Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal

News Abroad

Mr. Kirstein is professor of history at St. Xavier University. He debated David Horowitz on his campus in Chicago on March 29 on "The Iraq War: In the Classroom and Beyond." These were his remarks on the Iraq war. Kirstein's blog is http://english.sxu.edu/sites/kirstein.

The Iraq War, as Vietnam was, is morally wrong, strategically a disaster and fueled by the notion of American exceptionalism: that America has the might and the ethnocentric right to shape the international community in its own image. The occupation of Iraq must end with the rapid withdrawal of American military forces. The justification for war was deliberately falsified and demonstrated an incompetence of such magnitude as to warrant criminal prosecution of the national-security elites including the president, vice president, secretary of defense and both the current and previous secretaries of state. I do not exclude the Democratic Party from guilt for this war. Most Democratic Senators voted for authorization to use force and, other than Congressperson John Murtha and Senator Russ Feingold, few Democrats have demanded disengagement from Iraq. They have not attempted to cut off funding and nominated Senator John Kerry, a vacillating, calculating, prowar presidential candidate, in 2004. My condemnation of this war is bi-partisan and extends beyond the Bush administration.

The Iraq war was vigorously promoted in 1998, five years before the March 19, 2003 invasion, by the Project for the New American Century in a letter to President Clinton. Among its many authors were Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Zalmay Khalilzad and John Bolton who assumed top-level positions in the Bush administration and orchestrated a war that the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the State Department and Congress initially opposed. One of its authors, Francis Fukuyama, recently abandoned neoconservatism, the ideological worldview of the war’s senior advocates, which he now describes as “Leninist”: the effort to control history with power and will.

This was not a war of last resort, with just cause, with right intentions or with proportionality that are requirements of Just War Doctrine. This was an elective war to project American geostrategic dominance in the Persian Gulf, to encircle Iran, to control Iraqi oil and to reestablish western colonialism in Iraq. The British colonized Iraq under a League of Nations mandate following the demise of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, but withdrew its forces in 1927 due to its failure to overcome a sectarian insurgency.

The US must never preemptively invade a nation that is not an imminent threat. John Quincy Adams, one of America’s greatest secretaries of state, warned about going “abroad, in search of monsters to destroy” particularly if the monster is more bluster than bite. Saddam Hussein did not possess chemical, biological or, unlike Israel, nuclear weapons. After no weapons of mass destruction were found the war aim shifted to spreading liberty and democracy: a convenient ruse to convert a crime into an alleged crusade for democracy over autocracy.

Had Mr. Bush asked the Congress for force authorization to export democracy to Iraq, he never would have received it. Yes democracy is desirable but, except for World War II, no foreign invader has been able to impose it. Democracy must develop from indigenous forces and usually results from modernization as opposed to being a catalyst for modernization. A nation must not wage war to spread democracy in a neo-Wilsonian manner unless the international community supports it. The world opposed this monstrous war with unprecedented prewar protests with millions marching for peace from Hyde Park in London, to Sydney, Rome, Washington, Chicago and San Francisco.

While the Silverman-Robb Commission did not conclude the Bush administration deliberately falsified intelligence, it was prohibited from investigating whether it distorted or, as Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV charged, “twisted” the intelligence. Recently Paul Pillar, a former senior C.I.A. intelligence officer on Iraq, concluded “official intelligence analysis” was ignored, “politicized” and “misused publicly to justify decisions already made.” Melvin Laird, secretary of defense under Richard Nixon during the Vietnam War, charged the war “was launched on intelligence failures and possibly outright deception.”

This is an egregious breach of the firewall between intelligence gathering and policymaking. The former is supposed to emanate from independent analysis; then foreign-policy officials decide whether the results require direct action. The Bush administration thirsted for war, cherry-picked intelligence they liked and ignored the rest. The New York Times revealed Mr Bush told Prime Minister Tony Blair at a meeting at the White House on January 31, 2003, that war was “penciled in for March 10” and that an assassination of Saddam Hussein should be considered. Five days later they even recruited the C.I.A., whose director, George Tenet, sat behind Secretary of State Colin Powell when he lied to the world in his infamous February 5, 2003 U.N. speech about Saddam’s W.M.D.

