S. occupation–82 percent of Iraqis said they disapproved of the U.S. and allied militaries in Iraq, and only 0.1 percent said that the Iraqi Governing Council should name the interim government.9 If the U.S. were serious about democracy in Iraq, it would abide by the will of the majority and withdraw immediately.

Of course, the U.S. won’t leave unless it’s forced to, because the whole aim of the war was to occupy Iraq and install a pro-U.S. government that will "welcome" the fourteen military bases that the U.S. has already set up throughout Iraq and that will allow the U.S. privatization of Iraq to proceed–to the benefit of U.S. corporations. And just in case, according to the Wall Street Journal, Bremer has already started installing handpicked officials in positions that will guarantee that U.S. dictates are followed. "As Washington prepares to hand over power, U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer and other officials are quietly building institutions that will give the U.S. powerful levers for influencing nearly every important decision the interim government will make," continued the Wall Street Journal report.

In many cases, these U.S. and Iraqi proxies will serve multiyear terms and have significant authority to run criminal investigations, award contracts, direct troops and subpoena citizens. The new Iraqi government will have little control over its armed forces, lack the ability to make or change laws and be unable to make major decisions within specific ministries without tacit U.S. approval, say U.S. officials and others familiar with the plan.10

The U.S. doesn’t care about democracy, liberation, or freedom–these are simply flowery words. Arguing that the U.S. should stay in Iraq–to fulfill its responsibility or for any other reason–only helps give the U.S. more time to accomplish its agenda, which has nothing to do with improving the lives of ordinary Iraqis.

Internationalize the occupation

Many people agree with these arguments and therefore conclude that the U.S. should withdraw and hand over security and other administrative tasks to the United Nations (UN), presumably because the UN will have "more legitimacy" as an international institution and hence more likely be accepted by Iraqis. But a UN occupation isn’t really an alternative to a U.S. occupation for several reasons.

First, calling for a United Nations (UN) takeover of the occupation as a kinder, gentler alternative to the U.S. doesn’t change the insulting notions at the core of the idea that without outside intervention, Iraq will "descend into chaos."

Second, this demand ignores the realities of who makes up the UN and whose interests the UN serves. In fact, at this time, the Bush administration is making the same demand, because Washington now feels that a UN administration will have more credibility while allowing the U.S. to still accomplish its goals. Under the auspices of a UN occupation, the U.S. military would stay to keep "law and order," and the U.S. would be in a position–by means of its position on the UN Security Council–to veto any UN proposals that it didn’t approve of. In fact, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and UN envoy to Iraq Lakhdar Brahimi have been tailoring their proposals to meet the demands of Washington for months, reaching absurd levels in May and June. When Brahimi arrived in Iraq, he "declared that he would crisscross Iraq to give the people a new government, one that he suggested would be more independent of America’s heavy-handed ways," reported the New York Times. In truth, Brahimi hasn’t delivered

a revolution [but] a rearrangement, less a new cast of characters than a reworked version of the same old faces. The reason, Iraqis are beginning to say, has been the unexpected assertiveness of American officials and their allies on the Iraqi Governing Council, coupled with Mr. Brahimi’s surprising passivity, after he was expected to have a free hand.11

Case in point is Brahimi’s appointment of Iyad Allawi, a current member of the discredited Iraqi Governing Council, as Iraq’s new prime minister. Allawi has lived for the past twenty years in London and has essentially no base in Iraq. His close connections to the CIA go back years, including involvement with the CIA’s failed attempt in 1996 to organize a coup against Saddam. So how did Allawi, without popular support within Iraq, get his appointment? He spent at least $340,000 on lobbying and public relations efforts to win friends in Washington. "It was a bid for influence, and it was money well spent," said Danielle Pletka, a Middle East analyst at the right-wing American Enterprise Institute. "Allawi has always assumed, in many ways correctly, that he didn’t need a constituency in Iraq as long as he had one in Washington."12

Third, there’s no reason to expect that the UN will find more acceptance among Iraqis than the U.S. has found. After all, the UN sanctioned the 1991 war on Iraq and then imposed over a decade of sanctions that strangled Iraq’s population with one of the most comprehensive and deadly sieges in modern times. And the U.S. admitted infiltrating UN weapons inspections with spies during the 1990s in order to scout targets for bombing raids carried out under Bill Clinton. In short, the U.S. has used the UN to pursue its own interests and has shown its willingness to ignore the UN whenever the UN ceased to be effective at delivering to the U.S. what it wanted.13

