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Arguing about the War; The Top Ten Reasons for Staying in (Leaving) Iraq

By Michael Schwartz  Posted by Rob Kall (about the submitter)     Permalink
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I often receive emails - pro and con - about my postings on the war in Iraq, and I try to respond to any substantive questions or critiques offered. But when I received an email recently entitled "10 Questions" in response to a Tomdispatch commentary detailing the arguments for immediate withdrawal, I must admit my heart sank - the questions were familiar, but the answers were complex and I was in no mood to spend the time needed to respond properly.

After a couple of days, however, I began to warm to the idea of writing short but pointed responses to these common criticisms of antiwar positions because, I realized, they are the bread and butter of daily Iraq discourse in our country. When the war comes up in the media or in casual conversation, these are the issues that are raised by those who think we have to "stay the course" - and among those who oppose the war, these are the lurking, unspoken questions that haunt our discussions. So here are my best brief answers to these key issues in the crucial, ongoing debate over Iraq.

"I read your article on withdrawal of American troops," my correspondent began, "and questioned the lack of discussion of the following ..." (His comments are in bold.)

1. Nothing was mentioned about improvements in Iraq (elections, water and energy, schools). No Saddam to fear! Water and energy delivery as well as schools are worse off than before the U.S. invasion. Ditto for the state of hospitals (and medical supplies), highways, and oil production. Elections are a positive change, but the elected government does not have more than a semblance of actual sovereignty, and therefore the Iraqi people have no power to make real choices about their future. One critical example: The Shiite/Kurdish political coalition now in power ran on a platform whose primary promise was that, if elected, they would set and enforce a timetable for American withdrawal. As soon as they took power, they reneged on this promise (apparently under pressure from the US). They have also proved quite incapable of fulfilling their other campaign promises about restoring services and rebuilding the country; and for that reason (as well as others), their constituents (primarily the Shia) are becoming ever more disillusioned. In the most recent polls, Shia Iraqis now are about 70% in favor of U.S. withdrawal.

2. Nothing was mentioned about Iraqis who want the U.S. to remain (especially the Kurds and the majority of Iraqi women). Among the three principle ethno-religious groups in Iraq, the Sunnis (about a fifth of the population) are almost unanimous in their opposition to the American presence, while around 70% of the Shia (themselves about 60% of the population) want the U.S. to withdraw. Hence, even before we consider the Kurds, the majority of Iraqis are in favor of a full-scale American departure "as soon as possible." It is true that the Kurds (about 20% of the population) favor the U.S. remaining. However, they have their own militias and many of them do not want significant numbers of American troops in their territory. (The U.S. presence there is small-scale at the moment.) What they desire is a U.S. occupation for someone else, not themselves. I think we can safely say that the vast majority of Iraqis oppose the presence of U.S. troops.

I know of no study indicating that Iraqi women favor the U.S. presence. Perhaps you are referring to the fact that large numbers of women in Iraq are upset and angry over the erosion of their rights since the fall of Saddam. I know some commentators claim that the U.S. presence is insurance against further erosion of those rights, but everything I have read indicates that a significant number of Iraqi women (like all Iraqis) blame the Bush administration for these policies. After all, the Americans installed in power (and continue to support) the political forces spearheading anti-woman policies in the country. Polling data do not indicate that any sizable group of Sunni or Shia women support a continued U.S. presence.

3. Nothing was mentioned about the benefits of the U.S. military gaining valuable experience and knowledge daily. Certainly, the U.S. gains military and political "experience" from the war, as from any war, but at the expense of many deaths (2,127) and injuries (at least 15,704) to American soldiers. Beyond these publicly listed casualty figures lie the endless ways in which the lives of our soldiers are permanently damaged: On November 26, for example, the New York Times reported on a recent army study indicating that 17% of all personnel sent to Iraq have "serious symptoms of depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder." Since about a million American troops have now seen service in Iraq, approximately 170,000 have gained the "experience" of having a severe mental problem. Moreover, the war experience in Iraq has proved so demoralizing to the military that many of the best soldiers are leaving at the end of their tours, instead of staying on in active or reserve status. This is undermining the viability of the military, long term.

U.S. casualties, of course, have been dwarfed by the damage done to the Iraqi people. Between 25,000 and 40,000 Iraqi civilians are dying each year - and multitudes are injured. We are wrecking the country's infrastructure.

Certainly there is a better way to gain experience than this.

