Add MEEF to
don't know how all this happened, but a little speculation never
hurt anyone. Congress mandated the ISG to come up with some new
recommendations for Iraq policy last March. Baker and co-chair
Lee Hamilton began work in April. Iraq has been in an ever more
horrific and bloodthirsty spiral downward ever since.
MEEF - Middle East Projects News & Analyses - previous page
are always complicated. In the Washington Post, for instance,
James Mann, author of Rise of the Vulcans, recently suggested
that it was far "too simplistic" to claim "the appointment of
Robert M Gates to replace Donald Rumsfeld [represents] the
triumph of Bush the father's administration over Bush the
The danger of a 'dignified' exit from Iraq
By Tom Engelhardt
Still, I prefer the analysis of Washington Post reporter (and
author of Fiasco) Thomas Ricks. When asked by the Post's media
columnist Howard Kurtz whether a Newsweek headline, "Father
knows best", was just "an easy, cheap Oedipal way for the press
to characterize what's going on", Ricks replied: "Well, just
because it's easy and cheap doesn't mean it's wrong."
At a moment when every version of the dramatic arrival of James
A Baker III as co-head of the Iraq Study Group (ISG) and Robert
Gates as US defense secretary on the scene - and the scuttling
of Rumsfeld's Titanic - is at least suspect, it's still worth
considering the bare bones of what can be seen and known - and
then asking what we have.
Sooner or later, failure has a way of stripping most of us of
our dreams and pretensions. So let's start with a tiny history
of failure. President George W Bush's life trajectory of failing
upward has had a rhythm to it - and a rubric, "crony
capitalism". Daddy's friends and contacts helped him into and -
after he failed - out of the oil business, into and out of the
baseball business, into and now, it seems, out of the failed
game of global politics.
"His is," as the Boston Globe's Michael Kranish and John
Aloysius Farrell put it in 2002, "the story of a man who struck
out numerous times before being bailed out by big hitters who
often were family members, friends or supporters of his father."
It's appropriate, then, that the man who bailed him out in
Florida when he in essence lost the presidency in 2000, Bush
family consigliere Baker, would reappear six years later, in the
wake of another failed election, to bail him out again now that
he has screwed up the oil heartlands of the planet. Daddy -
we're talking here about former president George H W Bush - has
three adopted boys: his former national security adviser (and
alter ego) Brent Scowcroft, who went into opposition to the
younger Bush's Iraq policy even before the invasion of 2003 and
now lurks quietly in the wings; his former Central Intelligence
Agency (CIA) director Gates; and Baker.
Like Daddy, Gates was deeply involved in, but never indicted
for, his dealings in the scurrilous Iran-Contra affair, was
later involved in the tilt toward and arming of Saddam Hussein's
Iraq against Iran, pioneered fertile territory in the late 1980s
in terms of manipulating intelligence in the debate over the
nature of Mikhail Gorbachev's Soviet Union, had a hand in the
Gulf War of 1991, and most recently held the presidency of Texas
A&M University, where he was the keeper of the flame for Daddy's
library. Could you ask for a better insider CV for taking over
the Pentagon from one of Bush the elder's rivals in the Gerald
Ford era, Rumsfeld?
Yet the ISG has still delivered nothing but promises of
recommendations - which Baker and others continue to swear will
be no "magic" or "silver" bullet - some time in December or even
January. In March, Baker insisted on getting the president, who
initially seemed reluctant, to sign on personally. But the
question is: What happened over the past eight months as Iraq
I think we have to assume - and a cover piece in Time seems to
confirm this - that Baker, a distinctly hard-nosed guy, never
intended to present a bunch of suggestions that Rumsfeld could
simply shoot out of the skies and so was stalling until his
departure. (Time quotes a "Gates aide" as saying, "Baker wasn't
going to let his report come out so that Rummy could stomp all
Assumedly, he knew that if his group took long enough, Rumsfeld
would be gone and a secretary of defense more to his liking in
place. Hence the distant date for delivering "solutions". It has
been, in essence, a stall. Everyone involved has claimed, of
course, that Bush Sr had nothing directly to do with all this
and that Baker didn't even know, until the last second, that
Rumsfeld was about to fall like a brick. I'd be surprised if
that story lasted out the month.
