Biking Out of Iraq | The Nation


Biking Out of Iraq

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This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.

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Tom Engelhardt
Tom Engelhardt created and runs the Tomdispatch.com website, a project of The Nation Institute of which he is a Fellow...

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The domestic arms race in America is a one-way street—and the question is what awaits us up the road.

Sometimes, serving your country means standing up against it.

The Bush administration invaded Iraq in March 2003 with a force of approximately 130,000 troops. Top White House and Pentagon officials like Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz were convinced that by August those troops, welcomed with open arms by the oppressed Iraqis, would be drawn down to 30,000-40,000 and housed in newly built, permanent military bases, largely away from the country's urban areas. This was to be part of what now is called a "strategic partnership" in the Middle East.

Almost five-and-a-half years later, the United States still has approximately 130,000 troops in Iraq. Top administration officials are now talking about "modestly accelerated" rates of troop withdrawal, if all goes well. By August 2010, the Obama administration expects to have only 30,000-50,000 troops housed mainly on American mega-bases largely away from urban areas, part of a special American/Iraqi strategic partnership in the region.

This passes for progress in Iraq.

A History of the Bicycle in Iraq

In imagistic terms, the Bush administration biked into Iraq. Back in its salad days, when all was green and upbeat, its top officials loved the idea that they were training the eager Iraqi kid in how to ride the bike of democracy. President George W. Bush liked to talk about the moment when we might take the " training wheels" off the Iraqi bike and let the little fella ride into the democratic sunset on his own. His secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, ran with an allied image--the difficult moment when a parent has to decide whether to take that steadying hand off the bike seat and let the tyke pedal on his own. "You're running down the street," as he put it in 2004, "holding onto the back of the seat. You know that if you take your hand off they could fall, so you take a finger off and then two fingers, and pretty soon you're just barely touching it."

Some years later, after kid and parent had made it around one of those "corners" they were always turning--on the way to various "tipping points" in the Iraq War--and found themselves instead at the "precipice," after Rumsfeld had, in fact, been asked to resign by his president, he wrote a final memo, the last of his famed "snowflakes," to the White House, on "new options" in Iraq. In it, he suggested: "Begin modest withdrawals of US and Coalition forces (start 'taking our hand off the bicycle seat'), so Iraqis know they have to pull up their socks, step up and take responsibility for their country."

His tenure could qualify as the longest biking lesson in history and still, it seemed, the Iraqis couldn't do without that hand on the seat. Even when his president followed him two years later, their imagery of choice remained behind. This March, for instance, the chief American military spokesman in Iraq, Major General David G. Perkins, discussing a possible draw-down of American forces, said: "We need to take our hands off the handlebars, or the training wheels, at some point."

And then, two weeks ago, Colonel Timothy R. Reese, an American adviser to the Iraqi military's Baghdad command, created a front-page New York Times stir when a memorandum he had written was leaked. In a distinctly imagistic mode, he began: "As the old saying goes, 'Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days.' Since the signing of the 2009 Security Agreement, we are guests in Iraq, and after six years in Iraq, we now smell bad to the Iraqi nose."

While the official Obama-era target for an American withdrawal remains (as it was in the last months of the Bush era) the end of 2011, Reese urged that all US forces be pulled out on an expedited schedule by August 2010--the moment by which, according to present plans, only American "combat brigades" are to be removed. Resurrecting a Vietnam-era suggestion of Vermont Republican Senator George Aiken (ignored then, as it will be now), he headlined his memo: "It's Time for the US to Declare Victory and Go Home."

And there, in the midst of a generally scathing assessment of the deficiencies of the Iraqi military (and the Iraqi government), was that bicycle again:

The SA [Bush-era Security Agreement between the US and Iraq] outlines a series of gradual steps towards military withdrawal, analogous to a father teaching his kid to ride a bike without training wheels.... We now have an Iraqi government that has gained its balance and thinks it knows how to ride the bike in the race. And in fact they probably do know how to ride, at least well enough for the road they are on against their current competitors. Our hand on the back of the seat is holding them back and causing resentment. We need to let go before we both tumble to the ground.

It just goes to show. Under the pressure of war, images that won't go away, like people, have the capacity to change. The Iraqi child with the training wheels is now, according to Reese, old enough to enter an actual bike race.

Who exactly will bike out of Iraq under the Obama withdrawal plan, however, still remains to be defined. After all, at the end of his memo, the most urgent call for withdrawal from Iraq yet to emerge from the higher levels of the US military, Colonel Reese offers his version of a full-scale American withdrawal. "During the withdrawal period," he writes, "the USG [United States government] and GOI [government of Iraq] should develop a new strategic framework agreement that would include some lasting military presence at 1-3 large training bases, airbases, or key headquarters locations. But it should not include the presence of any combat forces save those for force protection needs or the occasional exercise."

And keep in mind: his proposal has, with rare exceptions, been rejected out of hand by all and sundry, in and out of the military high command and in Washington.

In other words, even the most Xtreme American biker of this moment still imagines us in Iraq forever and a day.

A History of Experts on Iraq

Once upon a time, the playing field, the stadium, and sports events were regularly compared to war, even considered suitable preparation for actual battle. Ever since the First Gulf War, this has been reversed. Now, war--or at least its coverage--is based on sports.

Just as, sooner or later, the smoothest players and savviest coaches depart the "field of battle" for the press box and the TV spotlight, for pre-game, game, and post-game commentary, so the commanders of the last war now leave the battlefield for the TV booth and offer us their expertise on the next war. As former Houston Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy has had to discuss the decisions of his brother Stan, coach of the Orlando Magic, in ESPN playoff commentary, so the commanders of our previous wars cover next wars and their commanders, possibly even officers once under their own command.

We now live with the ESPN version of war, including slo-mo replays, and the logos, interactive charts, and fabulous graphics of the sports world. And once anointed as experts, our John Maddens of war, like their sports counterparts, never go away. Back in April 2008, for instance, New York Times journalist David Barstow wrote a front-page expose focused on the many retired military officers who had been hired as media consultants for the Iraq War. As a group, they made up, he suggested, a "kind of media Trojan horse," because most of them were marching to a carefully organized Pentagon campaign of disinformation on the war. In addition, most of them had ties, not acknowledged on the air, "to military contractors vested in the very war policies they are asked to assess."

Barstow's piece concluded:

To the public, these men are members of a familiar fraternity, presented tens of thousands of times on television and radio as '"military analysts" whose long service has equipped them to give authoritative and unfettered judgments about the most pressing issues of the post-Sept. 11 world. Hidden behind that appearance of objectivity, though, is a Pentagon information apparatus that has used those analysts in a campaign to generate favorable news coverage of the administration's wartime performance.

Barstow named names and made connections. Those names included, for example, retired Air Force general and Fox News senior military analyst Thomas G. McInerney, retired Army general and NBC/MSNBC military analyst Montgomery Meigs, retired Army general and NBC/MSNBC military analyst Barry R. McCaffrey, and retired Marine Colonel and Fox News military analyst William V. Cowan. After the expose appeared, they seem to have just carried right on with their media duties.

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