Try Red Pepper in print with our pay-as-you-feel subscription. You decide the price, from as low as £2 a month.

More info ×

Go home, George! Go home!

US politics is edging closer to the point at which politicians will have no choice but to pack up and get out of Iraq, writes Robert Dreyfuss

November 1, 2005
8 min read

In early September 2005, one of the US’s leading conservatives, senator John Warner of Virginia, who chairs the senate armed service committee, announced plans to call defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld for hearings on the mess in Iraq. Significantly, Warner noted with alarm that public opinion on Iraq is approaching the “tipping point”, after which support for the occupation would no longer be sustainable. “The level of concern is, I think, gradually rising,” he told the New York Times. “I don’t see that the Congress is going to suddenly pull back like in the days of Vietnam. It is the desire of the Congress to continue to work with and support the administration. But there is always a tipping point.”

Like pressure building up beneath the ground before an earthquake, a vast store of pent-up energy is swelling beneath the US body politic over the failed war in Iraq. To be sure, so far that pressure has barely begun to register in open political debate: it is nearly impossible to find a leading politician, Republican or Democrat, willing to put forward a concrete exit strategy or to support the idea of setting a date for withdrawal. But there are tremors, and it’s clear that a political earthquake could come as early as the beginning of 2006.

It isn’t just the Democrats who are starting to waver in their support for the war. Quietly, behind the scenes, many Republican members of Congress – worried about the effects of the public’s disenchantment with President Bush’s war when voters go to the polls next November – are expressing grave doubts. “I’ve been hearing from a lot of folks on the Hill, from Republicans, who are worried about Iraq,” says a former senior State Department official. “They’re calling me to ask, How long can this go on? And when members of Congress ask How long? they mean, Can it go on like this until November, 2006?”

Public opinion, which began shifting decisively against the Bush administration’s Iraq policy one year ago, now overwhelmingly favours getting out; and clear majorities now say that the war in Iraq wasn’t worth fighting in the first place. A stunning poll from CNN and USA Today released recently asked voters, “If you could talk with President George W Bush for 15 minutes about the situation in Iraq, what would you, personally, advise him to do?” Far and away the most popular answer was: get out now. Forty-one per cent picked: “Pull the troops out and come home. End it.” Others picked more subtle variations on the same theme: “Come up with and execute a well-thought-out exit strategy (6 per cent); “Join in and work with the United Nations” (3 per cent); and “Admit to past mistakes. Apologize” (3 per cent). A total of 53 per cent picked options opposed to Bush’s stubborn, stick-it-out policy. Only 18 per cent picked “Finish what we started”, with scattered support for other stay-the-course options.

Not surprisingly, anti-war sentiment among Democratic politicians is being championed mostly by the party’s hard-core left. More than 60 members of Congress, all Democrats, have joined an informal “Out of Iraq Caucus” in the House of Representatives. In mid-September, two dozen of them attended a rump, Democrats-only hearing to examine the possibility of exiting Iraq.

The hearing was organised by Lynn Woolsey, a California Democrat. It had to be held in a tiny corner room in a House office building, with barely enough room for members of Congress and half a dozen panellists to sit crammed in cheek by jowl, because Republicans wouldn’t cede any meeting space for the event. Still, the fact that so many Democrats showed up is an important sign that the search for answers to the quagmire in Iraq is increasingly attracting the attention of members of Congress. The star of the hearing was the lone Republican who showed up, Representative Walter Jones of North Carolina, a staunch supporter of the war in Iraq in 2003, who has reversed his position and has now introduced a bill in Congress asking Bush to develop a strategy for getting out. Since the hearing, Jones has recruited at least five other Republicans to co-sponsor his bill.

There are also important cracks among the foreign policy elite. Fatal misgivings about the war in Iraq have been registered by men such as John Deutch, the former CIA director, who proclaimed the war lost and called for a “prompt withdrawal plan”; Gary Hart, the former Democratic senator and presidential candidate, who criticized Democrats for lack of courage in confronting the war; and William Odom, a hard-line conservative and former director of the super-secret National Security Agency, who penned a widely-read document entitled What’s wrong with cutting and running? In the senate, senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, a Democrat, has called for setting a date for US withdrawal, putting him at odds with the Democratic leadership. And at least one Republican senator is speaking out. “We should start figuring out how we get out of there,” said senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a conservative Republican and Vietnam veteran. “I think our involvement there has destabilised the Middle East. And the longer we stay there, I think the further destabilisation will occur.”