In fact, what we're seeing undoubtedly adds up to something more
than Iraq-policy recommendations - possibly even a genuine purge
of most of the remaining neo-conservatives and their allies (who
are also in the process of, as ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern has
written, eating their own). At the Pentagon, rumor has it, the
leftover neo-cons, many of them allies of Vice President Dick
Cheney, are just waiting for their dismissal notices when Gates
steps aboard. All this seems aimed at leaving the Vice
President's Office increasingly isolated and Cheney himself
Some day, when the full story is in, we're bound to be riveted.
After all, Baker has managed in these months to gather in the
wings something like an alternative State Department, National
Security Council and CIA-in-waiting in the shell of the ISG,
which is filled with old movers and shakers going back to the
Ronald Reagan administration. (He has even begun to conduct
something akin to his own foreign policy, meeting with the
Syrian foreign minister and Iran's ambassador to the United
Nations, both no-nos for the Bush administration.)
The 10 key ISG members, in fact, are largely not military
strategists or geopolitical thinkers of a sort who might be
expected to offer Iraq solutions. They are instead a who's who
of establishmentarianism, extending back to the Reagan era.
Is this a major shift in Washington? You bet. How big remains to
be seen. But here's the real question: Can the new crowd - even
if the president bows down to Daddy's Boys, which is hardly a
given - get the US out of Iraq? Do they even want to? At a
moment of such flux, with a new Democratic Congress and growing
public pressure for a genuine Iraq exit strategy, what kind of
gates will the Gates nomination actually open?
When is an 'exit' not the way out?
Let's start with one sure side-effect of the Gates nomination
and the extended delivery schedule of the ISG. It buys time from
election-driven pressure for whatever administration is in
We now have to wait for the Gates confirmation hearings; the ISG
recommendations (and possibly those from an alternative White
House version of the same); endless consideration of them; and,
barring an unlikely flat turn-down from an increasingly cornered
administration, the time to implement those policies and check
out the results (which are guaranteed to be deeply
disappointing, if not disastrous). Six months to a year could
easily pass before it becomes obvious to Americans that we're
not really heading out of those Iraqi gates.
If you happen to have lived through the Vietnam era, then think
of this as the beginning of the season of non-withdrawal
withdrawal gestures. The key word right now is "redeployment",
something Senator Carl Levin, who will soon take over the Armed
Services Committee, is pushing hard. His modest drawdown plan,
however, is not even meant to begin for another four to six
months and offers no timetable or any particular end in sight.
Levin does, however, make it clear that redeployment and
departure are two different creatures. In the form of some kind
of military advisory group (not to speak of the United States'
massive new embassy in the heart of Baghdad and a few of the
massive bases it has built), he expects the US to be in Iraq
into the distant future.
We don't, of course, know exactly what plan the ISG will offer,
but all reports on its deliberations suggest that, while public
expectations are soaring, the actual recommendations "may sound
familiar". Actually, they may sound that way because the
proposals the group seems to be considering are indeed
These range from a bulking up of US troop strength by
10,000-40,000 more soldiers to a far more likely scenario
described by Neil King Jr, Yochi Dreazen and Greg Jaffe in the
Wall Street Journal just two days after the election. This would
involve a long-term drawdown of US forces to the 50,000 level -
still 20,000 more than Rumsfeld and pals hoped to leave
in-country only months after the taking of Baghdad. Assumedly,
these would largely be pulled back into those permanent bases.
"The new defense secretary is more likely to oversee a shift of
the US effort away from providing security in urban areas such
as Baghdad to a more advisory role ... In such a scenario, the
Pentagon would turn big US units into quick reaction forces to
bail out Iraqi soldiers and advisers who get overrun. Teams of
American advisers who live and work with Iraqi units would
increase in number."
