Allison Kilkenny: Unreported

Obama and Hillary Spin a ‘Big Lie’ About Iraq

Posted in Barack Obama by allisonkilkenny on April 6, 2008

By Joshua Holland at

The cable news networks are happy to spend hours on the latest silly campaign squabble but can’t bring themselves to point out the plain fact that the two Democratic nominees are lying, blatantly, to the American people about one of the most important issues facing the country today.

On the stump, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are crystal clear in their rhetoric about Iraq. In a statement released on the occasion of the 4,000th U.S. combat death in Iraq, Clinton said, “I have made [a] promise. And I intend to honor it by bringing a responsible end to this war, and bringing our troops home safely.” Not to be outdone, the Obama campaign piped in with an even more definitive statement: “It is past time to end this war that should never have been waged by bringing our troops home.”

On the campaign trail, the two candidates often speak of bringing the troops home and ending the war, and Democratic primary voters, 80 percent of whom want U.S. troops out of Iraq within 12 months, reward them with boisterous applause.

It’s a Big Lie, and everyone who follows the debates over U.S. policy towards Iraq knows it, but refuses to call the candidates on it. Both Clinton and Obama (PDF) have been very clear — in the fine print — about the fact that they will leave a significant number of “residual forces” in Iraq, albeit with a more limited mission than the Bush administration has pursued. They would protect U.S. infrastructure and personnel — Obama says “the U.S. embassy” — train Iraqi forces and retain a rapid-response force to conduct “limited counter-terrorism” missions.

Although the candidates refuse to specify the exact scope and length of that mission, independent analysts say that it would require at least 40,000 and as many as 75,000 soldiers and marines. When one looks at the big picture, the end game appears to be a significant draw-down of troops — with as many as 100,000 sent home or redeployed to Afghanistan, where thin NATO troops are struggling to contain a re-emergent Taliban — calling a halt to most combat operations and patrols, and dismantling most or all U.S. bases outside of Baghdad.

They would, however, maintain the infrastructure of the U.S. occupation and provide the forces necessary to do so. As the Nation’s Jeremy Scahill told Amy Goodman,

Both [candidates] intend to keep the Green Zone intact. Both of them intend to keep the current U.S. embassy project, which is slated to be the largest embassy in the history of the world … And they’re also going to keep open the Baghdad airport indefinitely.

Calling the massive campus the United States is building in Baghdad an “embassy” is somewhat misleading. The Associated Press described it as a “fortresslike compound rising beside the Tigris River … the largest of its kind in the world, the size of Vatican City, with the population of a small town, its own defense force, self-contained power and water, and a precarious perch at the heart of Iraq’s turbulent future.”

Obama and Clinton have co-sponsored legislation that would increase accountability for the 180,000 security contractors — some authorized to carry weapons and use deadly force — that have run around Iraq largely unaccountable under U.S. and Iraqi laws and the military justice system (Clinton only did so after coming under pressure from human rights and other activists). Creating accountability is a positive step, but neither Clinton nor Obama have said that they would discontinue the use of mercenaries and other private contractors in Iraq.

There is a mile-wide gap between the Democrats’ analysis of the war and that of John McCain, and that’s evident in the candidates’ rhetoric. Those differences are significant, in that they would lead to very different political climates in which the issue would be debated after the election.

But all three candidates have embraced the Catch-22 that assures our enduring presence in Iraq. It can be summed up like this: U.S. forces must remain in Iraq as long as an active insurgency contributes to its instability, and an active insurgency will continue to create instability until the United States makes a commitment to a full withdrawal.

Having accepted that narrative, the sad reality is that the Democratic candidates’ Iraq policies differ only incrementally from that of John McCain, or from the long-term “cooperation agreement” Bush is attempting to negotiate with the Iraqi government his administration installed in Baghdad.

