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Sarah Olson: Iraq Report - "A Giant Step Sideways"

Iraq Report: "A Giant Step Sideways"

By Sarah Olson
t r u t h o u t | Report

Tuesday 12 December 2006

US anti-war movements have myriad criticisms of the much-anticipated, recently released Iraq Study Group report. The report has been popularly received as a stinging rebuke of the Bush administration's foreign policy. This week's headlines trumpeted a 2008 troop withdrawal from Iraq and numerous changes in US foreign policy.

But the prevailing mood within the anti-war movement is not so sanguine. Despite the mainstream media's sound and fury, many analysts say the report has little to do with leaving Iraq any time soon. Instead, they fear the report's diligent research and assiduous recommendations serve to obfuscate the depth of the US-created crisis, change the nature of the occupation, pave the way for multinational privatization of Iraq's resources, and distract from increasingly stentorian calls for immediate withdrawal.

Anti-war advocates may be grateful for the report's criticism of the Iraq War and its frank analysis of the political difficulties the US government is facing. "Iraq is a centerpiece of American foreign policy," the report says. "Because of the gravity of Iraq's condition and the country's vital importance, the United States is facing one of is most difficult and significant international challenges in decades." But many activists are unwilling to embrace the recommendations enumerated in the report.

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Last week members of United for Peace and Justice, a coalition of over 1,400 organizations across the US, held a conference call to discuss peace movement concerns regarding the Baker/Hamilton Iraq Study Group report.

Meaningful Diplomatic Efforts Still Needed

The Iraq Study Group calls for a "New Diplomatic Offensive" as one panacea for Iraq War troubles. Since many have called the Bush administration's foreign policy jingoistic and belligerent, there is an understandable temptation to view calls for increased diplomacy as a good thing.

The problem, according to Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, is that current calls for diplomacy have no teeth. "The Iraq Study Group report provides a limited set of proposals. What it doesn't do is provide for US policy that substantively changes our diplomatic posture."

The New Diplomatic Offensive seeks to "marginalize extremists and terrorists, promote US values and interests, and improve America's global image," and it should start no later than December 31st, 2006. Unfortunately, these diplomatic goals are rather United States-centric, and provide little in the way of incentives for Iraqis or for other negotiating partners in the region.

Bennis says the mere fact the US now deigns to negotiate with Iran and Syria is unlikely to bring those countries to the table. "Expecting that the most powerful country in the world can say 'We will talk to you now,' and everything will be OK, is arrogant," she says.

Other advocates say that by definition neither diplomacy nor meaningful political negotiation can be conducted between occupying and occupied nations. "We believe diplomacy will not succeed if the US has a long-term military presence in Iraq," says Nancy Lessen, co-founder of Military Families Speak Out. One partner's military dominance of the other is inimical to diplomatic success.

Troop Withdrawal by 2008?

Despite the brouhaha to the contrary, the report does not recommend complete withdrawal from Iraq - ever. "Even after the United States has moved all combat brigades out of Iraq, we would maintain a considerable military presence in the region, with our still significant force in Iraq and with our powerful air, ground, and naval deployments in Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar, as well as an increased presence in Afghanistan."

The report envisions a variety of continued roles for the US military in Iraq. More forces would be embedded with existing Iraqi Army battalions. US military would also provide assistance with intelligence, transportation, air support, and logistics. Remaining US forces would also include rapid-reaction and special operations teams.

When the report does talk about withdrawal, its language is rife with ambiguity. "While these efforts are building up, and as additional Iraqi brigades are being deployed, US combat brigades could begin to move out of Iraq. By the first quarter of 2008, subject to unexpected developments in the security situation on the ground, all combat brigades not necessary for force protection could be out of Iraq."

This doesn't sit well with United for Peace and Justice's national coordinator Leslie Cagan. "The bottom line for UFPJ is that the only thing that needs to happen is for the US to withdraw. No permanent bases. No military advisers. All troops out."

"This is not a proposal to end the war, but rather, to change the nature of the occupation," says the Institute for Policy Study's Phyllis Bennis. "Occupation and continued US presence is the problem, not the solution."