Recently, Julian Borger of the British newspaper The Guardian
summed up what's known this way: The ISG "is also looking at
various types of troop deployment. Most probably it will suggest
pulling US forces out of the urban patrolling that causes most
of the casualties and regrouping in bases in Iraq or in
Along with this would go various forms of pressure on the Iraqi
government to step up ("benchmarks", but not perhaps the dreaded
"timetable" for withdrawal that Bush opposes so vigorously). In
addition, a regional conference of neighboring states, the
Europeans and the US would be convened. Its task would evidently
be to draft Iran and Syria into the process of "stabilizing"
Iraq. (Having played a high-stakes game of chicken with the Bush
administration based on an assessment of US power and seemingly
won, the Iranians, in particular, are unlikely to settle now for
what little the US administration might offer in return for
Yes, the presidential idea of "victory" or "success" will be
nowhere in sight, nor will an emphasis on fostering "democracy"
in Iraq - and further coup rumors may proliferate. But all of
this, however palatable it may seem in Washington, will only add
up to a series of tactical, not strategic, readjustments - most
of which (minus that conference) have already been tried in Iraq
and have only been so many benchmarks on the road to
Before the November 7 US election, an upsurge in violence in
Iraq was compared to the Tet Offensive "turning point" moment in
Vietnam. In fact, the past weeks bear no particular relationship
to that nationwide Vietnamese campaign that saw bitter fighting
all over the country, even inside the US Embassy compound in
Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital. But let's remember
another, more telling aspect of Tet. As a "turning point" in
that conflict, it was still followed by another seven years of
war. Almost as many Americans, and probably more Vietnamese,
died in the period after Tet as before.
In the post-Tet period, we had to live through a Senator
Levin-style near-complete withdrawal of US ground troops from
Vietnam under the pressure of a disintegrating army and rising
anti-war feeling at home, only to see the use of US air power
escalate dramatically to fill the power gap.
Expect some modified, scaled-down version of this Richard
Nixon-era "Vietnamization" program in Iraq. As early as last
November, Nixon's secretary of defense Melvin Laird, who claims
full credit for the strategy (and still thinks it was a
successful way to win the Vietnam War in the face of increasing
public opposition at home), proposed a similar Iraqification
plan in Foreign Affairs magazine. Now, its moment may be
Like almost all strategies floating around Washington at the
moment, this is but another way to try to hang on to some
truncated but permanent imperial presence at the heart of the
oil lands of the planet - and as such it is doomed.
Unfortunately, to make much sense of what an Iraqification
policy might actually mean, you need to be able to assess two
key aspects of the US Iraq venture that the mainstream media in
essence have not cared to cover.
Permanent facts on the ground
As the New York Times revealed in a front-page piece by Thom
Shanker and Eric Schmitt on April 19, 2003, just after Baghdad
fell, the Pentagon arrived in the Iraqi capital with plans
already on the drawing board to build four massive military
bases (that no official, then or now, will ever call
Today, according to the former secretary of defense, the US has
55 bases of every size in Iraq (down from more than 100); five
or six of these, including Balad Air Base, north of Baghdad, the
huge base first named Camp Victory adjacent to Baghdad
International Airport, and al-Asad Air Base in western Anbar
province, are enormous - big enough to be reasonable-sized US
towns with multiple bus routes, neighborhoods, a range of
fast-food restaurants, multiple shops, pools, mini-golf courses
and the like.
Though among the safest places in Iraq for American reporters,
these bases have, with rare exceptions, gone completely
undescribed and undiscussed in the US press (or on the
television news). From an engineering journal, we know that
before the end of 2003, several billion dollars had already been
sunk into them. We know that in early 2006, the major ones,
already mega-structures, were still being built up into a state
of advanced permanency.
