Do Americans, even in anxious times, prefer an optimistic leader or an angry one?
It seems very hard for some people--especially those in high places, but also those striving for high places--to grasp a simple truth: The United States does not belong in Iraq. It is not our country. Our presence is causing death, suffering, destruction, and so large sections of the population are rising against us. Our military is then reacting with indiscriminate force, bombing and shooting and rounding up people simply on "suspicion."
Amnesty International, a year after the invasion, reported: "Scores of unarmed people have been killed due to excessive or unnecessary use of lethal force by coalition forces during public demonstrations, at checkpoints, and in house raids. Thousands of people have been detained [estimates range from 8,500 to 15,000], often under harsh conditions, and subjected to prolonged and often unacknowledged detention. Many have been tortured or ill-treated, and some have died in custody."
The recent battles in Fallujah brought this report from Amnesty International: "Half of at least 600 people who died in the recent fighting between Coalition forces and insurgents in Fallujah are said to have been civilians, many of them women and children."
In light of this, any discussion of "What do we do now?" must start with the understanding that the present U.S. military occupation is morally unacceptable.
The suggestion that we simply withdraw from Iraq is met with laments: "We mustn't cut and run. . . . We must stay the course. . . . Our reputation will be ruined. . . ." That is exactly what we heard when, at the start of the Vietnam escalation, some of us called for immediate withdrawal. The result of staying the course was 58,000 Americans and several million Vietnamese dead.
"We can't leave a vacuum there." I think it was John Kerry who said that. What arrogance to think that when the United States leaves a place there's nothing there! The same kind of thinking saw the enormous expanse of the American West as "empty territory" waiting for us to occupy it, when hundreds of thousands of Indians lived there already.
The history of military occupations of Third World countries is that they bring neither democracy nor security. The long U.S. occupation of the Philippines, following a bloody war in which American troops finally subdued the Filipino independence movement, did not lead to democracy, but rather to a succession of dictatorships, ending with Ferdinand Marcos.
The long U.S. occupations of Haiti (1915-1934) and the Dominican Republic (1916-1926) led only to military rule and corruption in both countries.
The only rational argument for continuing on the present course is that things will be worse if we leave. There will be chaos, there will be civil war, we are told. In Vietnam, supporters of the war promised a bloodbath if U.S. troops withdrew. That did not happen.
There is a history of dire forecasts for what will happen if we desist from deadly force. If we did not drop the bomb on Hiroshima, it was said, we would have to invade Japan and huge casualties would follow. We know now, and knew then, that was not true, but to acknowledge that did not fit the government's political agenda. The U.S. had broken the Japanese code and had intercepted the cables from Tokyo to the emissary in Moscow, which made clear that the Japanese were ready to surrender so long as the position of the Emperor was secure.
Truth is, no one knows what will happen if the United States withdraws. We face a choice between the certainty of mayhem if we stay and the uncertainty of what will follow if we leave.
There is a possibility of reducing that uncertainty by replacing a U.S. military presence with an international nonmilitary presence. It is conceivable that the United Nations should arrange, as U.S. forces leave, for a multinational team of peacekeepers and negotiators, including, importantly, people from the Arab countries. Such a group might bring together Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds, and work out a solution for self-governance, which would give all three groups a share in political power.
Simultaneously, the U.N. should arrange for shipments of food and medicine, from the U.S. and other countries, as well as a corps of engineers to begin the reconstruction of the country.
In a situation that is obviously bad and getting worse, some see the solution in enlarging the military presence. The rightwing columnist David Brooks wrote in mid-April: "I never thought it would be this bad," but he then expressed his joy that President Bush is "acknowledging the need for more troops." This fits the definition of fanaticism: "When you find you're going in the wrong direction, you double your speed."
John Kerry, sadly (for those of us who hoped for a decisive break from the Bush agenda), echoes that fanaticism. If he learned any thing from his experience in Vietnam, he has forgotten it. There, too, repeated failure to win the support of the Vietnamese people led to sending more and more troops into Tennyson's "valley of death."
In a recent piece in The Washington Post, Kerry talks about "success" in military terms. "If our military commanders request more troops we should deploy them." He seems to think that if we "internationalize" our disastrous policy, it becomes less of a disaster. "We also need to renew our effort to attract international support in the form of boots on the ground to create a climate of security in Iraq." Is that what brings security--"boots on the ground"?
Kerry suggests: "We should urge NATO to create a new out-of-area operation for Iraq under the lead of a U.S. commander. This would help us obtain more troops from major powers." More troops, more troops. And the U.S. must be in charge--that old notion that the world can trust our leadership--despite our long record of moral failure.
To those who worry about what will happen in Iraq after our troops leave, they should consider the effect of having foreign troops: continued, escalating bloodshed, continued insecurity, increased hatred for the United States in the entire Muslim world of over a billion people, and increased hostility everywhere.
The effect of that will be the exact opposite of what our political leaders--of both parties--claim they intend to achieve, a "victory" over terrorism. When you inflame the anger of an entire population, you have enlarged the breeding ground for terrorism.
What of the other long-term effects of continued occupation? I'm thinking of the poisoning of the moral fiber of our soldiers--being forced to kill, maim, imprison innocent people, becoming the pawns of an imperial power after they were deceived into believing they were fighting for freedom, democracy, against tyranny.
I'm thinking of the irony that those very things we said our soldiers were dying for--giving their eyes, their limbs for--are being lost at home by this brutal war. Our freedom of speech is diminished, our electoral system corrupted, Congressional and judicial checks on executive power nonexistent.
And the costs of the war--the $400 billion military budget (which Kerry, shockingly, refuses to consider lowering)--make it inevitable that people in this country will suffer from lack of health care, a deteriorating school system, dirtier air and water. Corporate power is unregulated and running wild.
Kerry does not seem to understand that he is giving away his strongest card against Bush--the growing disillusion with the war among the American public. He thinks he is being clever, by saying he will wage the war better than Bush. But by declaring his continued support for the military occupation, he is climbing aboard a sinking ship.
We do not need another war President. We need a peace President. And those of us in this country who feel this way should make our desire known in the strongest of ways to the man who may be our next occupant of the White House
-- Howard Zinn, the author of "A People's History of the United States," is a columnist for The Progressive.