The Real Debate About Iraq Is Between Real, Fake War Foes

The real debate about Iraq is just beginning to take shape. It's not about whether U.S. troops should begin to leave Iraq. A vast majority of Americans now agree on that point. Even at the White House, insiders say, they've accepted it as inevitable.

The real debate is between genuine opponents of the war, who really want to end our involvement in Iraq, and fake opponents who use antiwar language to mask their endorsement of a continuing, perhaps permanent, U.S. presence in that war-torn land.

Genuine opponents of the war argue that the U.S. cannot restore order in Iraq, because it is the U.S. occupation forces (civilian as well as military) that are the main source of disorder. You can't put out a fire by heaping more fuel on it. Iraq will remain war-torn until all U.S. military personnel, civilian contractors, and private security forces leave. So they should leave. All of them. ASAP. Genuine antiwar voices have been making these points for a long time. For most of that time, they were derided or ignored.

Now that the war is so unpopular, everyone with their finger to the political wind is rushing to catch the antiwar train before it leaves the station. Suddenly that train is very crowded. Genuine war opponents have a hard time getting their voices heard, since many of the newcomers have much more political clout and media savvy.

But the genuine faction now has something new to say, which you won't hear for a while in the mainstream media: Far too many of the newcomers are fakes. They shout loudly that they want the war to end now. But they choose their words very carefully. They talk about withdrawing troops but are careful never to say "all troops." They endorse withdrawing "combat" troops (a technical term that covers less than half of all U.S. forces in Iraq) or just "starting to withdraw" troops. They oppose "establishing" permanent bases, but they don't say anything against keeping the bases (some of them small cities) that have already been built. And they would let the Pentagon decide which bases are officially "permanent." They never mention the ever-increasing air war, nor the civilian forces.

Behind that smokescreen, the fakes are busy building support for the next phase of the war. In that phase, tens of thousands (perhaps up to a hundred thousand) U.S. troops would stay in Iraq. What would they do? There is an emerging bipartisan consensus among the fakes. Some troops would be "redeployed" to the north, to protect our friends the Kurds, and others "redeployed" to Afghanistan. Some would stay to "defend" Iraq's borders, which conveniently happen to be the borders of Iran and Syria too. Some would wage the war on terrorism inside Iraq. Some would "train" (read: help to lead) the Iraqi government's fledgling army. The top three Democratic candidates for president, among others, espouse all these plans.

How can they call this ending the war? The premise is that most Americans don't really care how many Iraqis are killed, as long as few American soldiers are killed. So the public would assume the war is over, stop paying attention, and allow U.S. forces to continue their long-range plan for securing a permanent and decisive presence in Iraq. Those forces (including an increased proportion of Air Force and Special Forces) could do anything the government wants them to do, since no one would be watching. Meanwhile, the thousands of civilian security personnel could continue to do whatever they like and be wholly unaccountable.

Genuine war opponents often oppose this vision of continued war on moral grounds. But they don't have to. They can just point out the obvious practical problem: The fakes, who are trying to fool the nation, are most of all fooling themselves.

The fakes assume that if the U.S. military changes its modus operandi, far fewer Americans would die. Do they think the Iraqi resistance fighters, who risk their lives to oust the 160,000 U.S. troops and countless civilian security forces, will call off the fight once there are "only" 80,000 or 50,000 U.S. troops and countless civilian security forces still occupying their land? Do they think Iraqis will let long-term U.S. forces go about their violent business without interference? Do they think Iraqis will not see and resist a continuing U.S. effort to control their internal affairs? Do they think the war will really end and Americans will stop dying? If so, they are dreaming.

The only way to stanch the loss of American blood is to end the war - really, genuinely, completely. So the debate between genuine and fake antiwar voices is the only real debate about ending the war. The first step is to unmask the fakes and make them come clean about their true position. That means: read and listen carefully; separate the wheat from the chaff; and spread the word.

Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Monsters To Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin. Email:

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