Resolved: the national security interests of the United States would be best served by an immediate troop withdrawal from occupied Iraq.
I addressed the Yale Political Union on the above subject. In response to requests, I am posting the text of my speech here.
TED RALL'S ADDRESS TO THE YALE POLITICAL UNION
December 3, 2003
Thank you for inviting me here tonight. As someone who has been both expelled by and graduated with honors from Columbia University, a place you rarely think about, I know that you’ll accept the sympathies that I’d like to offer on behalf of a beloved Yalie George W. Bush. My condolences are exactly as sincere as they are chock full of detached bemusement. Sadly, this middle-aged white man, once so full of promise and now filled to the brim with the waste product of a wasted life, finds himself, in the immortal closing voiceover from Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket,” in a world of shit.
Of course, Governor Bush’s situation is a desperate one. As he begins campaigning to win his first legal election, a race that pollsters predict will be nearly as tight as the last one, Bush’s economy has bled more than 3 million jobs. But the news isn’t all bad. He has also created 3 million freshly-minted Democrats. As this year’s budget deficit has skyrocketed, even his long-suffering Congressional lapdogs are considering cutting up his credit cards. Worst of all, of course, the war in Iraq—which was an uphill battle to begin with—has been irretrievably lost.
Whether the voters send Bush back to Crawford in January 2005 is of marginal importance to anyone but his major campaign contributors. Whether the United States of America strengthens or fades away, however, means everything.
No politician or political party is worth allowing harm to befall the greatest experiment in representative democracy ever undertaken. One man’s fate pales next to the risk of threatening the security of the world’s sole remaining superpower, its largest economy and the cornerstone of international stability. George W. Bush may save his presidency, or more accurately win what he stole, by following my advice to pull out of Iraq. But Bush doesn’t matter. What matters to you and me is the national security of our wonderful country, and that interest would be best served by an immediate American troop withdrawal from occupied Iraq.
The costs of invading and occupying Iraq have been enormous. As of yesterday, 434 American and about 100 coalition soldiers have died in combat, accidents and “friendly fire” incidents; several thousand have been grievously wounded. CNN estimates that 3,500 Iraqi civilians died during the invasion; because the Pentagon refuses to keep a tally of Iraqi casualties during the current guerilla war, it’s impossible to determine how many Iraqis have died since. There have been countless deaths of innocent Iraqis, including this past Sunday, when U.S. forces reported killing 54 Iraqi “insurgents” in Samarra. Most turned out to be civilians, including a local teacher and two Iranian pilgrims. According to the Associated Press, “Many residents said Saddam loyalists attacked the Americans, but that when U.S. forces began firing at random, many civilians got their guns and joined the fight. Many said residents were bitter about recent U.S. raids in the night.”
No one talks about the Iraqi soldiers who died in battle, performing their duty against a better-armed force, but the Department of Defense guesstimates those losses at anywhere between 20,000 and 50,000 men. They were husbands, fathers, brothers and sons. If you travel into combat zones, as I did a few years ago to Afghanistan, you’ll start to forget the distinction between our victims and their victims. They were human beings, just like ours. Few if any were “terrorists.”
The Pentagon, which Congress recently appropriated $1 billion for Afghanistan and $86 billion to occupy and rebuild Iraq, freely acknowledges that Congress has merely made a down payment on the sandy killing fields. At a monthly cost of $1 to $2 billion, plus Halliburton’s exorbitant estimates of the price of restoring oil and other infrastructure, the lowest estimate for a five-year occupation is currently running at a whopping $500 billion. If Bush ordered a pullout today, the United States could nationalize its colleges and universities and allow every student in the country, including here at Yale, to pay zero tuition—yet still come out ahead. And that’s not accounting for interest. Bush’s tax cuts and new Homeland Security bureaucracy helped turn President Clinton’s estimated $4 trillion projected ten-year federal budget surplus into a $6 trillion deficit. We don’t have the money for this war. We’re borrowing it by issuing Treasury bonds and notes to foreign investors. Even if we keep the occupation under budget, which would make this the first-ever case of government avoiding budget overruns, we’re going to lay out a hell of lot more than half a trillion dollars before this is all over.