4. Nothing was mentioned about the future benefits of a strong democracy in the Middle East. We can all agree that a strong democracy in the Middle East would have huge benefits for Iraq and for its neighbors as well as for the rest of the world. If I thought that our actions there were actually helping to bring this about, perhaps I might also believe that the benefits of an active democracy outweighed at least some of the many problems we have been creating. But from the beginning, the talk of democracy was a hollow mantra, just one of a group of public rationalizations for a war motivated by the Bush administration's desire to dominate Middle Eastern politics and economics. The U.S. government has never actually relinquished sovereignty to the Iraqi government.

5. Nothing was mentioned about the future benefits of oil reserves. Though the Bush Administration denies it, many observers agree with you that access to Iraqi oil was a major motivation for the war. But we need to understand the nature of this motivation. Even before the invasion, when UN sanctions were still in place against Saddam Hussein's regime, American oil companies could (and, in many cases, did) buy Iraqi oil at market price. The issue was never "access" to Iraqi oil in the sense of simply being able to buy it. The Bush administration was thinking about other kinds of energy access, including controlling the heartland of the word's main future oil supplies and giving American oil companies privileged access to Iraqi oil reserves. (See, for example, the recent report by the Global Policy Forum).
It's my contention that such privileged "access" for U.S. oil companies would not actually help the American people. The oil majors, after all, have a long history of exploiting Americans hardly less ruthlessly than they exploit the peoples of other countries, when they can make a larger profit by doing so. (The latest incident in their long and deplorable record involved the massive price increases they instituted at American pumps almost immediately after hurricane Katrina hit.) Moreover, such privileged access would have deprived the Iraqis of their right to use the oil to their own benefit - something they desperately need now that the Saddam Hussein regime, twelve years of brutal sanctions, and the current war have gutted the country.

The best approach for us (but not necessarily for the American oil companies) would be to buy our oil on the open market, put our research money into conservation and renewable fuels instead of military adventures, and avoid trying to get "control" of something that doesn't belong to us.

6. Nothing was mentioned about what fundamentalist Muslims would like to achieve. I assume that, when you refer to "fundamentalist Muslims," you are referring to terrorists, including those in Iraq and those who attacked the World Trade Center, the London tube, and the Madrid trains. First, I have to disagree with this identification of the terrorists (who are indeed fundamentalist) with all fundamentalist Muslims. That would be the same as characterizing those who bombed the Oklahoma City Federal Building as "fundamentalist Christians" and then implying that the destruction of such buildings is what all fundamentalist Christians yearn to achieve.

Second, I disagree with the implicit argument that somehow withdrawal will allow the terrorists to dominate Iraqi society and impose a horrible regime on an Iraq, bent on attacking its neighbors and the United States. A large part of my commentary in favor of withdrawal was devoted to debunking this prevalent idea. I think I made a reasonably good case for the possibility that Bush administration actions in Iraq are creating and strengthening the terrorist groups within the Iraqi resistance. The longer the U.S. stays, the more the Islamic terrorists there are likely gain strength; the sooner the U.S. leaves, the more quickly the resistance will subside, and - with it - support for terrorism. The administration's Iraqi occupation policies are the equivalent of a nightmarish self-fulfilling prophesy.

7. Nothing was mentioned about the results of the U.S. evacuation from Southeast Asia (over a million killed within 5 years). I think we need to disentangle two different events involving the (forced) American departure from Southeast Asia. First, there was Vietnam, where it was always predicted that a horrendous bloodbath would follow any American withdrawal. Indeed, there were certainly deaths there after the U.S. left, and many refugees fled the country, some for the United States. But whatever these figures may have been, they were dwarfed by the incredible bloodbath that the U.S. created by being in Vietnam in the first place. Reputable sources suggest that millions of Vietnamese died (and countless others were permanently wounded) during the war years. We must conclude, therefore, that in Vietnam our departure actually resulted in a drastic decline in the levels of violence, and - sometime afterward - an end to the havoc and destruction; not to speak of the fact that, for years now, the United States has had plenty of "credibility" in Vietnam.

Second, there was the holocaust in Cambodia, which may well have resulted in a million or more deaths. This was also, however, a complex consequence of the U.S. presence in Southeast Asia, not a result of our departure. Cambodia had a stable, neutral government until the Nixon administration launched massive secret bombings against its territory, invaded the country, destabilized the regime, and set in motion the grim unraveling that led to the rise of murderous Khmer Rouge. If the U.S. had withdrawn from Vietnam in 1965 or 1968, that holocaust would quite certainly never have happened.

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