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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 the truth.

Keith Akers
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.