Withdrawal on the Agenda
On October 31, 2003, in a piece called The Time of Withdrawal I wrote: "I think one thing is predictable in a world where predicting anything accurately is a low-percentage bet: Sooner or later, the time of withdrawal will be upon us. Some of us would like it to be sooner, not later… But, given ongoing events in Iraq, the idea of withdrawal is already on an inexorable course into the mainstream world."
I seldom return to my past writings, but looking back at this essay, in the context of the first presidential debate and ongoing events in Iraq, set me thinking about how subjects that are, in some often hard-to-label fashion, tabooed in the mainstream media nonetheless percolate upwards into our American life -- just as the idea of withdrawal from Iraq has recently begun to do.
Two of John Kerry's lines on Iraq from the debate leaped out at me for quite different reasons. There was the most depressingly expectable moment, his emphatic comment, "Now that we're there, we have to succeed. We can't leave a failed Iraq." (To which the answer would have to be, "Every moment we delay announcing a plan to withdraw from Iraq means an ever more deeply failed Iraq.") As Kerry returned to the campaign trail the morning after his encounter with the President, he took up just this issue even more emphatically, responding to Bush criticisms by saying: "Well, Mr. President, nobody's talking about leaving, nobody's talking about wilting and wavering. We're talking about winning and getting the job done right."
It's here that the President got in his strongest riposte more than once: "My opponent says help is on the way, but what kind of message does it say to our troops in harm's way, ‘wrong war, wrong place, wrong time'? Not a message a commander in chief gives, or this is a ‘great diversion.'" There is indeed an inherent illogic embedded in Kerry's position and the President picked up on it. If the war was a massive botch, a plan-less mess, then shouldn't he indeed be planning to end it, not "win" it? Shouldn't some form of withdrawal be his obvious goal? Shouldn't he want to avoid letting more American soldiers die for a mistake?
But in this debate there are, as yet, not two sides, not quite two positions. At best, Kerry's is only a half position over from the President's. Still, that half-position is interesting, even potentially promising; and, for me at least, it provided the single most unexpected moment of the night. Kerry said of Iraq:
Now, it would be a promising beginning to any withdrawal strategy to state up front that the United States has designs neither on Iraqi oil, nor on permanent bases in the country, despite the $2-3 billion or more that has already gone into building our elaborate base structure there. At best, then, there's a potential withdrawal strategy lurking somewhere under Kerry's "winning" strategy, but more on that later. Let me first turn to those "14 military bases" with that "rather permanent concept to them." Their sudden appearance in the first presidential debate was nothing short of a strange miracle, given that our media has essentially not mentioned them, no less covered them for almost the last year and a half.
The "Enduring Camps" that couldn't be seen
As those of you who read Tomdispatch regularly know, I've long hammered away at our permanent bases, also known in Pentagonese as "enduring camps" – something close to an oxymoron. If you didn't factor those "camps" into the equation that was Iraq, the Bush administration's policies there made no sense from the start. (And almost no American could have done so, since almost no one knew about them.) If you did, they made a mockery of the neocons stated desire to create an independent, "democratic" Iraq rather than an occupied, acquiescent client state at the heart of the Middle East.
On April 19, 2003, Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt of the New York Times wrote Pentagon Expects Long-Term Access to Four Key Bases in Iraq, a front-page piece about plans to build four permanent bases in Iraq. The story was denied by the Pentagon. No major paper in the United States had even mentioned them again by October 2003 when, in "The Time of Withdrawal," I wrote:
Except for the number of permanent bases, that paragraph remains accurate to this second. Almost a year after the Times piece came out, in March of 2004, the Chicago Tribune published a piece on those permanent bases, mentioning the number fourteen for, as far as I know, the first and only time in a news article. No other mainstream publication or significant American media outlet of any sort had a piece on the subject again until just last week when David R. Francis of the Christian Science Monitor wrote US bases in Iraq: sticky politics, hard math. It said in part:
The planned (and now built) bases, obviously already in the works before our invasion even began, were proof that the Bush administration was, from the beginning, ready to settle into Iraq, however peaceable it might prove, for a long, long stay. If, of course, you were a visitor to political websites and blogs on the Internet, you would probably know a little more about the existence of such bases from places like Tomdispatch, Globalsecurity.org, or to give a recent example, Justin Raimondo, columnist for antiwar.com; if you wandered the foreign press on the Internet, you might have found the odd piece on the subject in the British Observer or, say, Middle Eastern papers like Jordan's al-Arab al-Yawm.