Balad, for instance, already handled the levels of daily air
traffic one would normally see at Chicago's ultra-busy O'Hare
and in February its facilities were still being ramped up. We
know, from the reliable Ed Harriman, in the latest of his
devastating accounts of corruption in Iraq in the London Review
of Books, that, as you read, the four mega-bases always imagined
as the United States' permanent jumping-off spots in what Bush
administration officials once liked to call "the arc of
instability" were still undergoing improvement.
Without taking the fate of those monstrous,
always-meant-to-be-permanent bases into account - and they are,
after all, just about the only uniformly successfully
construction projects in that country - no US plans for Iraq,
whatever label they go by, will make much sense. And yet months
go by without any reporting on them appearing. In fact, these
past months have gone by with only a single peep (that I've
found) from any mainstream publication on the subject.
The sole bit of base news I've noticed anywhere made an obscure
mid-October appearance in a Turkish paper, which reported that
the US was now building a "military airport" in Kurdistan. A few
days later, a United Press International report picked up by the
Washington Times had this: "Following hints US troops may remain
in Iraq for years, the United States is reportedly building a
massive military base at Arbil, in Kurdish northern Iraq."
Kurdistan has always been a logical fallback position for US
forces "withdrawing" from a failed Iraq. But so far nothing more
substantial has been written on the subject.
There is, however, another symbol of US "permanency" in Iraq
that has gotten just slightly more attention in the US press in
recent months - the new embassy now going up inside Baghdad's
well-fortified Green Zone and nicknamed by Baghdadis (in a sly
reference to Saddam Hussein's enormous, self-important edifices)
"George W's Palace".
It's almost the size of Vatican City, will have its own
apartment buildings (six of them) for its bulked-up "staff" of
literally thousands, and its own electricity, well-water and
waste-treatment facilities to guarantee "100% independence from
city utilities", not to speak of a "swimming pool, gym,
commissary, food court and American Club, all housed in a
recreation building" and its own anti-missile system.
Harriman tells us that it's a billion-dollar-plus project - and
unlike just about every other construction project in the
country, it's going up efficiently and on schedule. It will be
the most imperial embassy on the planet, not exactly the perfect
signal of a sovereign Iraqi future.
Again, few in the US have had much to say about the embassy
project, a rare exception being an August Dallas Morning News
editorial, "Fortress America: New embassy sends wrong message to
Iraqis" that denounced the project: "America certainly needs a
decent, well-defended embassy in Baghdad. But not as much as
ordinary Iraqis need electricity and water. That our government
doesn't seem to understand that reality could explain a lot
about why the US mission is in such trouble."
Of course, as we learned in Vietnam, even the most permanent
facilities can turn out to be impermanent indeed and even the
best-defended imperial embassy can, in the end, prove little
more than a handy spot for planning an evacuation. But if the
ISG doesn't directly confront these facts on the ground (as it
surely won't), whatever acceptable compromises it may forge in
Washington between an embedded administration and a new
Congress, things will only go from truly bad to distinctly worse
The uncovered war
Here's another mystery of Iraq (and Afghanistan) coverage: the
essential US way of war - air power - has long been all but
completely absent. There has been not a single mainstream piece
of any significance on the air war these past years, with the
single exception of journalist Seymour Hersh's remarkable
December 2005 report "Up in the air" in The New Yorker. ("A key
element of the drawdown plans, not mentioned in the president's
public statements, is that the departing American troops will be
replaced by American air power. Quick, deadly strikes by US
warplanes are seen as a way to improve dramatically the combat
capability of even the weakest Iraqi combat units.") It is, of
course, an irony that the only American reporter to look up and
notice all those planes, helicopters and drones overhead has
never been to Iraq.
Such modest coverage of the air war in Iraq as exists in the US
press generally comes in the form of infrequent paragraphs
buried in wire-service roundups as in a November 14 Associated
Press piece headlined, "US general confronts Iraqi leader on
On Monday night, US forces raided the homes of some [Muqtada
al-]Sadr followers, and US jets fired rockets on Shula, their
northwest Baghdad neighborhood, residents said. Police said five
residents were killed, although a senior Sadr aide put the death
toll at nine. The US military said it had no comment.
