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WHAT WE THINK
The new establishment critics of the U.S. occupation of Iraq
Against the war or against losing?

September 2, 2005 | Page 3

THE DEEPENING crisis of the Iraq occupation and the new wave of antiwar opposition sparked by Cindy Sheehan's vigil in Crawford, Texas, have led some prominent figures in the U.S. political and media establishment to call for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. But if you look a little closer, these critics aren't so much antiwar as anti-losing-the-war.

On the Republican side, Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel hammered the Bush administration's recent string of setbacks in Iraq, and said on ABC's "This Week" news program: "We should start figuring out how we get out of there."

For the Democrats, former-senator-turned-commentator Gary Hart chastised party leaders as "cowardly" for "staying silent during such a crisis."

As New York Times columnist Frank Rich wrote: "The Democrats are hoping that if they do nothing, they might inherit the earth as the Bush administration goes down the tubes." A fair observation--but the next sentences of Rich's column are telling. "Whatever the dubious merits of this Kerryesque course as a political strategy, as a moral strategy, it's unpatriotic," he continues. "The earth may not be worth inheriting if Iraq continues to sabotage America's ability to take on Iran and North Korea, let alone al-Qaeda."

Liberals like Rich and Hart represent an important development that activists need to see for what it is--the rise of an "antiwar" opposition to Bush that isn't against war, just the failed strategy of this war. Left-wing columnist Norman Solomon put it perfectly when he wrote: "A lot of what sounds like opposition to the war is more like opposition to losing the war."

Advocating withdrawal from Iraq on such terms isn't at all incompatible with a commitment to empire and imperialism. In fact, a significant section of the foreign policy experts--not to mention the Pentagon brass--has reached the same conclusion. They fear that "staying the course" in Iraq will harm the U.S. government's ability to carry out its other imperial plans elsewhere--above all, by breaking the Pentagon military machine.

As Andrew Bacevich, a former military officer and self-described conservative, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed article, "Getting out now makes sense not just to avoid further running up our bill, but because doing so holds out the prospect of a more favorable result."

This isn't antiwar. It's about preserving America's war-making abilities with a tactical retreat from a losing battle.

As Solomon continued, "It matters why people are critical of the U.S. war effort in Iraq. If the main objections stem from disappointment that American forces are not winning, then the war makers in Washington retain the possibility of creating the illusion that they may yet find ways to make the war right."

The antiwar movement can't limit itself to opposing the Iraq occupation because it is unwinnable and is wasting the lives of U.S. soldiers--though both things are true.

What happens if the Bush administration gets desperate enough to launch an attack against Syria or Iran--perhaps a missile strike with the stated excuse of demolishing Iran's supposed nuclear program? Antiwar activists who understand that the war against Iraq is illegitimate can't for a moment accept that a war against Iran--with or without nuclear weapons--is legitimate.

When Richard Nixon faced an impasse in Vietnam, his solution was to spread the war--to Cambodia and Laos--and intensify the bombing campaign against North Vietnam. This coincided with the gradual withdrawal of U.S. ground forces--by more than four-fifths in Nixon's first three years in office--and thus a drop in the number of American war dead. But for the people of Southeast Asia, the carnage grew worse.

The antiwar movement of that time didn't accept the withdrawal of ground forces as the end of their struggle. This is because the mainstream of the movement had come to understand that the issue of U.S. casualties was only one aspect of a larger political question. The majority of the movement sympathized with and supported the struggle of the Vietnamese to drive the U.S. out of Vietnam.

Today, unfortunately, this remains a minority position in the antiwar movement opposing the occupation of Iraq. Indeed, those who have raised the question of Iraq's struggle against occupation--including supporters of this newspaper--have been dismissed as ultra-left cranks or, worse, slandered as supporting "the killing of U.S. soldiers" in Iraq.

The effect of this campaign is to squelch discussion among antiwar activists about the right of Iraqis to oppose the occupation of their country and the violence of the occupiers--on the grounds that such a discussion would alienate "mainstream America."

But Cindy Sheehan has raised precisely this question--and she has done far more in the past month to reach out to the millions of people with growing doubts about the occupation, who until now have lacked the confidence to give them active expression.

In a conference call with reporters last month, she blamed the violence in Iraq on the U.S. presence--and said that she held Bush responsible for her son's death. "The person who killed my son," she said, "I have no animosity for that person at all." Any attempt to contain a discussion of such ideas can only weaken the antiwar struggle.

The vigil in Crawford was an unexpected spark for the movement, and it has set the stage for an exciting buildup to the national mobilization on September 24--now a unified demonstration in Washington, D.C., after an agreement by the United for Peace and Justice and International ANSWER coalitions.

September should be the month that challenges Bush's occupation as never before--as Sheehan and her supporters set off on bus tours from Crawford; antiwar member of British parliament George Galloway begins his own national speaking tour, joined by luminaries such as Jane Fonda; and antiwar activists on campuses across the U.S. get back to work.

Part of building the antiwar movement, though, is taking up the political debates that face us, so that we can organize a stronger movement.

The antiwar struggle shouldn't limit itself to opposing the occupation because of the loss of U.S. lives--and should reject outright the argument that Iraq is a distraction from the "real war." We should take up the suffering of Iraqis--and, equally, their right to struggle to end that suffering.

In short, we can't be against losing the war. We have to be against the war--period.

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