The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Public Can Force Iraq Troop Withdrawal, Lawmakers and Critics Say

Emerging Splits Over Occupation Policy Give Hope to Antiwar Activists

by Michelle Chen

As proposals for exiting Iraq hit Capitol Hill, critics like Howard Zinn, Matt Rothschild and some members of Congress speak out on alternatives to continued US military presence, which some say is a catalyst of civil war.

Jan. 28, 2005 – As Congress weighs the Bush administration’s recent proposal for $75 billion in supplemental funding to bolster military activities in Iraq and Afghanistan, some individual members of Congress have diverged from the predominant Washington agenda with proposals for a complete, immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq. The polarization in Congress between the majority who believe the United States must "stay the course" and those who insist the course will lead only to more destruction reflects a growing unease among Americans over the Iraq occupation.

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While political observers opposed to the occupation say recent congressional actions mark an opportunity to foster public opposition and push forward better policy solutions, they also acknowledge that political timidity in Congress represents a challenge to bold proposals of alternatives to occupation.

Representative Lynn Woolsey (D-California) introduced the resolution in the House on Wednesday, with 23 fellow representatives calling on President Bush to develop a plan for immediate withdrawal of American forces and to work with Iraqi leaders and civil society as well as the international community to rebuild Iraq’s infrastructure.

"We got ourselves into this mess," said Rep. Woolsey in a press statement. "Now it’s time to support American troops by bringing them home."

Advocates of a US withdrawal within and outside of Congress echoed this sentiment.

“Congresspeople always need to have a fire lit under them in order to make them move, and so the progression of things will be from public opinion to Congress to national policy.” --Howard Zinn

Representative José Serrano (D-New York), who joined Rep. Woolsey and fourteen other members of Congress in issuing a letter to the president earlier this month demanding a withdrawal of troops, told The NewStandard, "I think that the best way to show love and respect and support for the troops is to bring them home tomorrow morning, bring them home tonight -- a full withdrawal."

Yet this Congress seems far from amenable to a full-scale reversal of the course the US has taken since invading Iraq. Countering the small contingent of Democrats openly calling for an end to the occupation are the majorities in both chambers, which have allowed the military situation in Iraq to escalate steadily for nearly two years.

Since 2003, the government has poured over $150 billion into the military efforts there and awarded over $10 billion in contracts for rebuilding projects to various American corporations. The official number of US soldiers in Iraq has edged up to around 150,000 as the army readies itself for violence surrounding the Iraqi elections. The military recently announced plans to keep at least 120,000 American troops in Iraq over the next two years.

The Bush administration’s proposal for an additional $75 billion to bolster the US military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2005, if approved by Congress as the last two similar bills have been, would make the coming third year of occupation the most expensive yet for the US.

Members of Congress critical of the occupation are beginning to acknowledge a need not only to speak out against the US military presence but also to develop a concrete strategy for safely leaving Iraq.

Matthew Rothschild, political analyst and editor of The Progressive magazine, said that despite a growing number of Americans who oppose the war, the White House will continue to take advantage of a permissive Congress as the US further entrenches itself in Iraq. "The last thing the Bush administration wants to do is to pull out," Rothschild told TNS, "and it doesn’t frankly care about the human costs or the costs in the budget deficit."

Citing US economic interests in Iraq’s oil fields, Rothschild warned, "The Bush administration, if left to its own devices, will be in Iraq for an eternity." The major push for a military withdrawal, in his view, would take the form of "an increasingly assertive grassroots peace movement…, which will bring increasing pressure to bear on legislators in Washington to pull the plug on this misadventure." Initiatives such as Woolsey’s, he said, are both reflective of and encouraging to activist campaigns demanding that the US pull out of Iraq.

Author and political commentator Frank Brodhead said that while currently, initiatives like the Woolsey resolution are certain to die quickly in Congress, calls for withdrawal from elected officials have the symbolic role of "giving a kind of sanction to the concept" of ending the occupation, which in turn encourages more public dialogue on the issue where it is needed most: in the legislature, the media and American communities.