The Iraq war, with its torture and killings of defenseless detainees, has disgraced the reputation of the U.S. and created an intense global anti-Americanism that is unprecedented. The U.N. Convention Against Torture condemns, “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.” The Uniform Code of Military Justice makes “maltreatment” of prisoners a crime. The War Crimes Act of 1986 prohibits any American from inflicting torture, death or inhuman treatment upon a prisoner. The Geneva Conventions also have the force of law in the United States and have been violated. Torture of non-resistant detainees is the reality of Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo and Camp Nama . The images of beatings, of humans tied to dog leashes, of smiling American soldiers inflicting pain and suffering on nude prisoners piled on pyramids and chained to ceilings and cell doors, has erased the image of imperial benevolence and revealed a hypocritical nation that emulated the same tactics that Saddam used against his own people.

Iraq is worse off than under Saddam. The country is in chaos, civil war between Shi’a and Sunni is beyond the point of reconciliation; the Kurds in the north will never accept a unified Iraq unless given de facto independence with its Pesh Merga militia. The Sunni, in the oil barren center, will resist a Shi’a government that is allied with Iran. There is no unitary government but only a periphery with armed sectarian militias such as the 1,000-strong Mahdi Army.

Fewer Iraqis, than before the invasion, have safe drinking water and have electricity about four hours a day. Iraq oil exports have plummeted due to sabotage and war, and citizens wait up to two days to get gasoline. The United States did not calculate the war’s impact on the civilian population—other than Vice President Dick Cheney’s assertion that Americans would be greeted as liberators

So where do we go from here? Toward an immediate disengagement with no more American deaths, no more American wounded, no more Americans kidnapped, no more colonization of Iraq, and no more unconscionable wasting of our nation’s resources with $350 billion already spent on this crusade.

The architects of war against Islam maintain if troops are precipitously withdrawn, the insurgency will intensify. Our presence caused the insurgency and helps recruit new resistance fighters. How would Americans react if it were invaded for no legitimate reason, occupied by a military that did not speak English or Spanish and tortured its citizens? Iraq has become the new Afghanistan, and withdrawal might lessen the intensity of the insurgency.

The architects of illusion claim withdrawal will damage America’s credibility to defeat so-called “global terrorism.” Withdrawal might restore America’s reputation as a constructive force within the international community and improve our relations with the Muslim world that believes America is a racist, anti-Islamic colonizer. Furthermore, Europe might construe disengagement from Iraq as an American acknowledgement that empire has its limits.

The architects of preemptive war insist withdrawal must be deferred until the insurgency has been defeated by Iraqi military and police forces. This fantasy presupposes nation building can be effective. In Vietnam, a U.S. trained and equipped million-person Army of the Republic of Vietnam could not defeat the Vietcong or North Vietnamese. America cannot create an Iraqi army, that would predominately recruit Shi’a and Kurds, to prevail in a remorseless sectarian-communal war. Like the Diem, Ky and Thieu governments in South Vietnam, no Iraqi government has legitimacy to govern, much less defeat an insurgency, while under foreign occupation. Iraq must resolve its own affairs. Yes we should provide assistance for infrastructure repair, education, health care and third-country debt forgiveness but remove its soldiers, avoid permanent military bases and terminate counterinsurgency warfare.

Another argument against withdrawal claims it would dishonour those who have fallen in Iraq. According to Lt. Gen. William Odom, the former director of the National Security Agency, the Iraq War is the “greatest strategic disaster” in U.S. military history. The general believes it is counterintuitive to persist in a strategic disaster just to prove those who died from that disaster did not die in vain. When John Kerry previously exhibited antiwar courage during the Vietnam War, he asked during his 1971 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” That question is appropriate in assessing the current quagmire.

Harold Pinter in his remarkable 2005 Nobel Prize acceptance speech in Literature proclaimed: “The invasion of Iraq was a bandit act, an act of blatant state terrorism, demonstrating absolute contempt for the concept of international law.” Let us hope that America’s withdrawal will begin the process of healing that widowed land, reverse the immoral waste of American lives and resources and lead to fewer unilateral, imperialist interventions into the affairs of other states.