Expense alone, however, should not preclude the United States from waging war. No one would say that it wasn’t worth the enormous price we paid to destroy Nazi Germany, fascist Italy or imperial Japan. Of course, Bush tried to make that case. Taking on Iraq, he tried to convince us, would be like fighting World War II all over again. Saddam Hussein, he told us, was the Adolf Hitler of the Middle East. Some of my editorial cartoonist colleagues helped out by drawing the Iraqi dictator with a teeny Bavarian mustache, but the analogy still didn’t play.
Saddam, Bush said, had invaded his neighbors and gassed his own people. What went unspoken was that he’d attacked Iran on behalf of Ronald Reagan, when he was still working as a U.S. puppet. Or that, as the U.S. has done so often and continues to do in places like Central Asia, we looked away as our valuable “strategic ally” brutalized Iraq’s Kurdish minority. True, since invading Kuwait and being driven out by a U.S.-led coalition in 1991, Saddam Hussein had presided over a violent and despotic dictatorship. In that he was no different than such U.S. allies in our so-called “war on terror” as Saparmurat Niyazov, Islam Karimov, Nursultan Nazarbayev and General Pervez Musharraf. But Iraq hadn’t invaded anyone since 1990, which is further back than most Americans can remember.
The failure of the Saddam-as-Hitler argument led to the Bush Administration’s repeated claim that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction and planned to use them against the U.S. and its allies—perhaps Israel and Saudi Arabia. Here are just a few of the lines Administration officials used in their build-up to war:
Dick Cheney, speaking to the VFW national convention on August 26, 2002: “Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction.”
George Bush, addressing the UN General Assembly on September 12: “Right now, Iraq is expanding and improving facilities that were used for the production of biological weapons.”
Ari Fleischer, at a January 9 briefing: “We know for a fact that there are weapons there.”
Bush’s State of the Union Address on January 28: “Our intelligence officials estimate that Saddam Hussein had the materials to produce as much as 500 tons of sarin, mustard and VX nerve agent.”
Colin Powell, to the UN Security Council, on February 5: “We know that Saddam Hussein is determined to keep his weapons of mass destruction, is determined to make more.”
Bush, in a March 17 speech to the nation: “Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised.”
I could go on—Lord, could I go on—but my voice and your patience wouldn’t outlast a full reading of these statements.
Iraq’s longest-range missiles could only travel a maximum range of 400 miles, by the way. I’m thinking that maybe Saddam planned to Fedex them to Washington. Anyway, Secretary of State Colin Powell delivered a laundry list of weapons, down to the exact number of liters of anthrax medium, that the United Nations would find in Iraq should it choose to validate America’s crusade by committing troops. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told ABC on March 30 that he knew exactly where Saddam’s WMDs were, naming sites and cities. “We know where they are,” he said. “They're in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, south and north somewhat.” We know now that there weren’t any WMDs in Iraq. We also know that the Bush Administration didn’t even think it knew where they were. They made it all up, pulling bits and pieces from out-of-date CIA reports so they could blame “faulty intelligence” later on.
If Rumsfeld hadn’t been lying, why didn’t U.S. weapons inspectors find nuclear, biological and/or chemical weapons where he said they’d be? When you state you know where something is and it doesn't turn up where you’d promised, you had to be lying. To be charitable, the best one can say for the White House’s alleged “case” against Saddam Hussein is that, as of 1998—the most recent date for which reliable weapons information was available—Iraq had chemical and perhaps biological weapons.
On May 13, Major General David Petraeus, Commander of the 101st Airborne, became the first official to tell the truth: “I just don’t know whether it was all destroyed years ago—I mean, there’s no question that there were chemical weapons years ago—whether they were destroyed right before the war, (or) whether they’re still hidden.” As The New York Times has since reported, the WMDs probably were destroyed back in 1999, a fact that U.N. inspectors under Hans Blix would have verified had he been allowed to do so by a Bush Administration hell-bent on war. Ironically, Saddam believed that if he came clean about his compliance, he would appear defenseless.
In 1998 I owned a bootleg copy of the first Belle and Sebastian EP, but if recording industry cops broke down the door to my apartment, it wouldn’t be there today. Knowing that Saddam had proscribed weapons in 1998 didn’t mean that he had them in 2003. But, as Karl Rove and Dick Cheney are aware, it’s tough to make the case for “imminent threat” based on archival data.