Like other activists, Brodhead framed the potential roles of Congress and grassroots movements in a comparison with the conflict that inspired an era of antiwar activism: "We’re off to… a much quicker start as compared to the war in Vietnam," he said, noting that Congress at that time hesitated for years before taking any decisive action against the war.

Erik Leaver, a research fellow with the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC, believes that Rep. Woolsey’s terse, four-point statement outlining the first steps toward official withdrawal "will help force the administration and Congress … to come up with a plan, because right now, the only plan the administration has is to stay the course."

Finding an Exit

Members of Congress critical of the occupation are beginning to acknowledge a need not only to speak out against the US military presence but also to develop a concrete strategy for safely leaving Iraq. Juxtaposed with discussion of the $75 billion supplemental package, analysts say that if nothing else, strong statements demanding withdrawal articulate viable alternatives to continuing an occupation with no definite end in sight.

Representative Barbara Lee (D-California), in addition to signing onto Rep. Woolsey’s letter to President Bush, also sent another letter co-authored by Representative Pete Stark (D-California) containing more detailed demands for moving troops from the populated areas of Iraq to that country’s insecure borders as well as "ending war profiteering by US companies that receive no-bid contracts."

Rep. Lee coupled her recommendations with a denouncement of the president’s request for more military funding. "It is time for the administration to climb down from the lofty towers of rhetoric and face the reality on the ground," she said in a press statement. "The president needs to tell us what his plan is to fix this mess and get our troops home."

On Thursday, Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Massachusetts), speaking at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, declared that in Iraq, "The US military presence has become part of the problem, not part of the solution." He advocated an immediate reduction in troops after the election, more cooperation between the US and the United Nations over the rebuilding, and a complete withdrawal by early next year.

Representative Marty Meehan (D-Massachusetts) offered his own version of an Iraq exit strategy on Tuesday at the Brookings Institution. In presenting his plan, he indicted both obedient supporters and passive critics of the occupation, stating: "By rallying behind the administration’s policies, the Republican Congress failed in its responsibility to lead - and not just follow - on issues of war and peace. At the same time, many Democrats who opposed the war from the beginning have spent more energy lamenting the past than thinking about solutions for the future."

As opposed to "a cut and run strategy" involving an abrupt withdrawal, Meehan’s plan is based on "a phased drawdown that would leave a small, mobile, and low-profile US presence in Iraq for a reasonable timeframe." Estimating a full withdrawal over a period of twelve to eighteen months, Meehan outlined a timetable for simultaneously scaling back American forces and helping seed a stable political infrastructure.

However, the idea of a "gradual" withdrawal may smack of procrastination to some activists. Historian and author Howard Zinn argued that because the US occupation lies at the root of the civil war in Iraq, "the slower you phase it out, the slower you get to the end of the insurgency." Since a protracted US presence in any form will only bring on more violence, he told TNS, troops should begin leaving "as fast as ships and planes [can] bring them out."

Prospects for a Post-Occupation Iraq

Yet even advocates of immediate withdrawal recognize that in Iraq’s post-occupation rebuilding efforts, there would still be a role for outside assistance.

Zinn believes that if the US were to withdraw, the international community should step in to launch a "true reconstruction," instituted "not with troops but with negotiators and conciliators, and with food and medicine."

Leaver commented that the US has an obligation to implement some sort of plan to support Iraqi security forces, pointing out that "when we leave, the danger isn’t going to be borne by us if civil war breaks out; it’s going to be borne by Iraq’s neighbors." With an interest in establishing regional peacekeeping efforts, bordering states like Iran and Syria would need resources and political support from the US.

"We still owe it to [the Iraqis] to help them rebuild," asserted Mike Hoffman, co-founder of the activist group Iraq Veterans Against the War. "It’s just that the military aren’t the people to do this." Optimistic that the Iraqi people were ready to establish their political independence, he added, "The Iraqis are more than capable of rebuilding a country within a quick timeframe… It’s just going to come down to us supporting them properly."

Ideally, Hoffman said, the US would provide support upon the request of the Iraqis themselves. "Whatever they ask for," he said, "we should be willing to give it to them. And actually, it will probably be a bargain price compared to what we’re paying right now to rebuild that country."

