Another Inconvenient Truth
Car bomb in Iraq
Iraq is a human disaster as well as a major American foreign policy
disaster. The people know it; Congress knows it; even President Bush, at
this point, knows it. Why canít we extricate ourselves from Iraq?
The Bush administration is obviously culpable here. But there is a
deeper problem here than just Bush. The way out of Iraq is just not
obvious. Our involvement in Iraq is tied up with two elements of
national self-perception: almost no one wants to admit defeat, and
almost no one wants to deal seriously with our dependence on oil.
The national self-perception is that the United States is a powerful
country, and moreover that we are, due to our hard work, freedom-loving
habits, or whatever, are entitled to a way of life which is
largely dependent on cheap energy. Unlike Vietnam, which (whatever its
symbolic "domino" value) was never in itself part of our
"vital national interests," Iraq really is in an area
that affects the American economy. There is a lot of oil there. So if we
admit defeat in Iraq, it is a real defeat which affects our real
interests, not just a reckless adventure finally ended.
Itís possible that withdrawal would go smoothly and nothing really
bad would happen. But doubts remain, and the doubts lead to inaction. A
regional war could break out in the area with different outside
countries aligning with either the Sunnis or Shiites in Iraq (e. g. Iran
with the Shiites, Saudi Arabia with the Sunnis). One or another country
could threaten an oil boycott to protect the interests of their faction
in Iraq. Even if a "peacenik" President were to order
withdrawal, there might be a disruption of oil supplies and an oil panic
sending prices to $100 or $200 a barrel or more.
And so we dither. But what is the alternative? To stay in Iraq
indefinitely? That averts the immediate unpleasantness but simply
postpones and makes more fearful the day of reckoning. Itís going to
be bad enough when we finally withdraw, and the disaster that will
overtake us will be just that much worse when the country is bankrupt
and angry. Must the country now lie helpless and inert, unable to avoid
this catastrophe, because no one wants to take the responsibility of
telling the people that weíve lost in Iraq?
Firefighters in Iraq
What really poisons the whole situation is our dependence on oil.
With peak oil, oil supplies are likely to go into decline in less than a
decade anyway; and we have already delayed too long, probably, to avoid
serious economic disruption at that time. But it might be triggered
considerably sooner if the Iraqi conflict shuts down or limits oil
production. The economic effects would be devastating. We need to
aggressively and massively address our dependence on fossil fuels, in
addition to completely changing our strategy in the Middle East.
No one is politically strong enough to take such actions, much less
to actually engage in a public dialogue beforehand about the matter.
This is the real reason why all the talk of impeachment has died down.
For the time being, itís much more politically useful for the
Democrats to have Bush to kick around while they try to figure out what
to do next. Because no one wants to admit defeat, and no one wants to
deal seriously with oil dependence, nothing happens, the war grinds on,
and the treasury inches closer to bankruptcy.
Whatís a politician to do? You donít have to agree with this
entire analysis to see that the situation is politically difficult. Who
wants to be the one to explain $5 or $10 a gallon gasoline to the
American people? Whoís going to put the bell on the cat here? The
situation is bad, but it doesnít look bad enough yet so that it
is politically palatable to talk about the kind of drastic solutions
that are necessary. We have to wait, it seems, for the situation to
deteriorate further (or for reporting to become more accurate) before
there will be sufficient alarm to do what is actually necessary now.
I could hazard some solutions. We could withdraw from Iraq within a
fairly short period of time, regardless of the consequences, and
resolutely refuse to intervene in any regional wars, regardless of the
price of oil. We could pursue what Howard Dean briefly suggested in the
2004 campaign: an even-handed policy between the Israelis and the
Palestinians. A solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could
lessen or even reverse the impact of a defeat in Iraq. We could
institute a massive program of alternative energy and energy
conservation -- words like "Manhattan Project," "Apollo
Project," etc. suggest the appropriate scale, though it probably
needs to be even bigger than that.
To their credit, a few Congressional representatives are discussing
some of these issues. Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD) clearly understands the oil
situation, and Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) is advocating withdrawal from
Iraq. But for the most part, they remain at the fringes of the national
discussion; thereís little to choose from between Obama or Hillary,
for example. The real scope of the problem cannot really be talked about
publicly yet, which is why thereís not that much point in looking to
politicians -- regardless of what they might think privately -- for
serious public talk at this time.
Whatís a concerned individual to do? This is a bit easier,
actually, because we donít have political power and thus have nothing
to lose. We can advocate all of the things I have suggested above:
getting out of Iraq; dramatic reductions in reliance on fossil fuels; an
even-handed policy with the Israelis and Palestinians. The underlying
psychological problem here, though, is Americansí self-perception of
themselves as a global superpower. Everyone is thinking: we are a
powerful country, therefore we can and should be able to intervene in a
weak country like Iraq without total mobilization; we are a powerful
country, therefore we are entitled to cheap energy.
We cannot control the situation in Iraq by military means, and to
continue to try just makes the situation worse. Even though admitting
defeat and withdrawing is relatively best, the situation will probably
have to deteriorate further, more thousands will have to be killed, the
budget deficit will have to continue its southward journey, and the
consequences of our inevitable withdrawal will be made even worse,
before some enterprising politician will be tempted to tell the public
January 15, 2007
UPDATE April 20:
Juan Cole reports that a majority of the American public thinks the
war in Iraq is lost, and now Senator Harry Reid has said "this war
is lost." Republicans, it is said, "pounced" on the
statement and attacked it, but they will probably regret this. It
is a strange feeling to suddenly be in the majority
viewpoint. While political predictions have never been my
strong point (I could give some examples!), this may mean that the
country is moving towards a consensus that will allow us to get out of
Iraq, either by Congress dictating a solution to the President or
possibly through an impeachment and removal crisis. We do not have
the power to impose either good or bad things on Iraq, and trying to do
so just makes things worse.