After testing various rationales for war, with the international community and many Americans continuing to balk, Bush rolled out his ultimate and ultimately baseless charge: Saddam Hussein, he and his cabinet members implied so often that 70 percent of the public accepted it as Gospel truth, had planned and carried out 9/11. Not Osama. Not the Saudis. Saddam. The Bushies backed off from this gigantic, jumbo-sized lie under pressure from the media, but as soon as the journos stopped paying attention (which seems to happen a lot nowadays) they were back at it.
But you already knew all that. Bush’s litany of lies are old news to those of us who make an effort to stay informed. The rest of the world hasn’t moved on, though. For our traditional allies like France and Germany, as well as individuals both Muslim and otherwise, Bush’s brazen falsehoods to justify war will forever color the subsequent occupation. Even if the Iraqi people had greeted us with wine and roses, even if all the news from Baghdad were positive, they would never accept Bush’s ends-justify-the-means approach to preemptive warfare—or more accurately, arbitrary warfare.
War is a nation-state’s most extreme undertaking. It must be entered into seriously, not with smirks or fake cowpoke rhetoric. For war to be considered legitimate, it must be presented as a desperate last resort for self-preservation rather than the continuation of diplomacy—or the expansion of commerce—by other means. An overwhelming majority of people must be convinced that there is no other choice. The arguments used to build consensus for conflict must be truthful in form as well as substance. Otherwise you get Vietnam, which “began” with a fictional attack on a U.S. destroyer in the Tonkin Gulf.
Speaking on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln on May 2, Bush said that “The use of force has been and remains our last resort.” Yet another lie. There was no justification and no national consensus for Gulf War II—and it certainly wasn’t a last resort. And that may be reason enough to pull out now. No matter how you see the war, as a well-intentioned mistake based on flawed intelligence or as a cynical, evil gambit to carry out a plan hatched by Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice and Richard Perle called the Project for a New American Century before Bush came to power, the U.S. never enjoyed a tacit, legitimately-constructed consensus at home or abroad that what it was doing was necessary or justified.
Lies, Governor Bush, do matter.
Now that we’ve got more than 130,000 soldiers occupying Iraq, don’t we have an obligation to finish the job? If we pull out now, won’t Iraq disintegrate? How can we tell the widows and widowers of American soldiers that their loved ones died for nothing?
No. Yes. And we have no choice.
Since there weren’t any WMDs, we obviously don’t need to stay in Iraq to destroy nonexistent weapons. That leaves the fait accompli argument, falls flat on its face. The only reason for the U.S. to remain in Iraq, as provided by either Administration apologists or pro-war liberals like Thomas Friedman, is to plant the seed of democracy in the Middle East. Under this model, victory in Iraq—from the U.S. perspective—requires establishing sufficient peace and tranquility in the streets and alleys of Iraq to create conditions where democracy and free enterprise can flourish. A post-Baath Party democracy would bring Sunnis, Shiites, Turcomen and Kurds under the umbrella of a vibrant multiparty Iraqi federation. Presumably, the long-oppressed citizens of neighboring Arab states, watching the happy news on Al Jazeera, would agitate for change, which would force some regimes to reform and spark velvet revolutions against others. One wonder what the Kuwaitis think of this idea, but that’s the vision of the neo-conservatives.
Trouble is, it’s impossible.
First of all, there is no such thing as Iraq anymore. The Kurds have enjoyed de facto autonomy since the early 1990s. They have their own currency, stamps and national anthem, and they’ve made clear that they’re never coming back. Earlier this year U.S. invasion forces, by failing to force Kurdistan back into Iraq, ratified the nation’s permanent partition into at least two states: a future Republic of Kurdistan and a rump Iraq. Furthermore, our policy of deBaathification is alienating the 40 percent Sunni minority by depriving anyone who joined the party under the deposed regime of the right to earn a living. Desperation is growing. Civil war, Iraqis on both sides of the Sunni-Shia divide agree, is probably inevitable.