McCain, like Bush, speaks only in the vaguest terms about drawing down troops “as the Iraqis stand up,” but, short of implementing a draft, a president McCain would have little choice but to make significant cuts to our current troop levels. So, the difference between the Democratic and Republican candidates is one of numbers, rather than approaches. John McCain will likely draw down fewer troops than the Democrats would, and would have them continue to patrol the streets of Iraq. But all of the presidential candidates share similar assumptions about the United States playing a central role in Iraqi affairs moving forward — all will retain the infrastructure of the occupation for the foreseeable future.

U.S. troop levels will decrease regardless of who enters the White House in 2009 because of military (and political) necessity, rather than principled opposition to the occupation of Iraq. Defense experts from across the political spectrum agree that the current scope of the U.S. commitment in Iraq is unsustainable over the long run. In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 13, Gen. Richard Cody, U.S. Army vice chief of staff, made that point quite clearly:

The current demand for our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan exceeds the sustainable supply … Given the current theater demand for Army forces, we are unable to provide a sustainable tempo of deployments for our soldiers and families … Equipment used repeatedly in harsh environments is wearing out more rapidly than programmed. Army support systems, designed for the pre-9/11 peacetime Army, are straining under the accumulation of stress from six years at war. Overall, our readiness is being consumed as fast as we build it.

The United States has already decreased its military footprint in the streets of Iraq — surrendering large swaths of territory to local authorities and Iraqi security forces in an effort to reduce U.S. casualties. Spun as a spontaneous Sunni (and, later, Shiite) “Awakening,” much of that territory is being turned over to whichever armed group holds the most sway in a designated area. Small fiefdoms have been built in communities across Iraq with weapons and cash provided by U.S. taxpayers — there are currently as many as 100,000 militiamen in American employ.

What’s your favorite part of the last five years?

If there were truth in advertising, the Democratic candidates would simply argue that their approach would significantly reduce the costs of the occupation (we’re spending $275 million every single day right now), result in far fewer American casualties and, if executed well, might significantly improve the United States’ image in the world. They could argue, convincingly, that a Democratic president and Congress would improve oversight of the contracting practices that have proven so disastrous in the “reconstruction” of Iraq.

All of that is true, but one can also rest assured that whatever feature one has liked best about the last five years will continue under a U.S occupation with a lighter footprint, even if, in some cases, it would continue to a lesser degree.

Anti-U.S. insurgency

The McCain campaign is quite touchy about his now-infamous remark that staying in Iraq for 100 years would be fine with him. They keep pointing out that he was simply comparing Iraq with places like Japan and South Korea, where U.S. troops have been stationed for decades. Their defense is perhaps more frightening than the original statement; it reveals a man hopelessly out of touch with the situation on the ground.

Unlike Japan or South Korea, there is an active and effective anti-U.S. insurgency in Iraq. It is popular; in a poll conducted last August, almost 6 in 10 Iraqis said that attacks on U.S. troops were “acceptable.” Steven Kull, director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes, told me last fall that more than three-quarters of those he’d polled thought the United States plans to establish permanent bases in Iraq, and “that view is closely related to support for attacks on U.S. troops.” In fact, he said, “among those who believe the U.S. will withdraw, just 34 percent favor attacks against U.S. troops, but among those who believe the U.S. will not withdraw, 68 percent favor attacking coalition forces.”

By overwhelmingly large margins, Iraqis believe the United States makes the final decisions in the Green Zone, not their nominal “sovereign government”; in late 2006, more than seven of ten Iraqis said that if their government demanded that the U.S. leave their country, we would refuse to do so.

Last June, when Bush first spoke of a “Korea Model” for Iraq, Raed Jarrar, my frequent writing partner, spoke with several Iraqi lawmakers from across the political spectrum, including Nassar al-Rubaie, the head of the Al-Sadr bloc in Iraq’s parliament, who told us: “There is no Iraqi who will agree to keep permanent U.S. bases. Even the ones who are against the timetable for withdrawal oppose a long-term U.S. presence.”