Still, in calls to members of Congress, foreign policy experts, and Washington think-tanks, there is precious little evidence that plans to develop an exit plan are underway. The premier US research outfits – such as the Brookings Institution and the Council on Foreign Relations – have yet to announce any ideas for an exit strategy. The CFR’s chief, Leslie Gelb, a renowned foreign policy guru and a liberal hawk who backed the war in 2003, is now deeply discouraged about the situation in Iraq. “We’re all grasping at straws,” he told a packed meeting of the CFR in Washington. “It’s a horrible situation.” But Gelb has little to say about how to end it.

In the corridors of power – at the Pentagon, at the State Department, in the CIA – the professional civil servants who make the wheels of foreign policy turn are blackly pessimistic on Iraq. In the military, experts are dusting off contingency plans for a quick exit, and most analysts believe that sometime early next year the Pentagon will start to draw back US forces, albeit slowly.

“You’d assume, and I know you do, that we have contingency plans for exiting Iraq at various rates,” says General David Petraeus, who spent the past two years in Iraq leading the US effort to train Iraqi army and police forces. But Petraeus refuses to say a word about any of those plans. Meanwhile, at the State Department, lower level officials are hashing out plans to find a diplomatic solution to the war in Iraq, perhaps involving some of Iraq’s neighbours, perhaps through negotiations or talks with the nationalist and former Ba’ath Party, Sunni-led resistance in Iraq. But so far, according to all accounts, at the top levels of the US government, there is not the slightest willingness to explore a non-military solution.

In the end, if the war in Iraq is to be concluded before 2009, when President Bush leaves office, there are only three paths toward that goal. Each could result from the combination of the growing public disenchantment with the war and the quagmire-like nature of the battle itself.

First, consider what happened in March 1968 to President Lyndon B Johnson in the wake of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. Then, a group of foreign policy wise men, led by Averill Harriman and Clark Clifford, met with LBJ to read him the riot act. Vietnam, they told him, was an unwinnable war. Johnson halted the bombing, sought talks with North Vietnam, and announced his decision not to run for re-election. Today, a team of similar gurus, perhaps led by the Republican veterans of the first Bush administration such as General Brent Scowcroft and former Secretary of State James Baker, joined by Colin Powell and others, could collectively get to Bush and persuade him to change course.

Second, it’s not impossible that the members of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff and others in the uniformed military, many of whom have already reached the conclusion that the war in Iraq cannot be won, will descend on Rumsfeld and convince him to approach the president about leaving Iraq.

Or third, the burgeoning political opposition to the war among the public might cause the Republican Party’s political strategists to conclude that continuing the war will result in catastrophic losses for the party in 2006 and 2008. Such fears are already leading many political experts in Washington to conclude that the Bush administration will try to have at least a token military force reduction next year in order to calm public concern in advance of the November 2006 congressional election.

One, or perhaps all, of these scenarios could begin to unfold over the next several months. If not, then there is the other exit strategy: a helter-skelter scramble for the exit forced by chaos and civil war in Iraq. At Lynn Woolsey’s anti-war congressional hearing, this option was put most succinctly by Max Cleland, a former senator from Georgia who lost both legs and an arm in Vietnam. “The key word in -exit strategy- is not ‘exit’ but ‘strategy’,” he said. Citing Vietnam, he declared: “We need an exit strategy we choose. Or, it will certainly be chosen for us.”Robert Dreyfuss covers national security for Rolling Stone and writes frequently for The Nation, The American Prospect, and Mother Jones. His book, Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam, has just been published by Henry Holt/Metropolitan (New York, 2005)

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced

India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya

North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero

The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava

France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati

This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help

PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank

Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media

I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to

We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS

Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank

Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland

Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones

The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya

The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.

An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now

The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee

Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell

Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths

Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe

How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency