The risks of staying

Exactly as occurred prior to the invasion, withdrawal opponents ignore the risks of ongoing occupation.

Published May 28, 2007 12:27PM (EDT)

(updated below)

In his February 2003 speech at Drake University, Howard Dean set forth all of the reasons he opposed the imminent invasion of Iraq. In doing so, Dean identified this specific deficiency in the "debate" over the invasion:

We have been told over and over again what the risks will be if we do not go to war.

We have been told little about what the risks will be if we do go to war.

Dean then went on to warn of the many risks of invading -- almost all of which have transpired, and almost none of which were even acknowledged by most war proponents.

Just as Dean said, the pre-war debate in the establishment press endlessly showcased and dramatized the supposed risks from not invading (i.e., a Saddam-Al Qaeda alliance, mushroom clouds over U.S. cities, more anthrax and other chemical attacks, a growing perception that America is "weak"). Yet the risks of invading a sovereign country were all but ignored (i.e., endless occupation, civil war, intense anti-American anger in the Middle East and around the world, regional instability, conflict with Iraq's neighbors, unpredictable consequences, the need to resort to limitlessly brutal means to subdue the population, the temptation to establish a permanent presence).

Exactly this same deficiency plagues our debate now over whether to stay or leave. We are constantly told that any responsible, serious person -- even those who believe the original invasion was a mistake and/or that the subsequent war was terribly "mismanaged" -- must take into account all of the horrible things that will allegedly occur if we withdraw "precipitously." Terrible mayhem and violence will be the result, we are told, and therefore no responsible person would be in favor of straightforward withdrawal, because the risks are too great.

But these same pundits who dole out lectures about how Seriousness requires an acknowledgment of risks focus -- just as they did when advocating the invasion -- on only one side of the risk ledger. These Serious War Pundits studiously ignore the risks of keeping 150,000 troops in the middle of that region under the control of George Bush and Dick Cheney. There is virtually no discussion of the risks of that course of action.

The most glaring of these risks is the prospect of military conflict with Iran -- the by-product not of some deliberative democratic debate over whether to go to war with that country, but rather a natural outgrowth of our occupation of Iraq.

One of the most under-discussed facts with regard to Iraq is that the very people who conceived of the invasion and who are the architects of our current military strategy have always believed, and still believe, that we must go to war with Iran. Our current strategy in Iraq was designed and, to a large degree, implemented with that goal in mind.

Writing in The Weekly Standard this weekend, "Surge architect" Fred Kagan and chief Iraq war propagandist Bill Kristol made that as clear as can be, in an article entitled "Congress Gives in on War Funding -- Now Can We Fight the Enemy?" (and by "Enemy," they do not mean "Iraqi insurgents," at least not solely):

This means that our victory there will be an important victory in the larger struggle against terrorism--and our defeat there would embolden and empower our enemies. And the reality is that Iran and Syria are enemies. Most foreign fighters join al Qaeda in Iraq via Syria. And Iran has been sending advanced weapons and advisers into Iraq. These weapons and insurgents supported by Iran are killing our soldiers on a daily basis. There should be no doubt about the hostile role Iran and Syria are playing in Iraq today.

Kristol, of course, previously has expressly called for a U.S. war against Iran, and he even urged the White House to seek a Resolution authorizing the use of military force against Iran prior to the 2006 election. And Fred Kagan himself has acknowledged that he believes U.S. military strategy in Iraq -- including the "surge" which he personally designed -- must be developed "with the possibility of conflict with Iran ever on the horizon."

All of the super-serious and responsible pundits may be drowning in angst over the fact that we cannot leave Iraq because it is so very vital that, before we leave, we stabilize that country and turn it into a beacon of democracy, or at least avert even worse violence. But however laudable that goal might be, that is not the goal of the people controlling our actual strategy in Iraq. Stabilizing Iraq in order to leave is not what they are interested in.

What they seek -- by their own acknowledgment -- is a conflict with Iran and Syria, and they want to stay in Iraq because that is how that goal can be achieved. Joe Lieberman published an Op-Ed at the end of last year declaring that America's real enemy in this "war" is Iran. Charles Krauthammer and John Podhoretz last year both proclaimed -- excitedly -- that U.S. war with Iran was inevitable, and that (according to Krauthammer) it would be less than a year away.

On their Fox television show this weekend, Wall St. Journal pundits Paul Gigot and Bret Stephens warned of the grave threat posed by Iran (which, needless to say, was compared to Nazi Germany), and the even greater danger of the "U.N. path," which is too "slow and toothless."