Neighboring states, in particular Turkey and Iran, are also playing a destabilizing role within Iraq. Turkey, fearful of renewed pro-independence agitation from its own Kurdish minority, is funding Sunni factions operating in Mosul and other border areas along the northern “green line” between Kurdistan and Iraq proper. Iranian hardliners, meanwhile, believe that they see the future of Iraq—and that it looks a lot like Teheran circa 1978. In Iraqi politics, tribe and clan affiliation have always been a preeminent determinant. Even in an ideal Jeffersonian-style democracy, Iraq’s 60 percent Shiite majority will enjoy continuous dominance, creating a perpetually neglected and/or abused Sunni minority. The American-led deBaathification policy pushes demography to further extremes of social polarization. The U.S. has made little to no effort to contain street violence, tacitly condoning revenge killings of leading Sunnis. As Iraqi clerics return from exile in Iran and their fundamentalist allies provide funding for agitation, Iraq’s secular status is being eroded daily. The not-so-great irony is that a liberalizing Iran, whose overtures have been repeatedly rebuffed by the Bush Administration, is financing a radical Shiite revolution in Iraq.
The antiwar left accuses the Bush Administration of failing to prepare a plan for postwar Iraq, but that’s not strictly true. The Pentagon’s plan, as it has been in previous wars, was to stand by and let things develop, to see which factions—among the State and Defense Department-approved lists of anti-Baath Iraqi exile groups—would ultimately emerge with popular support. Top officials were warned that, après Saddam, le deluge, but they couldn’t believe it. The removal of a strongman with more than two decades to consolidate power created a power vacuum which no one, least of all Ahmed Chalabi (who left Iraq at the age of 12), could fill.
We can’t put the toothpaste back into the tube.
We might have avoided some of the current problems by preparing a successor government and taking steps to prevent looting and random violence. Inexplicably the Defense Department refused to allow U.S. Army civil affairs detachments to cross the border from Kuwait until after the worst rioting was already underway. You only get one chance to make a good first impression, and we blew it.
Then, after we failed to install or find a viable pro-American post-Saddam regime, various insurgent groups—former regime figures, Shiite radicals, Islamist guerillas and even Kurds—perceived a chance to seize control for themselves. Unfortunately, they can’t fight each other until they get rid of us. Like the diverse component groups allied to form the French Resistance during World War II, they’re united in a marriage of convenience, one that’s launching an average of 35 attacks daily and dedicated to killing so many Americans that the U.S. public withdraws its support for the occupation. Our policy of overwhelming retaliation, ranging from arbitrary arrests of Iraqis said to be anti-American, to humiliating searches of homes and pat-downs of wives and daughters, to bombing cities located near ambush sites, is killing and maiming countless innocents. It’s playing into the hands of the resistance. It didn’t work for the French in Algeria. Ask any Israeli whether the politics of retaliation are effective in the Occupied Territories. The more clumsily and aggressively we react to attacks by Iraqi resistance fighters, the more angry recruits they find among an increasingly radicalized population. The most effective way to build popular support, by killing Iraqis with kindness, seems neither likely nor feasible. Ours is a poorly-trained occupation army largely composed of uneducated young men who’ve never traveled before they enlisted. They neither speak Arabic nor understand the complex tribal and religious politics of the country they’re attempting to run. If you’ve been to the Middle East, you can’t help but shudder with shame and disgust at the sight of men awaiting interrogation with gunny sacks over their heads as laughing soldiers pat down their wives and daughters. It isn’t right; even worse, it’s downright stupif. With U.S. troops coming under daily attack, however, sympathy and understanding are in short supply.
The resistance knows that it’s winning. It possesses a huge stockpile of weapons and significant funding, with more of both pouring in across poorly guarded borders with Syria and Iran. Resistance forces are operating on their home turf. Time is on their side, but not on ours. During the 20th century, no nation has ever invaded another sovereign state and kept it for long. Iraq is not likely to become the first exception. The last time we fought a war on as large a scale as Iraq, indigenous fighters drove us out of Vietnam. Make no mistake: the Iraqi resistance thinks they’re going to win the same way, applying the same ruthless dedication and relentlessness some of them used against the Soviets in Afghanistan, and they’re probably right. Retired Gen. Theodore Mataxis, wrote the following in the forward to the Russian army’s review of its Afghan war: “What guerrillas do not need is military victory. Guerrillas need to survive and endure over the years or decades of the conflict,” he wrote. The winning side in such a war prevails “because of higher morale, greater obstinacy, stronger national will, and the determination to survive.”
Wanna bet which side has all of the above in Iraq?
