Friday, November 24, 2006

Review of OUT OF IRAQ by George McGovern and William Polk

Out of Iraq: A Practical Plan for Withdrawal Now (2006) by George McGovern and William Polk

This book by former Senator George McGovern and historian/diplomat William Polk (who negotiated a cease-fire between Israel and Egypt in 1970) is a broadside. That is, it's a pamphlet (142 pages including index) addressing an issue of the moment and encouraging a desired action. The action in this case is getting the US out of the Iraq War.

At a time when peace plans and exit proposals are sprouting like mushrooms in a cow pasture, McGovern and Polk offer a serious and wide-ranging proposal. They stress that the historical course of insurgencies like those in Iraq indicates that after the foreign forces leave, the internal conflict will intensify. But they argue that "staying the course" has been steadily intensifying the conflict, which cannot be resolved by US troops. "We are as powerless to prevent the turmoil that will happen when we withdraw as we have been to stop the insurgency". That's harsher than many Democratic war critics would like to be. But it's long past time that people need to talk pragmatically about the grim realities of the situation.

Two of their suggestions are directed to the Shi'a-dominated Iraqi government: seeking temporary assistance from other Muslim countries in policing Iraq, and relying on a national police force but not to create a national army. This latter suggestion is a unique one (at least I've never heard it before), and the only one not clear to me. It's hard to see how an Iraqi government could simply forgo having an army. They argue that historically, "Iraqi armies have been a source not of defense but of disruption". Still, it's hard to picture Iraq becoming the Costa Rica of the Middle East any time soon.

For the US, they propose a phased withdrawal of US combat troops on a definite timetable to begin on December 31, 2006, and be completed by June 30, 2007; release of all prisoners of war; establish and fund a national "reconstruction corps" for Iraq; immediately cease work on building US military bases; withdraw all American presence from the Green Zone by the end of 2007; get the mercenaries ("security details") out of Iraq as quickly as possible; begin a cleanup of landmines and unexploded ordnance; develop an honest accounting of the Iraqi funds spent by Jerry Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA); "make reparations to Iraqi civilians for loss of lives and property" caused by the US; provide financial and other assistance through international institutions to civil society organizations; and, turn prosecution and custody of officials from Saddam's regime now under arrest for crimes over to the Iraqis.

In the weeks since this book was published, conditions in Iraq have deteriorated even more, so that all-round acceptance of these proposals is highly unlikely. Even if the Bush adminsitration were willing to try. But the real value of the McGovern-Polk proposal is that it would establish a US withdrawal schedule at an early date, and it focuses attention on the nature of the current prospects in the Iraq War. The US is not going to create the model Arab democracy that the delusional neoconservatives dreamed about. At this point, being able to make an orderly withdrawal and beginning to ameliorate the hatred towards America this war has generated in the Muslim world seem like nearly utopian goals. Jerry Brown's signature slogan from the 1970s, "lower your expectations", would apply well to this situation.

The programatic proposals just summarized are contained in one of the book's six chapters. This book pleasantly surprised me in that quality of its compact discussion of the war's history to date. It's easily the best brief summary I've seen. Their discussion of the appalling failures of our so-called "press corps" in its coverage of the war and the prewar buildup includes this observation:

Believing that they were not getting the whole story or often not even the truth, increasing numbers of Americans have done what anti-Soviet Russians did before the fall of the USSR: they have turned to informal means of communicationThe Russians used mimeograph machines to circulate information among themselves in what they called samizdat; we turn to Internet blogs, to hear what the mainstream press is not reporting. There are now hundreds, perhaps thousands of these websites, originating on both sides of the Atlantic and even in Iraq.

Unable to control the media or the Internet, the Bush administration has manufactured news events to get itsmessage across. On October 13, 2005, for example, President Bush went before television cameras to ask a supposedly randomly selected group of soldiers what they thought of the way the war in Iraq was going. But the sample was not random, and the soldiers' answers were rehearsed: the participants had been carefully selected, and a Pentagon official was observed coaching them before the show.  (my emphasis)

Their frank and sensible discussion of the repercussions of war atrocities and the torture policy carried out by American soldiers will displease anyone who wants to hear only heroic tales and feel-good military press releases. As they show, the torture policy in particular represents a very serious breakdown of military discipline and a major failure of command, things that are essential to keeping the violence required in combat focused on legitimate targets and methods. That breakdown is already having far-reaching consequences on the Army and American's standing in the world. As McGovern and Polk emphasize, "The history of guerrilla warfare demonstrates this dehumanizing tendency among peoples of all religions and cultures". When the national leadership actually encourages such a tendency as the Cheney-Bush administration had done with the torture policy, the effects are even more corrosive.

And they remind us that along with the tranformation of Iraq into a violent, chaotic failed state, the war is also helping to undermine the Constitution here at home:

George Orwell was unduly pessimistic: his bleak vision of the future did not happen as fast as he thought it might - that is, in 1984 - but it could well happen in our lifetime.

Getting out of Iraq is the first and most urgent step in avoiding the treacherous, downward spiral toward such a hideous future. Getting out with dignity and making every effort to do so in a way that will leave behind us the best possible climate for rebuilding, re-growth, and peace ... is the right thing to do. Absent a reversal of American policies, which must begin with a rapid withdrawal from Iraq, the America we have inherited from our Founding Fathers will continue to be in grave, perhaps even mortal, danger.

Among the "lessons of Iraq" on which they touch briefly, they include the folly of the Bush Doctrine's blind faith in military force to impose America's will on other countries and the powerful encouragement it gives to countries who may become targets of "regime change" to seek their own nuclear weapons.

They conclude:

Finally, all war is unpredictable and horrible.   Our wise old statesman Benjamin Franklin once said, "There never was a good war." But among wars, guerrilla wars are the worst; at best they are unwinnable, lasting as in Ireland for centuries and in Algeria for a century and a half. Chechens suffered massacre, deportation, rape, and massive destruction at the hands of the Russians for nearly four centuries, and now incorporated into Russia, Chechnya still is not "pacified." Aware of this history, the American neoconservative advisers to our government plan for (and indeed advocate) perpetual war. If they get their wish, then the final lesson of Iraq will emerge from the "fog of war."  It is that insurgency and counterinsurgency brutalize whole societies, even those of the victors.  This was true of the British in Kenya, French in Algeria, Americans in the Philippines, Russians in Chechnya, and Chinese in Tibet. Hegel may be right - we may not learn [from history]; but certainly, we would be wise to heed the warning of Santayana not to "blot" the lessons of this costly adventure out of our minds. It has been our most expensive school. (my emphasis)

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