And Fred Hiatt's Washington Post Editorial this morning said this: "Military action against Iran would be a desperate and probably ineffective measure. Barring an emergency, the Bush administration should not undertake it." With U.S. forces extremely active in two of Iran's neighboring countries, and the belligerent rhetoric and provocative actions escalating on both sides, nothing is easier than imagining an "emergency" which would "justify" the "military action against Iran" to which Hiatt is plainly receptive.

These are not fringe figures, even if they ought to be. These are the people who have driven the Bush administration's foreign policy since its inception. Their advocacy, in almost every case, foreshadows what the Bush administration does. And they are, with increasing explicitness, pining for war with Iran, and our occupation of Iraq -- militarily, strategically, and politically -- is what enables that conflict.

How does that risk -- to say nothing of the multiple other risks from staying -- weigh against the risks of withdrawal? Anti-withdrawal pundits never really say, because they do not really acknowledge any risks from ongoing war, exactly the glaring flaw in their reasoning about which Dean complained prior to the invasion.

In fact, we are seeing a precise repeat of the mistakes which the Reluctant War Proponents made before the invasion -- the ones who wrung their hands and made a great display of how torn they were but ultimately concluded oh-so-reluctantly that the invasion was warranted. Exemplified by Tom Friedman, they constantly advocated an invasion based on what their Noble, Pure Fantasy of the war would look like, ignoring the fact that the Bush administration had no intention, and no ability, to implement The Good Fantasy War. So they supported the Bush War by invoking images of The Fantasy War, even though the latter had nothing to do with the former.

That is exactly what is occuring now with the Reluctant Withdrawal Opponents. They cite all of these wonderful goals that can be achieved, or at least terrible outcomes that can be avoided, if we just allow the administration to proceed in its work of stabilizing Iraq enough so that we can safely leave.

But what if, as appears clearly to be the case, that is not really the goal of the people in charge of what we are doing in Iraq? What if the real goal in staying, as seems to be the case, is to maximize the possibility of war in the Greater Middle East? And/or what if, as Avedon Carol persuasively argues, the real goal is to establish a permanent military presence in Iraq, such that we are never really going to leave, because we don't actually want to leave?

Former Reagan NSA Director Lt. General William Odom argues that the risks of leaving are being exaggerated by withdrawal opponents as a rank fear-mongering device to scare people out of supporting withdrawal -- in exactly the same way these same advocates exaggerated the "threat" posed by Saddam in order to scare people into supporting the war. General Odom's arguments, however, are more or less ignored completely in our current debate. It is an unquestionable Article of Faith among our Serious Pundits that our withdrawal will engender all sorts of terrible outcomes in Iraq. It is possible that it would, but it is also quite possible that it would not.

But even if one accepts that withdrawal would unleash more bloodshed in Iraq, focusing exclusively on that risk is woefully incomplete. Whatever cost one assigns to that risk must be weighed against the costs and risks of staying. And those risks cannot be assessed by assuming that the administration will pursue the Pure, Ideal and Noble vision of ongoing occupation, let alone conduct a competent occupation. That is the central mistake which Reluctant War Proponents (now re-incarnated as Reluctant Withdrawal Opponents) made prior to the invasion, and it is a mistake they are making yet again.

Whatever the "benefits" supposedly are from staying, are they worth incurring the substantial risk that we are enabling our country's warmongers to achieve their real goal of spreading our war beyond Iraq to their long list of Middle East Enemies, beginning with Iran? The Reluctant Withdrawal Opponents who are insisting that we stay longer are the ones who will enable exactly that outcome.

These Reluctant Withdrawal Opponents -- the ones who say: "Of course we want to leave, but no Serious person wants to leave 'precipitiously' given what will happen if we do" -- will claim that they did not intend a conflict with Iran, or a permanent military presence there, and therefore can't be blamed for those outcomes. They will advance that self-justifying defense just as they now claim that all the terrible things in Iraq that were produced by the invasion which they advocated cannot be attributed to them because they did not seek those outcomes.

But willful recklessness is no excuse. Purposely shutting one's eyes to the likely consequences of the course one advocates does not exonerate anyone from responsibility for those consequences. And the severe risks of staying Iraq -- beyond the guaranteed loss of thousands of more lives and billions and billions of dollars -- have simply been erased from our current debate.

UPDATE: Atrios makes a related and important point:

But even if we imagine that somehow there exists, if not a magical pony plan, at least something, some way to improve things just a bit. The reality is George Bush and his merry band of incompetent psychopaths are in power for the next 20 months. 20 more months of the war-as-product-for-domestic-consumption rather than as an occupation to be understood. . . .

The fact is that right now the choice is, as it has always been, between Bush's war and getting out. There's no Peter Beinart's war, there's no Tom Friedman's war, there's no Adele Stan's war. There is no good liberal way out of this mess.

That was the point most destructively ignored prior to the invasion, and an exact replay is happening now over the withdrawal debate.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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