But around this crucial subject a silence, until recently, lay like a pall; this despite the fact that our press regularly covers the Pentagon's global basing policies; despite the fact that, given all the problems involved in covering the Iraqi story (see below), American reporters are assumedly still capable of visiting U.S. bases like Camp Victory in Baghdad or Camp Anaconda near Balad with its 12 ½ mile circumference, its first-run movie theater, its two swimming pools and fitness gym; despite the fact that reporters in touch with me insisted they were indeed considering taking up the subject. Some of these bases, after all, are elaborate facilities, comparable to those we built in Vietnam in another era, and they must be impressive indeed. (Check out, for instance, a description of Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan.)
And yet somehow, despite a blanket of self-censorship or inexplicable indifference, the subject has suddenly bubbled up out of the precincts of the Internet and into our Iraq conversation in recent weeks. To offer but two examples, William Pfaff, columnist for the International Herald Tribune last week wrote a piece entitled 'De Gaulle option' may be our best Iraq exit strategy which had the line, "The principal purpose of the invasion of Iraq was to make it into Washington's new strategic anchor in the Middle East, with permanent U.S. military bases there, and an assured American role in its economy and oil industry"; while in The Last Deception, columnist Paul Krugman of the New York Times wrote on September 21:
Neither of these brief references is likely to knock your socks off, unless you realize that nothing else like them has been written in month after month of media "debate" on Iraq. Krugman, who -- we know -- does visit sites on the Internet might have picked this up from there or from the now-ancient Chicago Tribune piece. My own guess is that Kerry (or his people) probably then picked up the subject and the number of bases from the Krugman piece -- and so, somehow, permanent bases managed to emerge from the nether world of blanket inattention, except on the political Net, and enter the Iraq discussion, such as it is, at the highest levels.
What isn't being reported on what isn't being reported
You turn on the TV and there's a CNN reporter standing on what looks like a porch set against the night sky of Baghdad; from there he offers us a report on the situation in Iraq. Only one problem, he's more or less stuck on that porch. It would evidently be difficult, if not impossible, for him to hear about a breaking story, jump into the nearest car or taxi, and head down the road. The danger to foreigner reporters, especially Western ones, especially American ones (and, of course, the Iraqis they interview) is now simply too great.
Trapped much of their time in their hotels, or perhaps in their company offices, or in the U.S. occupied and fortified Green Zone -- the six square miles of Baghdad that we set aside 18 months ago to house our occupation and have never given up -- western reporters, unless embedded with U.S. troops, now act largely as collators of government or military news (or leaks), of reports from Iraqi stringers (who can move somewhat more freely through an increasingly dangerous landscape), of gossip or rumors from elsewhere, and even of information that can be picked up off the Internet on, say, Juan Cole's Informed Comment website; but they're increasingly not reporters a lot of the time -- and so what passes for Iraqi news in our media turns out to be a very limited diet indeed. And yet, I haven't seen a single serious report on the subject of reporting from Baghdad in our press.