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omar ibrahim baker - 10/19/2007

As long as there are people in the USA with the basic decency,inteligence and eloquence of Dr Peter N. Kirstein there is hope that the huge might at its disposal could be put to something else than destruction!

omar ibrahim baker - 10/19/2007

No; I am not kidding.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

Calling somebody whom you disagree with silly and utterly inapplicable names is the kind of ignorant, childish mentality that led straight to misplaced and niave American intervention in World War I under Wilson, to head-in-the-sand rah-rah attitudes about the Pearl Harbor disaster, and to My Lai, you foolish hypocrite.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

I was out of line in the comment above, and apologize for the rudeness of it. Of all things I went by the first name only, and somehow thought Thomas was calling ME names!

I still think his comment is quite asinine, however. Archie Bunker could have done much better.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

You are right. The name-calling was a (long-lasting) negative effect of the entry into World War I, not a cause.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

Try any comprehensive text of 20th century American History. Look up "100% Americanism," "Red Scare," "Ku Klux Klan," "anti-radicalism," "anti-German agitation," and "anti-Semitism,"for starters. I think that should suffice, especially given that this tangent has very limited relevance to the topic of the page.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

"That's not what any quality US history text says that've read."

Of course not. That is not what I said either. B being "a negative effect" of A does not automatically imply that A was the sole cause of B.

What was the point of your asking then, if you already know more than was necessary to understand what I said? I have already said that my first post in this thread was a mistake. What is the point of raking the ashes for further non-existent embers? Are there no more interesting ways left to waste time on HNN?

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

Professor Kirstein's otherwise solid condemnation of the Cheney administration’s treasonous and blunder-ridden folly in Iraq founders when it comes to What to Do Next.

Even supposing, for sake of argument, that his utterly unproven assumption "Iraq is worse off than under Saddam" is true, it does not follow that immediate unilateral U.S. withdrawal will lead to any meaningful "process of healing".

For the umpteenth time, a kneejerk nostalgia for the good old days of the Anti-Vietnam-War movement has kicked in to shove a potentially potent argument towards pious irrelevancy.

America did not START the Vietnam War in cold blood the way the PNAC Chickenhawks hatched the Iraq occupation, and squandered opportunities after 9-11 to launch their ill-planned conquest in a blaze of half-truths and fearmongering. That is a huge difference which it is high time "all wars are the same" pacifist activists got through their soft and thick skulls.

There can be curing of "morally wrong American exceptionalism" without first prosecuting and punishing the traitors who concocted this great disaster for America, launched it in illegality, corruption, and deception, and whose sole objective now is cover-up, evasion, and buck-passing. Once Cheney and his fellow crooks removed from office (if not behind bars) or at forced into a long overdue public humiliation for their crass incompetence and arrogant betrayal of America, along with at least a token number of the disgraced spineless Democrats who were pitiful rubber stamps for the Iraq folly (Hillary Clinton and John Kerry most notably), THEN we can START to figure out how to withdraw carefully and honorably, not before.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

Words inadvertently omitted from the final paragraph of my prior commment (in CAPS):

There can be NO curing...

Once Cheney and his fellow crooks ARE removed..or at LEAST forced

Spell check wasn't enough.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

I brought up Wilson because the first poster (in several prior posts which I did not note the precise locations of) has opined vociferoiusly to the effect that that president was some kind a great evil one who conspired to load the Lustiania with explosives so that, after it sank, America could dragged in to World War I, as it (according to HIS stubbornly persistent faith) in fact was.

I wanted to point out the inconsistency of this position with the use (in the first post of this thread) of World War I style jingoistic name-calling.

I made a muddle of my post which was anyway based on a mistaken reading on my part.

Happy (now finally) ?

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

By "first poster" I meant Thomas (who is actually the second poster). Forgot about the other Peter (whose essay we have long since stopped talking about).

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

Surely you jest, Dr. Kirstein.
And surely you ought not to.

