The Administration’s recent reversals of rhetoric, if not policy, were stunning–even though they were followed by efforts to make it sound as though the changes didn’t mean what they clearly did mean. No more “global war on terror.” (Instead, the ridiculously phrased “global struggle against violent extremism.”) Withdraw some troops in the spring. (And to provide cover, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld telling Iraqis they had to patch together a Constitution right away, or else.) The struggle is “political,” not military. (Most shocking: Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, saying he’d never liked the phrase “war on terror” because it meant people “in uniform” would have to fight it. And this from Douglas Feith, outgoing Under Secretary of Defense for Policy: “It’s not a military project alone, and the United States cannot do it by itself alone.”) So: no war on terror, no troops to fight one and an acceptance of the need for genuine international cooperation! Have White House and Pentagon officials secretly been reading The Nation?
Now, of course, the “war on terror” is back–says Bush, our lexicographer-in-chief–thus making things more confusing than ever. (This is the flip-flop of all time; indeed, it’s a flip-flop-flip, now that the “war on terror” is on again. This is extreme disarray, to the point of farce.) But certainly such a broad rhetorical shift, accompanied by the explicit desire to draw down troops, means that a real change of policy is at least under discussion. Clearly the Administration wants to get into withdrawal mode, at least on the level of appearances, soon enough before the 2006 elections that it won’t be seen as doing so for political reasons. The concern with appearances is well-founded: The latest AP poll shows support for the war at an all-time low of 38 percent, while Iraq veteran and Democratic war critic Paul Hackett nearly won a House seat in a solidly GOP district in Ohio.
If we are in withdrawal mode–as we were, let’s remember, for four full years in Vietnam–then a new set of questions emerges, or at least a new version of the same old questions. But before getting to those, the antiwar movement needs to take note of its success in converting the American people to its view, this in turn leading to the changes–or beginnings of changes–within the Bush Administration. Democracy in action: The antiwar movement leads the way to a shift in public opinion that forces a change in policy. Now the antiwar forces must stay focused and organized, bringing in new allies from across the political spectrum.
As for the policy questions, they are what they always were. Will the US withdrawal be, in reality, a sham, accompanied by a doomed attempt to run Iraq from the shadows? And what will happen if it is real? (Possibly continuing turmoil, but at least that turmoil won’t be exacerbated by continued occupation.) Is there anything the United States can do to give Iraq a better chance to achieve a peaceful and democratic society after withdrawal? (A few things, including fulfilling our obligation to pay for reconstruction and stepping aside to let the United Nations run nation-building and democratization efforts.)
What we do know is that despite the endless talk of “winning the war on terror” and “staying the course”–in early August Bush again trotted out the claim that “we are defeating the terrorists in a place like Iraq so we don’t have to face them here at home”–the pace of killing continues unabated. By trying to remain in control of Iraq the United States will only further harm it. At the end of the day, genuine and full withdrawal, as we have always said, is the only answer.