Indeed, 655,000 Iraqis - or 2.5 percent of the population - have been killed in this conflict, according to the November 2006 Johns Hopkins study. Approximately 3,000 people continue to die each month. Veteran anti-war activist and former California state assemblyperson Tom Hayden says the idea that the situation would deteriorate further after US withdrawal is spurious. "People want the troops out. We don't have right to meddle in the affairs of other countries, and then say leaving is a bigger mistake. If there's going be bloodbath when we leave, why would 80 percent Iraqis prefer us gone? We are living in a blind, elitist paradigm."

Both Bennis and Hayden say the report's real goal is not to withdraw troops from the region, but to have a frigorific effect on essential public debate. "The current administration does not want the war to be an issue in the 2008 elections," Hayden says. Placating the American public's inchoate criticism of the war is perhaps the best way to stanch the debate.

Supporting the Troops

While most politicians give lip service to supporting the troops, some military families and veterans groups say this is rarely backed by actual services. Instead, they say the Bush administration's "support the troop" rhetoric is transparently designed to whip citizens into a frothing, patriotic fervor, and silence the war's critics.

But the troops remain in Iraq, for longer and longer periods of time. Nancy Lessen of Military Families Speak Out says that stop-loss and redeployment programs give the military what amounts to a back-door draft. "Troops are now going on 3rd and 4th and 5th deployments," she says. "We have troops with tremendous PTSD kept in battle. The military is beyond stretched, and this damages individuals, families and communities."

And what happens as these soldiers return to the United States? Many are finding that the fabled services provided by the military do not exist. Iraq veterans are rapidly joining the existing legions of homeless veterans in the United States. While an estimated 500,000 veterans were homeless during 2004, the VA had the resources for only 100,000 of them.

The college money and job training many join the military to receive often proves elusive. According to the GI Rights Hotline, only about 35 percent of recruits receive funding for higher education. Those who do receive money typically receive far less than the promised $70,000. Job training rarely has practical applications outside the military; and one study found only 12 percent of male veterans and 6 percent of female veterans ever use their military training in a professional environment. Further, veterans typically earn only 85 cents to the non-veterans' dollar.

According to a recent Army study, nearly 20 percent of returning soldiers meet military medical criteria for mental health treatment. Because of the negative stigmas associated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, these numbers are likely to be low. Studies find that even among soldiers diagnosed with PTSD, only 20 to 40 percent seek treatment.

Troop casualties continue to escalate. According to the Iraq Study Group's statistics, attacks on US soldiers in Iraq are averaging close to 180 per day. Nearly 3,000 Americans have died in the war, and an additional 21,000 have been physically wounded.

Lessen is concerned that the recommended partial withdrawal puts remaining troops in further danger. "We saw early on that people have trouble distinguishing between support for troops and support for war. Our position is that it is very possible to cut off all funds for war, and have funds sufficient to bring the troops home safely."

US Troops Out, WTO In

Anti-war movements have long charged the Bush administration with fighting a war for Iraqi oil, and inviting an elite coterie of corporate cronies to profit from reconstruction efforts. The report does little to assuage their concerns. "This is a call," says Tom Hayden, "for an American multinational take over of what there is of the Iraqi oil industry and the imposition of neo-liberal prices on the Iraqi people."

The report recommends that the US government "provide technical assistance" in drafting a law defining the rights of regional and local governments to oil resources. The US military is instructed to provide security to protect oil infrastructure. The International Monetary Fund is invited to apply pressure on Iraq to reduce its energy subsidies, concluding, "[u]ntil Iraqis pay market prices for oil products, drastic fuel shortages will remain."

The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the United Nations, the European Union, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, many Arab nations, and of course the United States are all instructed to participate in Iraq's reconstruction projects. "An essential part of the reconstruction efforts in Iraq," according to recommendation 65 "should be greater involvement by and with international partners, who should do more than just contribute money. They should also actively participate in the design and construction of projects."

The legacy of US corporate involvement in Iraqi reconstruction efforts is now legendary. Despite corporate consumption of billions of US taxpayer dollars, actual living conditions in Iraq remain dire, according to a November Inter Press Service article by Dahr Jamail and Ali al-Fadhily. "The average household in Iraq now gets two hours of electricity a day," they write. "There is 70 percent unemployment, 68 percent of Iraqis have no access to safe drinking water, and only 19 percent have sewage access."