When evaluating the feasibility of continuing to fight in Iraq, we shouldn’t ignore the danger of contributing to the spread of regional and international instability. As I’ve mentioned, Turkey is nervously eying its southeast as the possible site of another bloody civil conflict or border war with a nascent Kurdish state. At the brink of bankruptcy and threatened by rising Islamic fundamentalism, Turkey is the strategic lynchpin between Europe and Asia, a crucial ally to Israel and the U.S., and the highest civilized achievement of secular Islam. The former Soviet republics of Central Asia are currently wavering between following Ankarra and Islamabad as their model, and the world’s largest untapped oil reserves—six times more than Saudi Arabia—hang in the balance. If Turkey disintegrates as a result of the Kurdish/Iraqi conflict, revolution could spread like a wildfire across the Caucasus, the Balkans and even Eastern Europe.
Furthermore, Bush’s preemptive war doctrine is encouraging nuclear proliferation. Nations that merely flirted with acquiring nukes until they “let” themselves be bought off not to go all the way have drawn the obvious conclusion from the invasion of Iraq: once Bush gets his teeth in your ass, nothing you can say or do will make him let go. Kim Jong Il of North Korea ramped up his nuke program in the days leading up to the invasion of Iraq, and may have built as many as four completed warheads. He has threatened a nuclear attack on the West Coast of the United States, and Bush has all but promised a non-aggression treaty as a reward—er, result. Iran may follow suit. We want the world to see Al Qaeda as the biggest threat to world peace, but the world sees us starting all the wars. Nukes look like the perfect antidote to American militarism.
Finally, we don’t have enough troops to remain in Iraq. As things stand, the U.S. only employs about a quarter million men and women in combat positions in its standing volunteer army. 130,000 are in Iraq, with 20,000 more on the way. 10,000 are in Kabul. We’ve got 30,000 more scattered around the world, not including those stationed in the Korean demilitarized zone. National Guard and reserve units are stretched beyond their limit. If we were attacked by a real foe, by an enemy that truly possessed weapons of mass destruction, we wouldn’t be able to defend ourselves. Rumor has it that the Selective Service System is gearing up for a new draft to begin after the election in 2005. But, as the army learned during Vietnam, resentful draftees are no substitute for professional volunteer soldiers with years of training and experience.
The war in Iraq is sapping wealth and manpower, as well as political focus, from a real war on terrorism, a war that we never began in earnest. Three years and three weeks ago, 19 Saudi and Egyptian hijackers murdered more than 3,000 Americans in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. To this day, the Administration has made next to no effort whatsoever to bring the organizations that planned and carried out those attacks to justice. The nations that funded and harbored the criminals, countries which would have made more appropriate targets of American military action than Afghanistan or Iraq—despotic regimes in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Egypt—have enjoyed increased American aid since 9/11. The criminals remain free while we bog down our troops with a war that is so pointless that even its real objective—securing strategic dominance over the second largest oil reserves on earth—remains elusive.
Someday the U.S. will realize that the cost of occupying Iraq to fight its people far outweighs the potential benefits of a democratized Middle East. We will inevitably conclude, moreover, that our stated war aims—peace and stability, unity and democracy—are unachievable given the situation in Iraq and the nature of our strategy. Gulf War II was lost the day it was conceived; the only question is how long it will take for an American president to accept the truth and order a withdrawal.
Yes, Iraq will probably fall apart. A Shiite revolution is likely. Iraqis and other Arabs will despise us for replacing Saddam Hussein with something even worse: lawlessness and chaos. It’s awful and it is our fault, but nothing can be done about this mess now. No one can save the occupation, but there would be some long-term benefits of leaving Iraq. Were we to admit to the United Nations and the world that we committed a grace error of miscalculation and hubris when we began dropping bombs on Baghdad, it might begin to humanize us. Until now, being American has always meant never having to say we’re sorry.
Thousands of people, some innocent and some not, have died for this fraud of a war. It’s already obvious to all but the most pigheaded that, sooner or later, we will abandon Iraq just as we’ve abandoned Afghanistan. Why prolong the pain? Let’s cut our losses and get out now. Everyone who has lost their lives in Iraq has died for Bush’s lies. Everyone who dies from this day forward will die for nothing.
(c) 2003 Ted Rall, All Rights Reserved.