What is withdrawing ‘responsibly’ from Iraq?

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Phyllis Bennis, author and senior fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies speaks to Paul Jay about Obama’s plan for withdrawal as the war in Iraq marks its sixth year anniversary. She says, "the Obama administration has a commitment to a major reduction in the size of the occupation," but continues, "I am less convinced that there is a real commitment to a real withdrawal."

Story Transcript

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What is withdrawing ‘responsibly’ from Iraq?

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network, coming to you from Washington, DC, six years after the invasion of Iraq. And we’re hearing two different views on how things are going. Here’s a take from the US army; another from Al Jazeera.

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We are always our own greatest critics. We always want to get better. We would love to be further ahead in all areas of where we are right now, but we are confident that we have the right models in place, that we have the right programs in place, and that this strategic partnership with the Iraqi people, the Iraqi security forces, the government of Iraq, that has produced such dramatic results in the past, if we can maintain that strategic relationship, it will continue to produce even more results for the future.

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A Baghdad street bustling with life after years of relentless violence. Six years ago American and coalition forces invaded, and the country fell into a spiral of turbulence where nobody felt safe. Many in this city say conditions have improved, but still more needs to be done.

(VOICEOVER TRANSLATION): Security is now about 55 percent because there are bombings and explosions. We still don’t feel safe to go out with the family or do anything.

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JAY: So two views of the state of things in Iraq. To help us deconstruct all of this, we’re joined by Phyllis Bennis of the Institute of Policy Studies. She just wrote a book called Ending the Iraq War: A Primer. Thanks for joining us, Phyllis.

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Good to be with you, Paul.

JAY: So the general talks about the Americans’ strategic relationship with the Iraqi people and government. So what do you make of that?

BENNIS: Well, I think there’s no question that the US military occupation forces have a strategic relationship with the government in Iraq. The government in Iraq is fundamentally dependent on the presence of the US military. The notion of a strategic relationship with the Iraqi people, I think that’s a much bigger stretch, to put it, perhaps, politely. All the polls indicate a higher and higher and higher level, every year, of opposition to the US presence. Now, is it true that you can find Iraqis who say, "The soldiers in my neighborhood seem to be protecting my little neighborhood"? I’m sure that’s true. I have no doubt that that’s true. But as a strategic reality, the notion that the US military somehow sees itself as accountable to the wishes of the Iraqi people, I think, is a spurious argument.

JAY: And in fact isn’t that actually what the real problem is for US policy right now, that it’s a strategic relationship? That’s actually not working, ’cause what they’ve created is this situation where al-Maliki’s playing off with Iran, playing off with the US. And the big unknown is: exactly whose strategic relationship will it be if and when US troops do get out of Iraq?

BENNIS: Well, I think that is one of the big problems. Of course, it’s not a new reality, that Maliki has played off various sides against the middle. The Maliki government and most of the individuals in it spent the majority of the years of exile during the regime of Saddam Hussein—they were not there living under sanctions; they were living in relative luxury, backed by the Iranian regime and with very close ties to the Iranian regime, which haven’t changed. The Maliki government was quite flexible—shall we say elastic? Stretchable? Able to develop a whole new set of strategic relations with the United States, who now keep them in power. But they have not given up on that relationship with Iran. So it’s a very complex web of realities. The big question is: will this government survive without the US troops? I think it’s a serious question. I’m not at all convinced that it will. But if it doesn’t, it will be because it does not have the indigenous support of the people, that it doesn’t have the indigenous credibility to remain, without US backing.

JAY: And what do you think happens in US policy about getting out? If "getting out" means the fall of Maliki, whether it’s chaos or just some other section of the elite that may not be so favorable to US interests that takes power, do they still get out?

BENNIS: I think that the Obama administration has a commitment to a major reduction in the size of the occupation. I’m less than convinced that there is a real commitment to a real withdrawal. We heard in President Obama’s speech that he said not only—and we can argue about why the either 16 months or 19 months is obviously too long—but that there will be a partial withdrawal over 19 months, a significant one, and that all the troops—he said he has the intention of withdrawing all the troops according to the US-Iraqi agreement, the so-called SOFA, by the end of 2011. Now, it was important that he said it was his intention. An intention is not a commitment. And I think one of the things we have to watch for is the likelihood that there will be a renegotiation of the very terms of the SOFA that call for a complete withdrawal. This government, being as dependent as it is on US support, there is no doubt that either on their own volition or with the request of a quiet nudge from one or another general, to say, "Listen, you guys, can’t you sort of ask us to stay a little longer.

JAY: But one of the journalists, Leila Fadel, we interviewed from Baghdad in the last couple of days has actually described that all the different political elites have their militia, different sections of the elite, and Maliki’s militia is the US army. So the question will be: what does he do without a major part of his militia? Now, most of the discourse right now uses this term "responsible." We have to leave responsibly. But, of course, it begs the question: responsible to whom? There’s one responsibility to military families. It may be just get the hell out because the soldiers won’t be shot at anymore. There’s a responsibility to geopolitical American interests and the whole jigsaw puzzle of US interests in the region, and there’s the question of responsibility to the Iraqi people. So if you were going to take up that as the issue, how America pays back or has some responsibility to the Iraqis, what does "leaving responsibly" mean to you?

BENNIS: I think it means ending the military occupation immediately, as fast as possible. It took what? Six months to get in? It should take less than that to get out. That means a real withdrawal. All the troops. Not only combat brigades or combat troops that are re-labeled or re-missioned all these new words that we’re hearing. All the troops out. All the US-paid foreign mercenaries out. That’s another 150 to 160,000 not-quite-soldiers that are there to bolster the US military. Shut all the military US bases; turn them back over to the Iraqis. And stop all claims on Iraqi oil. That’s what it means to withdraw. Then—that’s only step one.