The history of the British quest to dominate Iraq in the earlier part of the century also teaches an important lesson about bringing in "international institutions" to serve as a fig leaf for imperialist powers. The British military invaded Iraq, making the same claims as the U.S. "Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators," said British Lieutenant General Sir Stanley Maude.14 But despite all the promises of liberation, Iraqis nevertheless rose up against British rule. "What lessons can Americans learn from the revolt of 1920?" asks Niall Ferguson, a British enthusiast for imperialism who sees his role as advising the U.S. on the tasks it must complete as it builds an American empire in the twenty-first century.

The first is that this crisis was almost inevitable. The anti-British revolt began in May, six months after a referendum–in practice, a round of consultation with tribal leaders–on the country’s future and just after the announcement that Iraq would become a League of Nations "mandate" under British trusteeship rather than continue under colonial rule. In other words, neither consultation with Iraqis nor the promise of internationalization sufficed to avert an uprising–a fact that should give pause to those, like Senator John Kerry, who push for a handover to the United Nations.15

Ferguson recounts this history to make the case that the U.S. must use "severity" and "ruthlessness" to put down the Iraqi resistance, recalling that the British resorted to "a combination of aerial bombardment and punitive village-burning expeditions." As revolting as Ferguson’s conclusions are, his point is correct–U.S. military and political leaders will confront the same problem as the British. Either they must withdraw or escalate the brutality of the occupation in an effort to reassert control. There is no kinder, gentler option. Of course, utter devastation may not be an option either. In Vietnam, the U.S. killed at least two million people–and still lost.

Guns versus butter

The war on Iraq has created a giant sucking sound in the middle of the U.S. budget. Initially, U.S. war planners said that levels of U.S. troops in Iraq would fall below 100,000 within the first year. But these planners didn’t plan on fighting against a broad insurgency. They believed their own rhetoric–that U.S. troops would be greeted with sweets and flowers. Now, troops must remain at current levels or higher for the foreseeable future, pushing the military price tag alone as high as $600 billion, not including the reconstruction costs. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the Bush administration, with its tax cuts and military spending increases, is now running the largest budget deficit in U.S. history, projected to hit $500 billion this year alone. In the words of economist William Nordhaus, these costs are

a significant burden on the federal budget, another straw on the camel’s back.… Like a teenager who gets further in debt on a credit card, the Bush administration is racking up costs that will have to be paid in the future in higher taxes or lower government programs. The fiscal irresponsibility is really awesome.16

War reparations

So far, the U.S. has allocated a staggering $168 billion to prosecute the war and only $18.7 billion for reconstruction, or less than 12 percent of what it’s spending to impose its will on Iraq.17 The U.S. should leave Iraq immediately and give the rest of its military allocations–no strings attached–to the Iraqi people, and even this would only begin to address the scale of reparations owed to Iraqis by the United States. Moreover, the money for "reconstruction," little that there is so far, has not a hint of altruism: It is designed to promote American investments and American control of Iraq’s economy, especially its oil.

The debt that the U.S. owes to Iraq is enormous and goes far beyond the death and destruction caused by the present war. The 1991 U.S. war on Iraq that littered the desert with radioactive debris from depleted uranium weapons was followed by more than a decade of sanctions that strangled the economy, plunged a generation into malnutrition, killed more than one million Iraqis (mostly children), and turned back the clock on Iraq’s sophisticated medical facilities to a time when routine surgeries were performed without anesthesia or sterile instruments.18

Increasing the movement’s size and influence

The dire situation facing the Iraqi people today–the collapse of the Iraqi economy, the chaos produced by two wars and a decade of sanctions, and the ongoing violence of the U.S. occupation–has left many antiwar activists feeling depressed. The U.S.–the source of all these problems–cannot at the same time be the solution, however. The Republicans and Democrats are both committed to the same project of dominating the Middle East and using Iraq as a strategic launching pad. The U.S., the UN, and all foreign troops should leave Iraq–and Iraqis themselves should determine their political leaders, how to organize elections, and how to rebuild the country. The U.S. shouldn’t choose who runs Iraq, and nor should we in the antiwar movement make any demands about who runs Iraq. We may even disagree with the politics of those who do come to govern Iraq, but that’s what self-determination means–an Iraq free of imperial control. We in the antiwar movement have a responsibility to do all we can to force the U.S. government to pull out now. In this way the movement can show that we don’t want another U.S. soldier–or another Iraqi–to die for Bush’s oil and show the people of Iraq that we support their right to self-determination–they and they alone have the power to decide their own future.