Now, this may be obvious enough to news junkies keeping careful tabs on Iraq or anyone who knows someone who's been reporting from the place, but most Americans can't have the faintest idea. Two weeks ago, in a dispatch entitled Incident on Haifa Street, I wrote:
Then, last week -- still with not a single My-Day-in-Baghdad piece published by a single Western reporter in "Iraq" -- a fascinating thing happened. It turned out a reporter had written just such a story -- shocking, honest, blistering. It began: "Being a foreign correspondent in Baghdad these days is like being under virtual house arrest." And it continued:
And that was in many ways the mildest part of the report penned by Farnaz Fassihi, a skilled Wall Street Journal reporter, who in the Journal's pages had made the most of the limited opportunities Iraq now offers a foreign reporter. Last week, for instance, Fassihi wrote a superb piece, "For Iraqi Families, ‘Green Zone' Is Hardly an Oasis" (not available on line), about Iraqis who were already living in what became the Green Zone and are now trapped there. ("Iraqi residents can enter only with special identification badges issued by the U.S. military. They must endure hours-long lines at checkpoints and then submit to a search… ‘I miss living in Baghdad,' says the 27-year-old Mr. Jumah. ‘I don't know where this is we are living.'")
When it came to Fassihi's piece on her life as a reporter, the only catch was: It wasn't a Journal piece at all, but an e-letter to friends that somehow was released onto the Internet where it sped around like a demon. In the end, Fassihi confirmed that the document was the real deal, though she did so not to an inquiring mainstream reporter but to Jim Romenesko, a media columnist for the Poynter Institute who first posted her letter. When queried by the New York Post, Fassihi's WSJ editor Paul Steiger supported her (WSJ Editor Backs Iraq Screed) with a classic defense of the status quo: "Ms. Fassihi's private opinions have in no way distorted her coverage, which has been a model of intelligent and courageous reporting, and scrupulous accuracy and fairness." In this way was Farnaz Fassihi's private news turned into a piece of mainstream media gossip. Her piece still hasn't gotten significant coverage in our major papers.
But everything does have an effect in one strange way or another, and so on Saturday what might be termed the first mainstream news story appeared -- not about Fassihi, of course -- but about the situation of reporters and reportage in Baghdad. The New York Times put European News Organizations Are Reducing Presence in Iraq by correspondent Jacques Steinberg at the bottom of page 6 (of that day's thin paper). Steinberg reported that, as I just guessed might happen two weeks earlier, major European news organizations had either "scaled back" their operations or were simply pulling out of Iraq due to the way events (including the kidnapping of two French journalists) had limited the ability of reporters to report.
Steinberg's last three paragraphs -- confirming my theory that most Times pieces should be read back to front since the last paragraphs, meant only for committed news junkies, are often the most revealing -- also brought us the first news we've had in print on the state of reporting in Iraq as the Times sees it:
You could now say that, thanks to the last three paragraphs of a page 6 Times article, the story of what isn't being reported in Iraq has its first hold -- by a fingernail perhaps -- in the mainstream. Sooner or later, it will undoubtedly become a front-cover story in the Times Sunday magazine as well as a commonplace of news about Iraq, and no one will even remember the time when it couldn't be written about.
It's worth considering, though, why Farnaz Fassihi -- and perhaps other reporters like her with real stories about the ever more constricted nature of the reporting they're doing -- had to write this to friends and not to her editor to be published for the rest of us. Why was this story not fit for American readers? We have to assume, after all, that those editors back in New York or Washington or Chicago or Los Angeles are dealing daily with the difficult dilemma of ensuring their reporters' safety and so would find Fassihi's comments no surprise. But amid all the news that's fit to print, news that would make sense of Iraqi reportage clearly wasn't. Thank god for the Internet.
This is not a small matter when you, as a "consumer" of news, try to assess the quality of the news you're getting. So I say again, it's strange the way certain subjects percolate up into our world out of the political part of the Internet, which is increasingly becoming our great percolation range (and is sometimes used as such by mainstream publications). There, you can find a kind of unvarnished writing like Fassihi's, but unlike hers actually meant for the public.