The uncertainties haunting current rebuilding measures cloud Iraq’s political future, with the threat of hostility looming over the coming elections, a recent spike in violence against American troops, and moves by the administration to impart a greater military role to Iraqi forces in hopes of staving off rebels.

Yet analysts caution that this very ambiguity of the prospects for the US occupation as well as for the Iraqi people might spur on empty optimism among lawmakers. Critics say that while the Bush administration has touted events like the assault on Fallujah and the upcoming elections as watersheds, hopes fanned by the administration have evaporated as the situation has deteriorated.

Former Senator Mike Gravel (D-Alaska), who served in Congress during the Vietnam Era, reflected, "the benchmarks mean nothing." Whether the withdrawal happens immediately or several years from now, he told TNS, "the only difference would be the amount of Americans that would have been killed and Iraqis killed during the interim."

Leaver predicts that the anticlimactic outcome of the elections will be a government that few see as legitimate, because the vote will be held in the midst of intimidation, civil strife and US domination. While the administration calls the elections a basis for building sustainable democracy in Iraq and the Middle East, Leaver argues that "‘foundation’ is built on a pile of sand that’s going to erode out from underneath it."

Among Americans, said Leaver, the failure of the elections to improve the situation in Iraq would catalyze "much more vigor, much more consensus" for a withdrawal both on a grassroots level and among politicians. And if the opposition were strong enough to force a withdrawal, he projects, the entire political climate in Iraq would then shift from frustration targeted at the US military to a concerted movement by Iraqis to reshape civil society and political institutions on their own terms.

Leaver said it is difficult to gauge just how smoothly a truly independent Iraq could rebuild itself, because the divisions between Sunnis and Shiites have been deepened by the social problems plaguing the country under occupation. The power transition from Sunni to Shiite would inevitably be a "sea change," Leaver said "There’s winners and losers in that process."

Rothschild also conceded that the aftermath of a withdrawal could be chaotic, as "there’s always a risk that the bloodshed will continue." On the other hand, he argued that Iraq might have nowhere to go but up after surviving US occupation: "I think it’s quite possible that the people of Iraq will be able to determine their own fate in a way that is less bloody than the way that the Bush administration has paved."

Force of Inertia

But before any troops are flown home or the groundwork for an independent Iraq is laid, the initial and greatest challenge, according to withdrawal advocates, is the obstacle of congressional inertia.

Proponents of a withdrawal contend that any significant policy change in the White House or Congress will start with popular opposition movements on the ground. "People up on the Hill never want to say that they’re ready to lose," remarked Leaver.

"Congresspeople always need to have a fire lit under them in order to make them move," said Zinn, the historian, "and so the progression of things will be from public opinion to Congress to national policy."

Rothschild maintains that the legislature is the only vehicle for initiating a shift in Iraq military policy, and that the White House will remain keen on tightening its stronghold in Iraq unless challenged through political pressure. He also acknowledged the danger that the Bush administration, alienated by the opposition, could choose to ignore and override the demands of both Congress and the antiwar movement; in his view, that would be an affront to political freedom at home and abroad.

"If that happens," Rothschild said, "then our very democracy is at stake by this war that’s supposed to impose democracy on the people of Iraq."

But Rep. Serrano, pointing out that his forthrightness renders him anomalous among his fellow representatives, said that Congress was not in the position to make the first move. Because Republicans are unwilling to appear disloyal to the President, he said, the Bush administration would have to be the first to capitulate to a popular movement for an end to the Iraq occupation.

Rep. Serrano is nonetheless hopeful that the momentum among ordinary citizens will soon reach a critical mass. "Right now, I would say that if you got every American quietly in their living room and asked them, you’d find out that there is … hardly any support for this military adventure."

If the administration shows any sign of yielding to public pressure for a withdrawal, he predicted, the silent opposition in Congress, including Republicans harboring doubts about the occupation, will breathe "a deep sigh of relief. They’ll be supportive of it. They’ll nurture that movement along and push it."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Michelle Chen is a staff journalist.

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