Just last month, Bechtel packed its bags and left Iraq, claiming exhausted funds and exasperation with the country's deteriorating security. It had accepted 2.3 billion dollars for its efforts to rebuild the country, but left without finishing the job. Halliburton was 8 billion dollars richer in 2004, thanks to US military contracts, and outside of palatial US military bases, it too has little to show for time spent in Iraq. The report does little to address concerns of corporate corruption and war profiteering; instead, it lauds the effects of US corporate participation and recommends an increase in multinational involvement.

Helping the Iraqis Help Themselves

The Iraq Study Group report is replete with paternalistic references to an irresponsible, feckless Iraqi government lacking the political will to lead an intractable population. It concurrently views the United States as a benevolent grandfather of a nation, bent on bringing democracy to a confused and foreign region.

The report concludes that "the United States could become its own worst enemy in a land it liberated from tyranny." It rejects the idea of Iraq proceeding unassisted by US military forces "because the Iraqi people and their leaders have been slow to demonstrate the capacity or the will to act."

Military Families Speak Out's Nancy Lessen says this is typical US condescension. "There is a sense that we need to talk tough. That we need to call on the Iraqi government to take responsibility, to not be a slacker," she says. "But the problem isn't the Iraqi government. It's the occupation, and it's the US government that started this war based on misrepresentation and lies."

Though perhaps not unexpected, it is still shocking how little attention the Iraq Study Group gives to the idea of unwelcome US forces in Iraq. Instead, it persists in viewing the imposition of US hegemony in the region as liberation. Despite compelling evidence that Iraqis want the US military to leave their country, astoundingly, the report recommends using further US involvement as an incentive for good behavior.

"If the Iraqi government demonstrates political will and makes substantial progress towards the achievement of milestones on national reconciliation, security, and governance," says the report's 20th recommendation, "the United States should make clear its willingness to continue training, assistance, and support for Iraq's security forces, and to continue political, military, and economic support for the Iraqi government."

The report frames its recommendations for Iraq in terms of helping the Iraqis help themselves, and doesn't shy away from placing the lion's share of the blame for the escalating violence and instability at the feet of the Iraqi government. "The Iraqi government needs to show its own citizens - and the citizens of the United States and other countries - that it deserves continued support."

This talk of requisite Iraqi responsibility suggests one thing to Tom Hayden. "Among Machiavellian leaders of super powers, reputation is important," he says. "This looks a bit like the end game of the Viet Nam war. We hand this military fiasco over to Iraq and then blame them for the inevitable, ensuing collapse." In short, President Bush needs a scapegoat.

And how must the Iraqi government take responsibility? Ironically, it appears the Study Group believes the Iraqi government best achieves real leadership by meekly following a set of guidelines laid out by the United States.

Responding to Continued Occupation

The anti-war movement is mapping out its response to the shifting US foreign policy. United for Peace and Justice is planning a demonstration in Washington, DC, on January 27th.

"We want representatives from every state, and from each of the 435 Congressional districts," says Leslie Cagan. "We want to send a message to Washington that people from all walks of life and from every district in the nation are coming to where Congress does their work, insisting that politicians do the work the American public sent them to Washington to do."

Many in the anti-war movement are placing their hopes in the newly-elected Democratic Congressional majority. Many see the sweeping Democratic victory as a referendum on an increasingly unpopular war. However, it's not entirely clear the Democrats in Congress are prepared to precipitate the sweeping changes anti-war activists are hoping for.

Most Democrats have not substantiated their evanescent tough talk on Iraq with meaningful action. Newly-elected speaker of the house Nancy Pelosi recently said she would not withhold Iraq War funding. "Absolutely not," Pelosi said. "Democrats will be there to support the troops." Instead, Pelosi calls for hearings, oversight, and accountability.

But Military Families Speak Out's Nancy Lessen says a cut in funding is precisely what is needed. "We call on Congress to cut off funding for the war, and to bring troops home now." She is also quick to recognize that it has never been politicians who end wars, but instead persistent, dedicated social movements. She thinks it's incumbent on the US anti-war movement to provide the structure and leadership to create this type of meaningful and long-lasting change.


Sarah Olson is a freelance journalist and radio producer based in Oakland, California. She can be reached at solson75 @

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