Iraq? Where’s that? Most Americans no longer seem to know and evidently could care less, but don’t tell that to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, various key military figures and Washington officials, or some of the neocons, warrior-pundits, and liberal war-fighters circling them. They continue to relentlessly promote Iraq as a mission-never-accomplished-but-never-to-be-ended experience. Somehow, two decades after our Iraq wars began, they still can’t get enough of them. Learning curve? Don't even think about it. It’s as if they’re trapped in that old Thomas Wolfe novel, You Can’t Go Home Again.
For more than a year now, a crew of lobbyists eager to abrogate the withdrawal agreement the Bush administration negotiated with the Iraqis have been dropping the broadest of hints. Should the Iraqis ask, they say, the U.S. military must stay in that country (whatever war-ending pledges President Obama might once have made). General Martin Dempsey, the newly appointed Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, is typical. Only weeks before the president picked him, he reaffirmed his support for “keeping American troops in Iraq beyond December if requested by Iraqi leaders.”
And when Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki nonetheless continued to insist on sticking to an end of 2011 withdrawal date for all U.S. troops (and assumedly for emptying those monster military bases the Pentagon sank billions of dollars into), top Washington officials began pleading, wheedling, and undoubtedly pressuring him in all sorts of ways to change his mind. Now, he’s provisionally done so.
Many are the explanations offered in Washington for why it's our duty not to leave, each one feebler than the next. Iraq is not “stable” enough for us to go (as if our invasion and occupation weren’t significantly responsible for that country's instability), or the Iraqis have no real air force and so can’t yet defend their country from potential external foes. (Of course, Iraq once had a powerful air force, but the Bush administration consciously refused to rebuild it, taking it for granted that the country would have all the air power it needed in the form of the U.S. Air Force.) Or consider the latest explanation: on the eve of his final tour of the imperium -- he gets to withdraw, but Washington doesn’t -- retiring Secretary of Defense Gates insisted that the U.S. military should stay to make the Iranians miserable.
Ah well, any port in a storm. As it happens, Iraqi politicians are well known for talking themselves silly and delaying action interminably, so whether the U.S. military actually leaves or not may come down to the wire, and a moving wire at that. Even then, if Maliki ends up saying no, there’s one small problem: we still won't actually be leaving, a point vividly made by Peter Van Buren, author of the upcoming We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, who spent last year embedded with the U.S. military in Iraq while working for the State Department. In his latest piece, “Occupying Iraq, State Department-style,” he wonders just how “withdrawal” syncs up with a post-withdrawal State Department Iraqi “mission” of 17,000, including 5,500 armed mercs and a private air force.
Here’s a question under the circumstances: Once diplomacy, the supposed art of peace, becomes war, why not merc diplomats as well? Perhaps the rent-a-diplomat will become a twenty-first-century figure.