As I mentioned earlier, the Democrats don’t have enough backbone to do.. well, nothing, and let the Iraq war end in 180 days. So, they’re going to continue to fund the war in some fashion, likely by insisting on “benchmarks,” which is now the catchphrase du jour
. As with everything else about the American occupation of Iraq, this latest approach to the war, even though it seems to have good intentions and supposedly will help end it, is fatally flawed. As with the rest of our war planning, it has a certain crucial false premise—that the United States has the right to be in Iraq in the first place.
A small aside—I am so sick of politicians talking about Iraqis as though they owe us something. If they owed us anything, we have long ago exacted our price in Iraqi blood.
You might just think that’s the anti-war pinko in me speaking, but this actually has nothing to do with my political beliefs and everything to do with my political education. It’s basic political science which, if you have not yet studied, I will try to distill for you now:
There is one crucial requirement for something to be considered a government, and that’s a monopoly over the use of violence within a given territory. As a corollary to that principle, whoever controls the troops on the ground controls the ground in question. There’s one other basic requirement for a government to function properly—legitimacy in the eyes of the people, also known as consent of the governed.
The relevance here is that the Iraqi government is sustained not by the Iraqi army, but by the U.S. army. As long as that remains the case, it will always be an illegitimate regime. As I’ve often said, I feel the same about American troops on Iraqi soil as I do about British troops on American soil.
Those of you who are stuck in the 20th century (a time of state-to-state conflicts, realpolitik, and a smattering of genocides), consider the example of Vichy France. As usual, I will lazily rely on Wikipedia to give a short summary:
On June 10, 1940, the National Assembly, faced with imminent military defeat by Germany, gave full power to Marshal Philippe Pétain. In 1940, Pétain was known mainly as a World War I hero, the winner of Verdun. As last President of the Council of the Third Republic, Pétain suppressed the parliament and immediately turned the regime into a non-democratic government collaborating with Germany. Vichy France was established after France surrendered to Germany on June 22, 1940, and took its name from the government’s administrative centre in Vichy, southeast of Paris. Paris remained the official capital, to which Pétain always intended to return the government when this became possible. While officially neutral in the war, Vichy actively collaborated with the Nazis, including, to some degree, with their racial policies.
What I’m trying to say here is that our presence in Iraq doesn’t just destabilize the country, as many have long noted, but it delegitimizes the government. And it is in that context that we need to talk about the fallacy of benchmarks.
The Iraqi parliament does not have operational control of U.S. troops, and never will, despite the promises that we’re working with the Iraqi army and so forth. and it is here that the Vichy analogy shines through; anyone working with the current Iraqi government is branded as a collaborator with the same occupying force which has caused, at last count, over 2 million deaths in their 20-year quest to control Iraq.
In the same way the buildings Coalition contractors have constructed are already falling apart, benchmarks are incapable of telling us anything beyond irrelevant numbers. Not only are the numbers for show, but so is the effort those numbers represent. Progress in building corrupt or otherwise illegitimate institutions might be quantitative progress, but it’s qualitative regress.
Furthermore, and this would be true even if the benchmarks were relevant, the mechanism we’ve set up for benchmarks makes no sense. The incentives are misaligned, and purposefully so. The only things benchmarks can do is certify failure. Consider—the reward for institutional progress is the extension of the occupation, which the majority of Iraqis and now parliament is against. The reward for failure is delivering on the only promise the Iraqi parliament cannot presently enforce, which is the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
Al-Qaeda and Iran both want the occupation to continue because they believe, with an uncertain degree of prescience, that the war effort is dealing a mighty blow to U.s. interests. As I’ve noted before, the popular mythology of the mujahideen is that they brought down the USSR with their efforts in Afghanistan, and they are looking forward to doing the same thing in Iraq.
So benchmarks are out, I say. A much better solution is a (short) timeline for withdrawal, which has been used in every de-occupation since time immemorial. We’re talking defunding-the-war kind of short—no more than 180 days. A timeline says, “you have x amount of time to get your shit together and after that, it’ll be your country again, for better or worse.”
On CNN, I heard some moron complaining that a timeline would be an invitation for insurgents to kill as many Americans as possible before the withdrawal date. As opposed to what they’ve been doing for the past few years, which was, apparently, to hold back from trying to kill as many American soldiers as they could because they hoped the occupation would be successful.
Already, the Islamic Army of Iraq, one of the sectarian militias who opposes (at least officially) attacks on civilians, is demanding a timeline for withdrawal as part of a n overture towards peace negotiations. A spokesman told Al-Jazeera:
“We, the Islamic Army in Iraq, are ready to negotiate, but only with the US congress. “They are the representatives of the American people, and the Iraqi resistance represents the Iraqi people. We are ready to establish a dialogue with them, not with the arrogant US administration.”
Al-Shammari said no talks have taken place so far with US officials and that Washington must recognise Iraqi armed groups as the only genuine representatives of the Iraqi people before such a meeting can be considered.
This Al-Shammari knows what no one wants to admit: those who control the troops on the ground control that ground. And he also knows that the militias hold the real political power in a war zone.
Some of you may be wondering, what do neocons have to say about timelines for withdrawal? Fredrick Kagan demonstrates, again, how little he really understands about politics and war, in an op-ed on CBS:
[M]any honestly believe that rapid withdrawal is the best course of action. Their arguments generally come down to two points: success is already beyond our reach, and setting timelines is the best way to force the Iraqis to take the difficult steps required to achieve a political settlement to this conflict. There is an inherent contradiction in these positions that war opponents must work out before acting on them, but, more importantly, neither proposition is true.
The notion that the war is already lost, articulated most recently by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, rests on the belief that Iraq has descended into a spiral of sectarian violence from which it cannot recover. In this view, the traditional hatred between Sunni and Shia became ungovernable after Al-Qaeda’s destruction of the Golden Mosque of Samarra in February 2006.
Actually, and this is why Kagan will never understand what the hell he’s talking about, the Iraq war was lost before it began. It isn’t that the inevitable civil war we’d been trying to provoke for over a decade finally came to pass. It’s that the war itself is illegal and illegitimate, and so is any resulting failed state, as long as we maintain a real military presence to sustain the Iraqi government.
Such beliefs are incompatible with the notion that American-imposed deadlines or timetables would force the Iraqi government to make necessary compromises. If the war is lost, it is because the Maliki government is unwilling to make those compromises and, presumably, is willing to engage in mass killing, if necessary, to achieve its aims. Alternatively, Iraq’s government might be too weak to control the violence, in which case the issue is not the pressure they face to make the right decisions, but their inability to do so. Either way, it is hard to see how using the threat of withdrawing American forces would help the situation.
These descriptions aren’t alternatives, they’re both true. What’s even more true is that the armed forces of another country are not capable of helping the situation no matter what, be they American or Iranian. We are dragging everybody else down with us, and a lot of people are getting pretty tired of it.