This incident assumedly took place somewhere in the vast Baghdad
slum of Sadr City. In other words, we're talking about US planes
regularly sending rockets or bombs into relatively heavily
populated urban areas. All you have to do is imagine such a
thing happening in a US city to grasp the barbarism involved.
And yet over these years in which such targeting has been
commonplace and, in larger campaigns, parts of such cities as
Najaf and Fallujah have been destroyed from the air, hardly a
single reporter has gone to an air base such as Balad and simply
spent time with American pilots.
Not surprisingly, this remains a non-issue in this country. How
could Americans react, when there's no news to react to, when
there's next to no information to be had - which doesn't mean
that information on the United States' ongoing air campaigns is
unavailable. In fact, the US Air Force is proud as punch of the
job it's doing; so any reporter, not to speak of any citizen,
can go to the USAF website and look at daily reports of air
missions over both Iraq and Afghanistan. The report of last
Wednesday, for instance, offers the following:
Iraq, US Marine Corps F/A-18s conducted a strike against
anti-Iraqi forces near Ramadi. The F/A-18s expended guided bomb
unit-31s on enemy targets. Air force F-16 Fighting Falcons
provided close air support to troops in contact with anti-Iraqi
forces near Forward Operating Base McHenry and Baqubah. Air
force F-15E Strike Eagles provided close-air support to troops
in contact with anti-Iraqi forces near Baghdad. In total,
coalition aircraft flew 32 close-air-support missions for
Operation Iraqi Freedom. These missions included support to
coalition troops, infrastructure protection, reconstruction
activities and operations to deter and disrupt terrorist
This was a pretty typical day's work in recent months; there
were 34 strikes on November 14, 32 on the 13th and 35 on the
12th - and note that each of the strikes mentioned was "near" a
major city. These reports can be hard to parse, but they
certainly give a sense, day by day, that the air war in Iraq is
no less ongoing for being unreported.
Here's the crucial thing: US troop levels simply cannot be
slowly drawn down in Iraq without - as in Vietnam - some
increase in the use of air power. And yet you can look far and
wide and find no indication of any public discussion of this at
the White House, in Congress or in what we know of the
deliberations of the ISG.
And yet as the Iraqi chaos and strife grow while the American
public increasingly backs off, air power will be one answer. You
can count on that. And air power - especially in or "near"
cities - simply means civilian carnage. It will be called
"collateral damage" (if anyone bothers to call it anything at
all), but - make no mistake - it will be at the heart of any new
strategy that calls for "redeployment" but does not mean to get
the US out of Iraq.
'A true disaster for the Iraqi people'
On the American Broadcasting Co's Sunday political talk show
This Week, White House chief of staff Josh Bolten had this to
say: "I don't think we're going to be receptive to the notion
there's a fixed timetable at which we automatically pull out,
because that could be a true disaster for the Iraqi people."
With hundreds of thousands of dead and more following daily, it
makes you wonder exactly what it has been like so far for the
Iraqi people, as Bolten sees it. But perhaps he's right; perhaps
the disaster behind the US will be nothing compared with the
disaster ahead, especially if Daddy's Boys, the ISG, other
Democratic and Republican movers and shakers, and all those
generals and former generals floating around decide that this
isn't the moment to rediscover a Colin Powell-style "exit
strategy", but "one last chance" to succeed by any definition in
Iraq. Then, God help us - and the Iraqis. Sooner or later, the
US will undoubtedly be gone from a land so determinedly hostile
to being occupied, but that end moment could still be a long,
long time in coming.
Here, for instance, is Gates' thinking 18 months ago in a
seminar at the Panetta Institute at California State University
in Monterey on "phased troop withdrawals" from Iraq:
But Mr Gates qualified his comments, noting it sometimes takes
time to accomplish your goals. Sixty years after the end of the
Second World War, "there are still American troops in Germany",
he noted. "We've had troops in Korea for over 50 years. The
British have had troops in Cyprus for 40 years ... If you want
to change history, you have to be prepared to stay as long as it
takes to do the job.
