Rick Perlstein on leaving Iraq


posted to www.marxmail.org on January 14, 2004


This week's Village Voice has a disappointing article by Rick Perlstein titled "Last Copter Out of Baghdad" (http://www.villagevoice.com/issues/0402/perlstein.php). Rick is the author of the much-acclaimed "Before the Storm" that argues that the Goldwaterite movement of the 1960s was ultimately more important than the radical movement. Rick interviewed both me and Henwood, who was a rightist in his freshman year at Yale. I was in the Young Americans for Freedom in 1960, mainly out of a desire to scandalize liberals, a consistent aspect of my political profile.


Rick believes that Bush is ready to wash his hands of the Iraqi mess out of a desire to secure a second term, in the same fashion that Nixon decided to pull out of Vietnam. He writes:


Secretly, and behind the back of the South Vietnamese government, Nixon's emissary, Henry Kissinger, negotiated a face-saving exit with the enemy, one that let the enemy keep troops in South Vietnam—guaranteeing South Vietnamese collapse. Publicly we proclaimed the fiction that our allies were strong enough to get along without us. Actually, Nixon and Kissinger knew they could only hold on long enough for the American people to forget about them. On October 26, 1972, Henry Kissinger announced that negotiations had succeeded, that "peace is at hand." On November 7, Richard Nixon won his 49 states against the Democrat, George McGovern. A weary nation had proved perfectly willing to acquiesce in a political swindle. Nixon had moved the goalpost to the 50-yard line, then awarded himself a touchdown.


Because, according to Rick, the war is going so badly in Iraq, Bush has no recourse but to pull off a Nixonian maneuever. Considering the fact that Bush and all of his underlings (as well as David Letterman) wear American flag pins, you can understand how such a connection might be made. But pulling out might not be such a good thing, no matter if it satisfies the antiwar movement's demand to bring the troops home.


Rick cites Sidney Blumenthal, a Clinton White House official who was betrayed by Christopher Hitchens: "It could be that by setting these artificial deadlines and abdicating a good deal of responsibility that the Bush administration simply accelerates the centrifugal forces within Iraq." Those centrifugal forces are the Kurds, Sunnis and Shi'ites who might wage a civil war for control over their nation. Rick worries that "we" might leave Iraq "even more unstable than we found it". (What was it that Tonto told the Lone Ranger about "us" and "we"?) Here is Rick's doomsday scenario:


Violent factions across the country appear to be gearing up for . . . something. After the capture of Saddam Hussein, a call from clerics to their followers to refrain from attacking one another held for a few days; then assailants in a passing car opened fire on a Sunni mosque in Baghdad—drive-by sectarian warfare. Now Sunnis are arming themselves in militias, a counterbalance, they say, to the "Mahdi Army" of Shiite cleric and occupation critic Sheikh Muqtada al-Sadr. They promise to turn their new forces, part of a "Clear Victory Movement," against the Americans unless Sunnis get sufficient power in the post-war settlement.


Meanwhile, the Bush administration has bowed to pressure to keep the Kurdish region semi-autonomous—for fear that any other decision would set off a Kurdish uprising—and Kurds now talk of annexing oil-rich Kirkuk. That angers the Turks—raising the possibility of a regional conflict—and sets a precedent for dividing Iraq into Yugoslavia-style ethnic enclaves. Which paves the way for possible Yugoslavia-style ethnic cleansing, considering that the greatest population of Kurds lives not in the protected north but in Baghdad. Will Sunni militia leaders start demanding these Kurds return to "their" homeland?


These prospects lead him to opine "As in Vietnam, the allies we plan to leave behind in our stead inspire little confidence." I don't want to sound petty, but I would hardly call the Sunnis allies. Obviously, the same forces on the ground will exist that existed before we got there. A Sunni population that had historically enjoyed privileges, the Kurds fighting for an independent state and the Shi'ites, who appear to want to turn Iraq into Iran. Not an inspiring mix, but certainly one not much more daunting than Lebanon, Israel, the Congo, the Philippines, Indonesia, Fiji, Georgia, Chechnya or any of a dozen other hotbeds of ethnic and political strife. For that matter, not that much different than the early history of the USA. I suspect that if the South had won the civil war, someone like General Sherman would have been put on trial for war crimes just as some Serb generals are on trial at the Hague. Of course, in affairs such as these, the victors always dictate who should be tried and who should be prosecuting.


Ostensibly addressing all of the demons of the left, including Ramsey Clark and the WWP especially, Rick concludes his article with a challenge:


War opponents might be tempted to take heart: If President Bush wants to end an ugly and wasteful war in order to get elected, let him.


They might want to heed the example of Richard Nixon. Little more than one month after he won his 1972 re-election, he initiated the most savage bombing campaign in the history of the war—in the history of warfare. It was a little shock and awe at Christmastime. He was still convinced America could prevail militarily: No peace, no honor. Here's to hoping George W. Bush is a little less cynical.


Well, the antiwar movement, authority-questioning GI's and the Vietnamese resistance were powerful enough to persuade Nixon to remove ground troops, but it was not powerful enough to stop the bombing. So would Rick have argued for a continuing ground troop occupation of Vietnam, as some Nation magazine liberals argue for Iraq today? I am glad that he at least has the savvy not to come out and actually articulate such a backward position, if he does.