As long as there is a walled city-within-a-city in the heart of Baghdad, where Westerners eat Kentucky Fried Chicken and dictate — or are perceived to dictate — the terms of Iraq’s future, the insurgency will continue. Whether that “Emerald City” is guarded by 40,000 U.S. troops or 140,000 is irrelevant to that reality.

Propping up an unpopular government

Under a lighter occupation, the United States would continue to prop up, by force when necessary, an Iraqi government with little legitimacy and an agenda that is deeply unpopular with a majority of the Iraqi population.

The U.S.-backed regime favors an extended American presence; 70 percent of Iraqis want a complete withdrawal of foreign troops within 12 months (PDF). Maliki and his supporters favor a loose federal system in which powerful regional governments oversee most domestic issues; 66 percent of Iraqis favor “one unified Iraq with a strong central government” (PDF). The Maliki regime favors the wholesale privatization of Iraq’s oil sector; two out of three Iraqis want their country’s oil wealth to be controlled by the state (the norm throughout the Middle East).

This explains, to a large degree, why “victory,” as defined by the American foreign policy elite, is structurally impossible — if the United States and the Iraqi minority it supports “win,” then most Iraqis will lose by definition.

Cutting the number of combat troops by half — or by two-thirds — won’t change this dynamic in the slightest bit.

Marginalizing indigenous efforts towards political reconciliation

The flip side of backing an unpopular government is that inevitably it will be challenged by populists with an agenda that is supported by a broad swath of the population, and an occupying power must work to marginalize them, which has been the case over the past five years. As Jarrar and I wrote last May, Iraqi nationalists “have proposed a series of comprehensive peace deals that might unite the country’s ethnic and sectarian groups, and result in an outcome American officials of all stripes say they want to achieve: a stable, self-governing Iraq that is strong enough to keep groups like al Qaeda from establishing training camps and other infrastructure within its borders.”

But these plans are unacceptable to the coalition because they (a) affirm the legitimacy of Iraq’s armed resistance groups and acknowledge that the U.S.-led coalition is, in fact, an occupying army, and (b) return Iraq to the Iraqis, which means no permanent bases, no oil law that gives foreign firms supersweet deals and no radical restructuring of the Iraqi economy.

The United States and its allies in the Maliki government have marginalized, rejected or ignored these indigenous efforts towards reconciliation, and at times attacked or imprisoned their authors. That dynamic won’t change as long as the United States maintains the infrastructure of the occupation and continues to back the regime with air power; on the ground, the strength of the pro-government militias — aka the “Iraqi army” — means that the exact number of U.S. troops is essentially irrelevant to this issue.

Violence in the streets

Last week, these dynamics were thrown into sharp relief as politically divided Shiite parties battled it out throughout southern Iraq.

Lacking a central government with broad legitimacy among different Iraqi constituencies, Iraq’s political conflicts are not a matter of academic debate. Every influential political party in Iraq has an armed wing — a militia — and decreasing the number of combat troops in Iraq will not help bring those parties to the table to come to a real accommodation.

In fact, Iraqis believe the opposite to be true; last December, the Washington Post reported on a series of Iraqi focus groups conducted by coalition officials, which concluded that “Iraqis of all sectarian and ethnic groups believe that the U.S. military invasion is the primary root of the violent differences among them and see the departure of ‘occupying forces’ as the key to national reconciliation.” It’s safe to say that they didn’t have a partial withdrawal in mind.

Chilean-style economic experiments

One might find the devastating economic “shock therapy” imposed on the Iraqi people the most appealing aspect of the Iraq occupation. As I’ve written before, Iraqis have been brutalized not only by bombs and bullets; they’ve also been the victims of economic violence in the form of the “free market reforms” cooked up by a firm in Virginia on a $250 million no-bid contract before the U.S. invasion.

The economic policies we imposed on Iraq were not some generic form of “capitalism”; they included the most radical business-state rules imaginable — policies that developing countries have vehemently resisted for over a decade. Transforming Iraq’s economy overnight was a matter of ideology trumping common sense, and it’s shattered a way of life for hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and fanned the flames of the anti-U.S. insurgency.

