Below is an exchange between the president of the campus peace and non-violence organization, Greg Bonett, and Ryan Gerdes. Gerdes recently authored a guest commentary published in the Iowa State Daily in which he argued for a persistent reserve of US troops in Iraq to protect human rights.
Although I appreciate your criticisms of the Republicans’ continuously escalating war-without-end, and the Democrats’ shameless victim blaming, I cannot help feeling that your plan for the U.S. forces in Iraq is fundamentally flawed. This error would be forgivable were it not for the gravity of the situation. The Iraq war that you and I see each night on CNN and BBC is not the same war as the Iraqis see in their streets or even on Al-Jazira. Theirs is a war of ubiquitous civilian death, of women and children murdered at check points, of charred bodies, still lying in their beds, seared by white phosphorus. Theirs is a war in which tens of thousands of people are held in prison camps, their fates unknown to their families, and the bodies of those who die in custody marred by the ugly scars of torture. The toll of the invasion and subsequent occupation on the civilian population is so large that nearly every Iraqi has a friend or family member that is now dead. While you may be able to convince well meaning Americans that US troops in Iraq can be transformed into an effective humanitarian force, to the Iraqis, their painful wounds unhealed, this will be a much harder sell.
Any plan intent on bringing security and freedom to the Iraqi people must begin by removing the primary force inciting (and, to some, legitimizing) the insurgency; namely the US occupation. Will the insurgency continue if US troops are removed? To some degree, yes; but it would be universally recognized as illegitimate and criminal. The remaining insurgency and sectarian fighting would be on a scale manageable by a modest international police force, ideally acting under the auspices of the UN, by invitation from the Iraqi government and populated by Muslim nations that make no claim in Iraq. Sectarian divides in Iraq have been exacerbated by the occupation and will be a major obstacle to a peaceful future in Iraq, but these divides can be overcome (as they have in the past). The money spent on the US occupation, if it was diverted to funding reconstruction and reparations under the authority of the Iraqi national government and respected international organizations, would go a long way to this end. This enormous amount of money would provide a significant opportunity for the national government to establish itself as a positive and meaningful force in the lives of Iraqis. It would also serve to ameliorate other underlying causes of the insurgency, specifically the dilapidated electric, water, and sewage infrastructure, and the soaring unemployment rate (in excess of 30%). The particular logistics of the US withdrawal and subsequent reconstruction can (and should) be debated, but one fact is painfully clear: so long as the US maintains a significant military presence in Iraq, the insurgency will enjoy some degree of legitimacy. This fact should shape our discussion of the US role in Iraq.
I thank you for taking notice of my work in the Iowa State Daily and initiating this exchange; however, as evidenced by your response, it appears that I have failed to persuade fellow members of the ‘progressive’ community of the need for U.S. involvement in Iraq to put an end to, and avoid the possible escalation of, human rights abuses. It seems to me that my failure is due, in part, to differences in what we consider to be the most pressing concern for Iraq and its people. It is apparent that you, and most members of our political persuasion, view the U.S. as the primary, though not necessarily the direct, cause of strife and chaos in Iraq. Indeed, you cite a litany of inexcusable and criminal offences committed by the U.S. occupation forces. What you fail to see is that, as disgusting as these acts of unwarranted aggression are, they pale in comparison to the sectarian violence that is tearing the country apart. It is the sectarian violence – the bombings in markets and shops, mosques, and government buildings; the death squads abducting, torturing, and murdering peoples of the opposite sect; and the sectarian cleansing – that is destroying Iraq. The insurgency is a threat to the U.S., those Iraqis unfortunate enough to be labeled as ‘collaborators’, and civilians caught in the proverbial crossfire. But the sectarian conflict is the problem of every Iraqi and will only worsen if the U.S. disengages from Iraq at this time.