To give but two recent examples: The biting William Saletan of Slate and the always sharp Chris Dickey of Newsweek (but only in a "web exclusive commentary" for that magazine) have written scathingly of something that should have been more widely noticed and reported on in the mainstream: The Bush administration has continually claimed that escalating violence in Iraq was only a sign of oppositional desperation, a last gasp of effort before a certain date. Last spring, it was the June transition of sovereignty; now it's the November election in the U.S. or the January elections (that may or may not happen) in Iraq. As the date passes and violence and opposition only escalate, administration officials simply push the ever-receding violence horizon on to the next event. About this, Saletan wrote:
Dickey's version of what he calls the administration's "hallucinatory rhetoric" was:
Withdrawal on the agenda
We know Iraq's a mess -- that's now widely accepted -- though it wasn't back in October 2003 when I wrote: "The president of the greatest power on Earth is being forced by events in ‘5% of Iraq' to call in his advisers for endless meetings, shake up the structure of his administration, hold sudden news conferences, offer new and ever more farfetched explanations of American actions, and backtrack on claims -- all because of Iraqi resistance." And I added the historically obvious: "Invade Texas, invade Iran, invade China, invade Albania, invade Lebanon, invade Iraq -- name your place, in fact -- and you better not assume there won't be resistance. Someone always resists. That single sentence sums up the last two centuries of global history."
Back then, having reviewed our sordid history in Iraq from the 1950s on, I tried to sum up our Iraqi problem in four sentences:
"History, long term and more recent, is not on our side.
"We are a war-making and an occupying force, not a peacekeeping force.
"We never planned to leave Iraq.
"Time is against us.
"Or to boil all this down to a sentence: We are not and never have been the solution to the problem of Iraq, but a significant part of the problem."
But back in October 2003, when only a couple of brave, isolated souls in the mainstream media like James Carroll of the Boston Globe and Bob Herbert of the New York Times had even brought up the idea of "withdrawal," it was not yet on anyone's agenda. It was, in fact, widely dismissed. (I remember, for instance, watching Charlie Rose one night during this period telling Richard Holbrooke that no one -- meaning no one respectable -- could possibly suggest that we leave Iraq.)
What a difference eleven months of catastrophe make. What a difference even the last weeks -- in which significant portions of Iraq have been turned into "no-go" areas -- make. Now, withdrawal is in the air and increasing numbers of our pundit class, most of whom have been painfully behind the curve in their Iraqi assessments, have declared that the time at least to contemplate various forms of withdrawal is at hand. "Withdrawal" -- rather than "cutting and running" –is fast becoming a respectable position (even if not yet, in many cases, the right one). This is a growing consensus that extends from liberal Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen (" I still don't think the United States can just pull out of Iraq. But I do think the option is worth discussing.") to conservative columnist Robert Novak ("Inside the Bush administration policymaking apparatus, there is strong feeling that U.S. troops must leave Iraq next year. This determination is not predicated on success in implanting Iraqi democracy and internal stability. Rather, the officials are saying: Ready or not, here we go."); from Professor W. Andrew Terrill, the top expert on Iraq at the Army War College's strategic studies institute ("If we leave and there's no civil war, that's a victory.") to former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski (who recently speculated on the possibility of a withdrawal policy on the Charlie Rose show); from Knight Ridder's respected military analyst Joseph Galloway who offered "we get out" as the third, and clearly most reasonable, of three Iraqi options ("A suggestion in one of my recent columns that we begin the withdrawal by establishing American enclaves on the Iraq borders has gained some traction and is being discussed by Army planners, we are told.") to a front-page Sunday Week in Review piece in the New York Times by Roger Cohen entitled What If America Just Pulled Out?
Of course, we can't be surprised, given the magnitude of the disaster. Back in Oct of 2003, organizing the kind of elections that Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani wanted still might have been possible. Everything, in fact, would have been so much easier, including withdrawal. Since then, things have gotten much worse. Given another eleven months, it's reasonable to assume that they will grow worse yet.