But the leading antiwar organizations that refuse to call for immediate withdrawal have allowed their desperate drive to remove George Bush from the White House to compromise their ability to organize against the war. Democrat John Kerry supports the same disastrous policies as Bush–and is in fact calling for 40,000 additional troops to be sent to Iraq. This has led the antiwar movement into a cul-de-sac. Supporting Kerry means that these organizations are under pressure to moderate their demands to keep them from straying too far from Kerry’s position while the meltdown of the U.S. occupation has created a massive audience looking for a clearly outlined alternative to "staying the course." The surprisingly high poll numbers for Ralph Nader–the only presidential candidate who’s articulating an antiwar position–are an expression of this. In May, 7 percent of voters said they wanted to vote for Ralph Nader.

The tragedy is that the antiwar movement could rapidly and dramatically expand its base–but only if it is politically equipped to explain why ending the bloodshed in Iraq requires nothing short of an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops. This requires building an organizational vehicle that is able to articulate this demand to this broad audience. This could have direct consequences on the size of the antiwar movement. During the national day of action on March 20, organizers across the country were surprised by the turnout, which exceeded all expectations. In New York City, where organizers had hoped for a crowd of 20,000, roughly 70,000 turned out. But since then, the presidential campaign has taken center stage–and protests against the war have dramatically diminished in size. There could be no sharper illustration of the dire need to build a principled anti-imperialist movement in the United States. We must start by patiently arguing the case for immediate withdrawal.

1 Arnaud de Borchgrave, "Looking for the Exit," Washington Times, May 3, 2004, available online at

2 Justin Raimondo, "Iraq, R.I.P.: Get Out While the Going is Good,", May 31, 2004, available online at

3 Tariq Ali, "What’s Next in Iraq?" Socialist Worker, April 9, 2004.

4 Howard Zinn, "What Do We Do Now?" Progressive, June 2004.

5 Ibid.

6 Seth Ackerman, "Misdirections on Iraq ‘Elections: When You Hear ‘Caucuses’ Don’t Think of Iowa,’" Extra!, April 2004, available online at

7 "Transcript of Bush’s Remarks on Iraq at the Army War College," May 24, 2004, available online at

8 Liz Sly and Bill Glauber, "Council in Iraq Clashes With U.S.," Chicago Tribune, June 1, 2004.

9 Thomas E. Ricks, "80% in Iraq Distrust Occupation Authority, Results of Poll, Taken Before Prison Scandal Came to Light, Worry U.S. Officials," Washington Post, May 13, 2004.

10 Yochi J. Dreazen and Christopher Cooper, "Behind the Scenes, U.S. Tightens Grip On Iraq’s Future," Wall Street Journal, May 13, 2004.

11 Dexter Filkins, "A Worn Road for UN Aide," New York Times, May 31, 2004.

12 "Allawi Spent $340,000 on Campaign for U.S. Support," Daily Times, June 4, 2004, available online at

13 For a more developed discussion of the history and nature of UN interventions, see Phil Gasper, "UN: Theives Kitchen," International Socialist Review 26, November—December 2002, and Bridget Broderick, "Can the UN Bring Peac?," International Socialist Review 7, Spring 1999.

14 "The Proclamation of Baghdad," March 19, 1917, can be found at the Information Clearinghouse, available online at

15 Niall Ferguson, "The Last Iraqi Insurgency," New York Times, April 18, 2004.

16 Steve Schifferes, "The Cost of the Iraq War: One Year On," BBC News Online, May 6, 2004, available online at

17 "The Cost of the Iraq War: One Year On."

18 One of the best resources on the impact of the war and sanctions is Anthony Arnove, ed., Iraq Under Siege: The Deadly Impact of Sanctions and War (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2002).

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