So hold on to your hats. Tragedy and more tragedy seems almost
guaranteed, and the Pentagon has just submitted to Congress a
staggering US$160 billion supplemental appropriation request to
continue its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
So far, what have the US invasion and occupation of Iraq led to
- other than a staggering bloodbath, killing fields galore and a
secret landscape of detention centers and torture chambers?
As a start, an already badly battered Iraqi economy was turned
into a looting ground for Bush administration crony corporations
and thoroughly wrecked. (Tall Afar, for instance, is considered
a US "success" story when it comes to security, though part of
the city is now a "ghost town" of rubble, and unemployment there
is estimated at almost 70%.)
The Iraqi education system is in tatters; the medical system in
ruins; basic social and urban services almost undeliverable; oil
production barely up to pathetic prewar levels (if present-day
figures are even real, which is in doubt); the position of women
now disastrous; child malnutrition on the rise; and well over a
million Iraqis have fled their homes in a country of only 26
In addition, national sovereignty has been destroyed; the
national police system is on its last legs, its ranks well
stocked with men loyal to various murderous Shi'ite militias; a
Sunni insurgency rages ever more violently; a Kurdish form of
independence seems ever more likely (though inconceivable to
neighboring states); corruption is rampant; and a central
government, whose sway doesn't reach most streets in its
capital, is now considered "the least accountable and least
transparent regime in the Middle East". (The Interior Ministry
alone "reportedly employs at least 1,000 ghost employees, whose
wages amount to more than $1 million a month".)
Throw in the fact that the Iraqi army the Bush administration
has been so intent on "standing up" is largely a Shi'ite one (as
fine Knight-Ridder reporter Tom Lasseter discovered in October
2005 and New York Times correspondent Richard A Oppel found only
last week in Diyala province, north of Baghdad). So if the plan
is to bulk it up further to create a modicum of "stability"
before departure, forget it. By its nature, such a training
program, even if successful, is but a plan to generate an even
more murderous civil war.
Now, add in endless months or years of non-withdrawal withdrawal
plans, keep in mind the likelihood that US air power will be
ratcheted up, and you have a formula for further carnage,
collapses and disintegrations of every sort, coups,
assassinations, civil war and God knows what else.
In the Vietnam era, Nixon went on a well-armed, years-long hunt
for something he called "peace with honor". Today, the catchword
is finding an "exit strategy" that can "salvage US prestige".
What we want, it seems, is peace with "dignity". In Vietnam,
there was no honor left, only horror. There is no American
dignity to be found in Iraq either, only horror.
In a Washington of suddenly lowered expectations, dignity is
defined as hanging in there until an Iraqi government that can't
even control its own Interior Ministry or the police in the
capital gains "stability", until the Sunni insurgency becomes a
mild irritation and until that US Embassy, that eighth wonder of
the world of security and comfort, becomes an eye-catching
landmark on the capital's skyline.
Imagine. That's all the US wants. That's its dignity. And for
that dignity and the imagined imperial stability of the world,
the United States' top movers and shakers will proceed to monkey
around for months creating and implementing plans that will only
ensure further catastrophe (which, in turn, will but breed more
rage, more terrorism that spreads disaster to the Middle East
and actually lessens US power around the world).
Now, the dreamers, the greatest gamblers in the United States'
history, are departing official Washington and the "realists"
have hit the corridors of power that they always thought they
owned. It wouldn't hurt if they opened their eyes. Even imperial
defenders should face reality. Someday, it's something we'll all
have to do. In the meantime, call in the Hellfire-missile-armed
Tom Engelhardt is editor of Tomdispatch and the author of The
End of Victory Culture. His novel, The Last Days of Publishing,
has recently come out in paperback. Most recently, he is the
author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews with
American Iconoclasts and Dissenters (Nation Books), the first
collection of Tomdispatch interviews.