The American public has, in fact, long been ahead of the pundits on this issue, a perception the most recent Chicago Council of Foreign Relations poll reinforces. More than two-thirds of the public, reports Jim Lobe of Inter Press Service, "agreed the United States should withdraw from Iraq if a clear majority of Iraqi people want it to do so." (And a staggering majority of Iraqis, by the polls of the Coalition Provisional Administration, our pre-June occupation entity, showed that to be the case.) Even the Bush administration now seems obsessed with the issue of withdrawal; in an upside-down fashion, of course, but the point is, it's now on the American brain. The first days of a "season" of withdrawal have dawned in the mainstream. Someday, undoubtedly (though how far down the line we have no way of knowing), withdrawal will seem like the obvious strategy, the only one. Our pundits will speak of it with approval, and few will even remember the raw days when they were dismissing it, and anyone who suggested it, out of hand.
Of course, at the moment, whether Novak is right or not about the policies of a second Bush administration, the officials of the first one simply want to stop the public-relations bleeding in Iraq. And so, not illogically (and with the distinct help of kidnappers in that country), they are making a major, if hopeless, effort to replace all bad news and negative information from Iraq with "uplifting accounts." And, of course, they have launched what's being billed as the first operation in a rolling campaign to take back that country's urban "no-go areas," starting with one of the last cities to fall off the American map of the country, Samarra. We've sent several thousand American troops backed by our air power, and newly trained Iraqi troops as well into the city; and as guerrillas will do in the face of overwhelming force, the insurgents are reported to be "melting away."
After three days we, or our Iraqi client-officials, are already declaring "victory." According to a New York Times report, our troops went through Samarra neighborhoods kicking (or shotgunning) down doors -- in one case finding a startled Turkish truck driver being held hostage.
The problem for the Bush administration, of course, lies not in "taking" the no-go cities of Iraq, but in what to do with them, once taken. You can kick down the doors to apartments, shops, offices, and governmental buildings; it's less easy to kick down the doors to people's brains. Bombs and other heavy armaments, however "precise," are by their nature indiscriminate and tend to do quite the opposite -- as of course does the kicking down of a door if a hostage isn't on the other side. Nor can you build up doors on your own side based solely on military training and a paycheck, though both presidential candidates have put great emphasis on the need to speed up the training of Iraqi troops and police. You can train someone to fire a gun or wield a baton, but you can't train him to be loyal. You can't train him not to see the obvious. You can't train him to be the Iraqi of your dreams.
As we all know by now, there are only 140,000 American troops in Iraq. Our troops can't be left garrisoning "taken" cities all over the country. There aren't enough of them. So those cities will have to be turned over to the troops and police of a regime whose prime minister's major speech in the United States was at least partially written by someone on the Bush election team. We all know -- or should know -- more or less what's likely to happen to the cities where (non-Kurdish) Iraqi troops are the main or sole garrisoning force. They will not remain "taken" for long. Things will get more desperate. The time of withdrawal, which will by then be a defeat beyond measure, will sooner or later be upon even a second Bush administration.
Should John Kerry be elected, the question is: Will he and his advisors feel themselves trapped inside his campaign promises to "win" the war in Iraq and by a fear of being labeled -- by the Republicans who are sure to give him a post-election day respite of perhaps 30 seconds -- the flip-flopper-in-chief? Even now, inside his "winning" strategy lie the seeds of a withdrawal strategy, including a no-oil, no bases pledge; but he won't have long to get out. As the canny columnist William Pfaff wrote, citing the way French President Charles De Gaulle once bit the bullet over Algeria and negotiated a French withdrawal:
Withdrawal has bubbled up, finally, into the mainstream, though not yet quite into the realms of policy-making. That may not be enough, but it is something. Let me end with my final words of October 31, 2003. I don't think one of them yet needs to be changed:
is the editor and publisher of
where this article first appeared, and author of the novel,
The Last Days of Publishing and
The End of Victory Culture: Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a
Generation. He is also a teaching fellow at the journalism school of the
University of California, Berkeley.