A good example of that ideological rigidity is Iraq’s new flat tax, established by Order No. 37 (now Law No. 37). As the Washington Post reported: “It took L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator in Baghdad, no more than a stroke of the pen … to accomplish what eluded [Republicans] over the course of a decade and two presidential campaigns.”

Former Reagan and Bush 41 official Bruce Bartlett said, with no small amount of envy, that an occupation government doesn’t have to “worry about all the political and transition problems that have made adoption of fundamental tax reform here so difficult,” and Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, called the move “extremely good news.” Meanwhile, one Middle East expert briefed on the plan told the Post, “A piece of social engineering is being done on Iraq, but it has almost no support from other members of the” Iraqi elite.

The economic model favored by the Bush administration is deeply unpopular with the Iraqi people, and many of its most destructive features would likely be undone following a U.S. withdrawal. The business community certainly wants to maintain a U.S. force in Iraq to prevent that from happening, and Obama and Clinton appear willing to comply. That dynamic won’t change as long as U.S. forces protect the infrastructure of the occupation, regardless of how many are used to do so.


A cross-country study of political attitudes in several predominantly Muslim countries found that 8 in 10 respondents believe that the American “War on Terror” — symbolized by its invasion of Iraq — is intended to “weaken and divide the Islamic world.” This helps explain why most U.S. foreign policy experts — more than nine in ten in a survey conducted last summer — believe the Iraq war has made America less safe.

It’s reasonable to expect that a lighter footprint, with fewer Iraqis killed and dismissed as “collateral damage” — and especially a reduction of aerial bombardments of civilian centers — would improve the United States’ standing in the eyes of the world, but nothing short of a commitment to end the occupation of Iraq by a date certain will rehabilitate it.

Relieving political pressure

Again, a significantly reduced U.S. presence, as envisioned by the Democratic candidates, would have a positive impact. Troop deaths — now averaging about nine per week — would be significantly reduced, as would the sky-high costs of the occupation. The pressure on the military caused by repeated troop rotations would ease as well.

But those improvements, while real, will come with an enormous cost: the end of all political pressure for a more constructive and less militaristic foreign policy in the United States.

Media coverage of just those things — American casualties, the exorbitant costs of maintaining the occupation and the stress it’s placing on the military — are responsible for the lion’s share of anti-war sentiment here at home, not the struggles of the Iraqi people. Since last summer, when a ceasefire by Muqtada al-Sadr and a U.S. policy of paying Iraqi insurgents to stop shooting at our troops resulted in a sharp decline in the number of U.S. military fatalities, Americans’ interest in the conflict has waned. A Pew study released last month found that just “3 percent of news stories in February were devoted to the Iraq war, compared with around 15 percent in July last year, and the U.S. public has not perceived the war, which began nearly five years ago, as a top news story since October.”

If Clinton or Obama is elected, he or she will maintain a cheaper, smaller and wholly bipartisan occupation of Iraq, and that will essentially render the conflict out of sight and out of mind.

Don’t be hoodwinked

Just before the Texas primaries, Hillary Clinton told a crowd in Austin that the United States had given Iraqis “the gift of freedom, the greatest gift you can give someone. Now it is really up to them to determine whether they will take that gift.” That’s as far from reality as Baquba is from Georgetown; we gave Iraqis the gift of freedom from a brutal dictatorship and replaced it with the curse of a widely loathed and often brutal foreign military occupation. And, since then, we have systematically prevented Iraqis from realizing the “gift” of self-governance.

If it were “really up to them” — to the Iraqi people — to take that gift, the United States would already be long gone from Iraq.

It’s impossible to “win” an occupation; the question now is whether we will end it on negotiated terms before a Tet Offensive, or whether we’ll help fuel a long, drawn-out civil conflict until the situation finally becomes untenable and we’re forced to pull American personnel off the roofs of Baghdad as we did in Saigon. Those are our choices, and, tragically, all three presidential candidates appear to favor the latter option.

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