As a Leftist, I believe that it is our duty to stand in solidarity with the Iraqi people being oppressed by the forces of fatalistic nationalism and fundamentalist Islam – these are the real criminals of Iraq. There is no moral equivalence between their crimes and those committed by the U.S. occupation forces. I feel ashamed when I hear my comrades bemoan the Democrats for not doing enough to stop this ‘illegal war of aggression’. ‘Cut off the funding now’, they say. ‘Bring the troops home this very instant’, they demand. ‘Bush Lied People Died’, ‘No Blood for Oil’, ‘Impeach the President’! These shrill screams fall as dull platitudes upon the ears of the suffering Iraqis, and help to fuel the engines of indifference and isolation now driving this country.
I ask you, protesters against the genocide in Darfur, do you not see the moral contradiction of advocating for action in Sudan and, at the same time, demanding that we abandon the innocent Iraqis to the religious, lumpen and fatalistic nationalist minorities now destroying Iraq? I ask you, supposed Leftists, where is your solidarity with the ordinary Iraqis, secular politicians, Palestinian refugees, doctors, intellectuals and teachers being massacred and driven from their homes in Iraq? I ask you, comrades, why is it that you are content to allow the Islamists to show a greater capacity for solidarity than any of your own movements or organizations? Your hatred of this president has blinded you to the plight of the Iraqis, and it has stolen the moral authority that you used to command.
How, then, are we to achieve peace for the Iraqi people? Would installing the UN, or another international force, bring about an end to sectarian violence or even the insurgency? Quelling the sectarian forces ravaging Iraq will require more troops than the UN can muster and, given that we appear to be witnessing the beginnings of an Islamic civil war, there are no Muslim countries that can be said to have ‘no claim in Iraq’. A neutral, ‘modest international police force’, even if it were to be assembled, would be able to do little more than stand witness to the sectarian cleansing and possible genocide, as such forces have historically done (see Lebanon and The Democratic Republic of the Congo, for instance). As for the insurgency, the UN would be seen by the Islamists as simply a tool of the West (the bombing of the UN headquarters in Iraq and the death of Sergio De Millo are a testament to this fact), while the nationalist forces are not likely to forget the devastation of their country wrought by the UN sanctions. Thus, attacks would likely occur on UN forces. The UN forces would then respond in one of two ways: the UN peacekeepers would either overreact, as they are doing in Haiti, or withdraw, as international forces tend to do when they meet determined resistance. Troops from Muslim countries would fair little better, as they would be viewed along sectarian lines and ‘appropriate’ action would taken by the sectarian thugs. In addition, the corrupt and degenerate dictatorships of the Middle East only have an interest in containing the conflict, not ending it, as it serves to distract their people from their oppression and weakens the U.S.
What then should the progressive community demand of the current administration and congress? First, we must offer assistance to those Iraqis displaced by the conflict by offering direct aid or allowing their immigration to the U.S. Second, a concerted effort, financed using U.S. and not Iraqi money, must be undertaken to improve the public infrastructure and economy of Iraq. This would include public works designed to offer employment and hope to the disaffected. Third, we must prohibit the privatization of Iraqi industries and resources from occurring without popular support. Fourth, the U.S. must exert forceful and, if necessary, coercive pressure on the nascent government of Iraq to abandon sectarian divisions, which would necessitate the removal of current Prime Minister Maliki. Finally, the U.S. military must assume a more deferential stance toward the Iraqi people; this will necessitate greater exposure and, unfortunately, lead to a greater loss of life, at least in the short run. Our soldiers have proven that at the local level, and given enough time, personal relationships between the Iraqi people and US troops can develop, which leads to a definite improvement in the Iraqis’ quality of life as well as greater security for U.S. forces. This is why so many soldiers returning from Iraq are able to say that things are not as bad as they are portrayed to be in the media. Though the situation is in fact much worse, these soldiers are not delusional but, rather, have had very positive experiences working with Iraqis after spending months coming to know and trust each other. Redeploying soldiers to the same districts and provinces is essential for nurturing these relationships.
And what about the progressive community? What should our role be? Let us heed the plea of our comrades, the Iraqi Communist Party:
“We call on all fraternal parties to develop more concrete forms of support and solidarity with the Iraqi people, Communists and democrats. This should be coupled with clear and unequivocal condemnation of all human rights violations in Iraq, whether committed by the occupation forces, by terrorists and extremist and reactionary Islamists, or by paramilitary organizations.”