- Resistance against JAPANESE occupation in World War II


- The war for independence for FRENCH INDOCHINA


- The formation of the VIET CONG and the struggle amongst the Vietnamese over whether the South should be independent of the North and under what terms.

A two-minute review of my Information Please almanac yielding such basic elements of Vietnamese history suffices to show the absurdity of any claim that war began there with the American intervention in the early 1960s.

Would you accept as credible an student essay baldly suggesting that the iron-fisted rule of Saddam over all of Iraq during 1980s and 1990s has the remotest parallel to the endless conflict division, and civil war in Vietnam during the 1940s and '50s ?

I hope not.

Your case against the Cheney Administration's Iraq folly is fundamentally a sound and vital one.

But, you need to go back to square one on the basic historical context and historical parallels. And for the last time, please, please let go of Vietnam. Can't you see how the Rovians have run circles around what ought to be their opposition in America again and again and again by making d---d sure that this time there is no draft, there is no high rate of U.S. casualties, no publicity of flag drenched coffins returning, and no let-up on the relentless barrage of clever Goebbels-like disinformation and propaganda? They have avoided many (of course not all) of the key mistakes which Johnson, McNamara, Nixon and Kissinger made. THEY have learned from history and from the past mistakes of those with whom they fundamentally sympathize. On what possible grounds do you object to doing the same, and instead advance such silly historical parallels ?

And, by the way, if you were around then, you might remember that the Anti Vietnam War movement, which was tremendously more powerful than any counterpart today in America (for all the reasons just listed, and more) had -when it came down to it- only a very gradual effect upon actual U.S. policy. Nixon was elected in 1968 promising a "secret plan". It turned out to be the absurdity of "Vietnamization," but basically he followed that plan, and did what the heck he wanted. Certainly the antiwar protests helped push him towards the eventual pullout by 1973, but endless mythologizing nostalgia about that movement should not blind us to its limited actual policy impact. Still less should we seek to replicate its modest success by historically utterly untentable attempts at copy-cat resurrection under the radically different circumstances of today.


Peter N. Kirstein - 4/8/2006

I meant mindless destruction not discussion.

Peter N. Kirstein - 4/8/2006

I have not learned that the U.S. is not engaged in mindless discussion. I intended the article to emphasise that which is why I support a rapid disengagement from this conflict.

I do possess a "love of inquiry" and I do place facts above theory. However theories are embellished by facts that lead to their creation. Here is a fact: the U.S. is a terrorist, roque state and the facts since Vietnam clearly sustain that assessment. We violate international law; we violate the basic norms of international comity; we commit mass murder at will particularly among Asian peoples from Hiroshima to Falluja.

Christopher c Rushlau - 4/7/2006

I agree with the poster who said that this article gave some cause for hope that the US is good for something besides mindless destruction.
I hope the author of the article has learned from the comments, as well. Let me tell a little parable. Dr. Richard Bush spoke on public radio today, recorded last month, about the Taiwan Straits. It was an excellent presentation, once I learned to wait for the long sentences to end before I daydreamed away and lost the string of thought. And then the questions revealed a deeper quality of his scholarship. He absolutely refused to take any of them personally, as ad hominem attacks. He sifted them for a legitimate inquiry and responded to that. He paused, waited for a constructive remark to suggest itself to him, and gave it with a rather dry but endearing directness. He was a model of composure, not as Hollywood would have it, but as Mandela, perhaps, would have it. So perhaps you do not have to undergo the trials of Job to acquire the patience of Job. Maybe all you have to do is pursue a love of inquiry, always putting facts above theory, and the first fact of any public presentation is that you have to deal with the people you find in the audience. It is obvious, by the way, isn't it, that we invaded Iraq because we were so shocked and disappointed by our discovery that the world wasn't what we had let ourselves believe it was--that it had "changed forever"?

Charles Edward Heisler - 4/6/2006

Peter, we agree on something! Good.

Douglas M. Charles - 4/6/2006

I'm merely looking for a clarification of the vague and seemingly odd statements you are making.

Douglas M. Charles - 4/6/2006

So let me get this straight. 100% Americanism, the Red Scare, the Ku Klux Klan, antiradicalism, anti-German agitation, and anti-Semitism are just negative effects of the United States entering the First World War in 1917?

That's not what any quality US history text says that've read.

Douglas M. Charles - 4/5/2006

Please do elaborate.

Peter N. Kirstein - 4/5/2006

The reason I did not vote for Sen Kerry is that I felt his desire for power was in such excess, that he lacked basic principles which he could communicate honestly and effectively to the country. I feel Sen Clinton is unfortunately of similar composition: policies devoted for ambitious pursuit of power without a basic decency and commitment to improving her nation and the world.

Charles Edward Heisler - 4/5/2006

There is a statement, perhaps an exaggeration, perhaps not, that Kerry during treatment for one of his "wounds" in Vietnam, introduced himself to the medic as the "New JFK", or words to that effect. That little bit of gossip combined with his posed pictures, as a youth, on a sailboat with John Kennedy and spouse in the background suggests that Kerry had political ambitions beyond the average bear at the time of his testimony.
His rise to presidential candidate may well be serendipity to you but I prefer to see it as a well structured campaign of a thirty year self promotion that includes his involvement and testimony in and for the anti-war movement.

Peter N. Kirstein - 4/5/2006

Mr Kerry was actually twenty-seven years of age at the time of his 1971 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Douglas M. Charles - 4/5/2006

>"Calling somebody whom you disagree with silly and utterly inapplicable names is the kind of ignorant, childish mentality that led straight to misplaced and niave American intervention in World War I under Wilson...."

OK, I have to ask. How did name calling lead Wilson into the First World War?

Douglas M. Charles - 4/4/2006

Kerry should be "held responsible" for not predicting the future? Are you out of your mind?

Further, it's totally ahistorical to assume he had presidential ambitions when he was 28 years old. In fact, when Kerry was interviewed on TV at the time he was asked about this and dismissed the thought of presidential ambitions very quickly.

Rob Willis - 4/4/2006

"you foolish hypocrite."

Black! Black! Black!

That is all.


Charles Edward Heisler - 4/4/2006

Mr. Charles, as you well know, Kerry's antics were focused and directed to a poltical career, down to and including his testimony before the Senate. For you to suggest that he ought not to be held responsible for his statements then, even with the obvious warnings that prompted his cavalier dismissal of the coming "blood bath" is the kind of enabling that led the Democrats to be "shocked" when he did not win the Presidency. You would give this "28year old" a pass on his opportunism--fortunately the American voters were not as forgiving.

Peter N. Kirstein - 4/4/2006

I did not say the war started in 1964 but during the Truman years. Yet if one were to note that 1964 was a transformative year, with the force authorisation in August, leading to the deployment of Marine combat units to Danang in Spring 1965, then one could argue the distortion of events in the Gulf of Tonkin were similar to the prewar dissimulations over Iraq.

Frederick Thomas - 4/4/2006

Please see my above post in regard to this communist-apologist nonsense.

Frederick Thomas - 4/4/2006

Mr. Kirstein:

According to the UN and EU figures, about 1 million were incarcerated in VN and 165,000 of those killed. after the US left. Most of the others were tortured by, for example, being locked naked and bent over in tiny tiger cages in all weather, which in the highlands includes many freezing nights, beaten with bamboo rods, etc. Such tortures over many months lead to permanent disability, which was of course intended.


2.5 million died in Cambodia. Both figures were after the US departed.

Is 165,000 "not a bloodbath" to you? Is 2.5 million? Can you be so cruel and heartless? You are pretty free with other people's blood. Shame on you for this post.

These figures are part of the total of about 100 million butchered by communist governments during the 20th century, according to "Murder by Government," 63 million in the Soviet Union alone.

An anecdotal story involved a friend, Laika Sanouk, who was 8-10 years old during the "killing fields" period.

Laika had 2 older sisters of 14 and 16 who were prime sex targets for the "vanguard of the proletariat" thugs who killed them both with shovels when they refused sex. The mental effect of such murders leaves Laika numb and unable to speak of it today.

Laika's parents bribed venal kommissars to get her out of that hell. Thank god she ended up here, in the loving care of a devout religious family as custodians, rather than in another scummy "workers' paradise."

Let's face it, HNN communist and socialist apologists: your favorite form of government is only good at mass-murder, and at nothing else whatsoever.

Douglas M. Charles - 4/4/2006

At the top of this discussion page you talked about false premises. And in this thread you talk about Kerry and setting "himself up for political destiny."

Yes, very historical. There is no more of a false premis than destiny.

Peter N. Kirstein - 4/4/2006

I am not so sure the US did not "start" the Vietnam conflict with the same degree of "cold bloodedness." If one were to use the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution of 1964, as the de facto beginning of the combat phase of the war--recognising US involvement since the Truman administration--this NVN invented attack on the Turner Joy and Maddox could be seen as another perverted use of intelligence to justify mass murder of non-Judeo-Christian Asians.

Charles Edward Heisler - 4/4/2006

Wait a minute Mr. Charles, Kerry set himself up for a political destiny based on his "expert" witness status on the Vietnam War and as such has to be held, by everyone, responsible for his words. There were plenty of suggestions that a blood bath would follow the fall of the Saigon government and Kerry had access to all of this "precog" before making his "precog". The point is that all the Leftists were wrong, there was a blood bath in Cambodia (yes Peter, that is in Southeast Asia and I believe three million is enough to qualify as a blood bath)and we will never know the true cost to the South Vietnamese populations after the fall.

Douglas M. Charles - 4/3/2006

Yes, damn that 28-year old and his inability to predict the future! What kind of Precog is he?

Peter N. Kirstein - 4/3/2006

My point was there was no bloodbath in South Vietnam after the extrication of American forces in 1973. People were predicting millions of South Vietnamese would perish in a reign of terror invoked by the North Vietnamese government. I am not suggesting the reeducation centers were justified. If you wish to use the word "genocide" I think that term applied quite well to Cambodia, Johnson and Nixon. The latter presidents killed between 2-3 million Vietnamese in a war of exterminataon.

I could have been more accurate and restricted my earlier comment to a bloodbath in SVN and not Southeast Asia. Clearly there was one in Kampuchea which as I stated was attenuated with the Vietnamese invasion in 1978.

In Iraq there was no predicted refugee crisis as occurred in Vietnam with the boat people after the war's end. That was one of the few possible horrors that did not occur subsequent to the March 19 invasion. However, Iraqi Palestinians are being targeted by Shi'a death squads and many of them are seeking repatriation in Jordan. Under Saddam, while they could not own property, they were protected and unfortunately are now victims of revenge attacks by Shi'a militias and possibly interior police squads too.

Rob Willis - 4/3/2006

"but a significant number of those survived."

Gee, you play pretty fast and loose with the morality/genocide thing, don't you? How many dead are acceptable to you?

R Willis

Ralph E. Luker - 4/3/2006

You're kidding, right?

Peter N. Kirstein - 4/3/2006

There was no bloodbath in Southeast Asia. It is true about 400,000 SVN were placed in horrid reeducation centers but a significant number of those survived. Please recall it was Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia that ended the Pol Pot era of genocide and deurbanisation fundamentalism. Yet Vietnam DID withdraw from its own "Vietnam" under U.N. guidance and supervision in 1991.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 4/3/2006

When talking to the Fulbright committee in 1971 Kerry vehemently denied that U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam would be followed by a "bloodbath." In fact, about 95% of all the Indo-Chinese killed died after our last chopper left Saigon--the Cambodians clubbed to death and the Vietnamese choosing to take their chances on rafts on the open sea. All this followed the stupid Kerry testimony rather quickly.

Charles Edward Heisler - 4/2/2006

Two weeks in a row we have been subjected to arguments that begin with a false premise (tho this time, it the claim includes an attempt make an analogy with and extends the false premise to that war) followed by biased, incomplete, and inaccurate evidence to support the faulty premise.
What is going on--despite the need for a good expository structure, maybe it would be better to simply lay out ALL the evidence and then draw the conclusion because to merely trot out one's pet prejudices and then cherry pick the examples to support those prejudices is nothing more than propagandizing.