This article originally appeared in The Nation on September 8, 2011.
Rumors are rife that the United States will leave 3,000–4,000 troops behind in Iraq after the current December 31 deadline for total withdrawal, mainly as trainers for the Iraqi army. That would mean a withdrawal of some 45,000 American troops that are still currently there, and an annual taxpayer savings of $47 billion. In 2007, when Barack Obama was announcing his run for the presidency, 170,000 troops were deployed in Iraq, at a cost of $142.1 billion.
This deal is not done, however. On Wednesday administration officials emphasized that the Iraqis have made no request and the White House no decision. Fox broke the story anyway on Tuesday, reporting that new Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was recommending the 3,000–4,000 number, while the military was calling for 14,000–18,000 troops to remain. The Senate’s three military musketeers—Joseph Lieberman, John McCain and Lindsey Graham—immediately denounced Panetta’s proposed number as “dramatically lower” than the military’s request. The New York Times described the administration’s proposal as “token” in comparison with the “robust” presence the military commanders prefer.
In a telephone interview, Representative Barbara Lee said the proposal is a “move in the right direction” but “we have to keep the heat on.” Brian Katulis at the Center for American Progress told The Nation from Pakistan that he was “concerned about the fact that no matter what happens between now and the end of 2011, the United States is still going to have a substantial footprint on the ground in Iraq. We have a larger diplomatic presence there than any place in the world, and the fewer US troops we have there, the more private security contractors we will have. The State Department just doesn’t have a capacity to defend its personnel, so we’ll have to lean on a substantial private-contractor footprint. And quite likely there will be a number of ‘creative fictions’ that rebrand some of the current military functions.”
Nevertheless, a 97 percent US troop reduction in less than four years, and a 90 percent reduction in the next six months, are significant and rapid changes, even if hundreds of American operatives, bearded and in shades, are hidden behind embassy walls or embedded in Iraqi units. According to the Times, the proposal reflects “the mounting pressures to reduce the costs of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, both wars that have become increasingly unpopular as the 10th anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, approaches.”
It’s perhaps time to review the question, What does the peace movement want in Iraq? From the beginning, a dedicated core has demanded all troops out, all mercenaries out and all bases shut down, period. As the war dragged on and public opposition grew, the popular demand was moderated to include a negotiated settlement and withdrawal timetables. The establishment pivoted in 2007, when the Baker-Hamilton report proposed a phased withdrawal that would leave 10,000–20,000 US troops for training, rapid reaction, special operations and force protection. Candidate Obama employed the Baker-Hamilton report as his platform during the 2008 election campaign. Then, as the presidential transition approached, the US and Iraqi governments signed a pact delineating a staged withdrawal through the end of this year. In early 2009 then-President Obama promised to abide by the pact.
During the past year, dissatisfied factions in both Iraq and the United States have lobbied to ignore the pact in favor of a long-term American presence. The pro-occupation coalition is a motley one, starting with the three Senate musketeers, Lieberman, McCain and Graham. The Iraqi Kurds, who seek regional autonomy for their 15–20 percent of the population, fully supported the 2003 US invasion and back a long-term US military presence. The Sunni community, about 25–30 percent of Iraq, supported the long insurgency against American forces but now includes many who want US military protection from the 60–65 percent Shiite majority. In turn, the Shiites are nervous about the departure of the Americans, who installed them in power. To further complicate matters, within the Shiite community are forces loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr who demand a complete US withdrawal; if those demands aren’t satisfied, it could open the way to renewed conflict. In the background are Iran and Saudi Arabia, engaged in a proxy war for power in the region.
For the peace movement, a massive reduction in US forces and taxpayer costs should be considered at least a political victory. A total withdrawal is probably beyond the power of public opinion to ensure, especially as economic issues dominate the American discourse. The budget crisis is a major factor in turning the public and most Democrats against the war (as well as the war in Afghanistan), but public and media interest will decline as troop levels and American casualties decline to minimal numbers. Of course, there is a community of activists who strongly opposed the brutal sanctions imposed on Iraq during the 1990s and the suffering that caused, before Bush’s war began with its “shock and awe.” The suffering continues, and could escalate, a tragedy that might justify US humanitarian assistance rather than troops on the ground. But, like it or not, a 90 percent withdrawal will seem agreeable, even a relief, to most Americans. If that occurs, the focus of peace sentiment will turn mostly toward Afghanistan, Pakistan and, to some extent, the secret operations and drone wars raging across other parts of the Muslim world.
It is possible, however, that Iraq will explode into renewed sectarian war. If the targets are the 4,000 US troops left behind, Obama will face a crisis. If not, there will be national security experts like Bernard Lewis who favor the disintegration of Arab nationalism into “a chaos of squabbling, feuding, fighting sects, tribes, regions and parties,” as he put it in a Foreign Affairs essay in 1992. That their thinking is outmoded given the Arab Spring seems not to matter to the neocons.
It is too early to tell what the number of departing Americans will be. At the moment, it appears that an internal political war is being leaked in the media, between the neocons and military, on the one hand, and the Obama White House and Congressional Democrats, on the other, over the final decision on troop levels.
Whereas Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney originally dismissed the Iraq insurgency as the “die-hards” of the old regime, the neocons and the military are becoming the die-hards of the Bush era. But if peace advocates consider a 90 percent troop reduction as too little, too late, or as a cover for continued occupation, the power balance in the debate might shift back to the right.
In Congress, Barbara Lee and Walter Jones have gained ninety-three signatures on a July 27 letter to Obama demanding that he stick to his Iraq withdrawal timetable: “leaving troops and military contractors in Iraq beyond the deadline,” they wrote, “is not in our nation’s security interests, it is not in our nation’s strategic interests, and it is not in our nation’s economic interests.”
It remains to be seen whether peace sentiment and Congressional letters will offset the alarm among the hawks about Panetta’s proposal for a minimal US presence.