JAY: ‘Cause that’s not yet, still, dealing with what Iraqis are left with.

BENNIS: No. Then we have huge obligations to the people of Iraq. In my view, we can’t begin to make good on those obligations for reparations, for compensation, for real reconstruction, for support for Iraqi-backed international assistance in nation-building and peace-keeping issues. But we can’t do that until the end of the military occupation. Then we go to step two, which is to make good on our obligations to the people of Iraq.

JAY: So the counterargument to that that we hear over and over again is the situation will be in—the word "chaos" is used, "ethnic rivalry," "interference from regional countries." A picture is painted of such a situation where you couldn’t have reconstruction. Is that a reality? Or are we just being—?

BENNIS: Look, anyone who says, "I know exactly what’s going to happen when the US troops pull out," whether it’s next week as I advocate or in 19 months for part of them, as President Obama says, or in 100 years, as John McCain says, anyone who says, "I know exactly what’s going to happen," is lying. No one knows exactly what’s going to happen. I think we can anticipate certain things that are unlikely—not inevitable, but likely. Will there be a spike in violence? I’m afraid there probably will. I think it will be very short-term, and I think it will mean, for the first time since the US invasion, a change so that there will be the possibility of Iraqis themselves being able, for the first time, to separate out those forces, Iraqi and others, who are what I consider terrorist forces, those who are attacking Iraqi civilians. Isolate them as a fighting force and eliminate them as a fighting force when they don’t have to deal with the reality that those people are also fighting against the hated US occupation. That’s going to change the entire scenario. So I think that that spike in violence that many people anticipate, which I also think will probably happen, will be very short. The reality is the presence of the US troops is not protecting Iraqis from that now.

JAY: Well, they say it’s dampening the rivalries over the control of oil, essentially.

BENNIS: What we’re hearing is that the situation is much less violent now.

JAY: Because the US has picked a section of the elite led by Maliki, is beefing up their forces, and, by doing that, imposing a kind of stasis on this [inaudible]

BENNIS: Well, I think that’s part of it. I don’t think that’s absolutely the case. I think there are other forces that are on the rise as well. I think the question of Kurdish demands for independence and/or some version of autonomy remain unresolved. The fighting in Kirkuk is likely to escalate, with or without US troops. So I think that the situation is a very volatile one. But I think that the bottom line is that Iraqis themselves are going to have to sort out some of the consequences of the US invasion.

JAY: Okay.

BENNIS: All of this violence is a consequence of that.

JAY: So let’s say President Obama [inaudible] "Oh my God, I just heard Phyllis say, ‘Get out now.’ I’m heading out. We’re out in six months." So what does responsible mean after that point? You talked a bit about it, but elaborate a bit.

BENNIS: It means supporting the United Nations financially, not controlling it, not determining what kind of peacekeeping is made available to the Iraqis. I think that we have to recognize that the new leadership that emerges in Iraq is not likely to look like what we want. They’re not likely to talk the talk of Western-style democracy. It’s likely to be far more religious-based than I’m comfortable with as a very secular person. I don’t want any religious anything in my life, but it’s not my call. That’s the bottom line. It’s not our call. We don’t get to choose.

JAY: And even religious forces so far have been the ones calling for elections. I mean, certainly Sistani and people like that.

BENNIS: Exactly. And I think that we’re seeing shifting alliances. The New York Times and others have been talking just in the last couple of days, on this anniversary moment, of shifting alliances between various forces in Iraq. Which one’s up? Which one’s down? Who’s up? Who’s down? And that’s going to continue to change. The problem is, when the US tries to decide who’s best by our definition, who is the most democratic, who is the most pro-Western, you know, are we going to end up in Iraq with a government that likes the US? Probably not.

JAY: Because that seems—it really seems what’s determining the decision to get out or not is in fact US strategic interests as envisioned, as it always has been, not a break with the thinking of the past.

BENNIS: But that’s what President Obama needs to produce. He talked about change we can believe in. He talked about not just ending this war, but ending the mindset that leads to war. The mindset that leads to war is the mindset that says that we as a Americans have the right to determine what kind of a government Iraqis should have, what kind of parties they should elect. You know, we heard for years ad nauseum from President Bush and others about the purple fingers. You know, clearly, Iraqis wanted to vote. Clearly, it was a huge, brave gesture on their part to take the very real risk of going to the polls in those election days. And they risked being killed. They wanted democracy. (Let me just finish.) What they were given the opportunity to vote for were not parties they had created; they were parties that had been vetted by the United States to say, "This party’s okay. That party’s not okay." Who are we to tell the Iraqis what kind of parties they should be allowed to vote for?

JAY: Well, there’s a vote coming up this summer which the US will have less control of, and that’s the referendum on whether or not this withdrawal or security forces agreement is going to be confirmed or not.

BENNIS: Well, we also see a big question whether that referendum will be held. I think that this is something we need to keep an eye on and be very public about in demanding to make sure that as long as the US is still occupying that country and it’s up to the US, that our government comply with the terms of that agreement. I think that there are forces in the Maliki government who don’t want that referendum held, not because they’re afraid people won’t want to vote for what it says, what it calls for, including a complete end to the US occupation, but they’re afraid that people may demand that it happen sooner, that people are going to say, "Hey, 19 months for half of it and 3.5 years is just too long."

JAY: Well, we’ll look ahead. We’ll keep following the story of this referendum. And we’ll also—hopefully, President Obama will watch this interview and consider some of the things you’ve said. And if any of you watching happen to be talking to President Obama in the next few days, can you send him the link if you—? He’s apparently a Blackberry addict, so you can send him a link to the story. Thanks for joining us on The Real News Network.

BENNIS: Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network. And don’t forget the "donate" button, because we can’t do this if you don’t click "donate."