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How the Antiwar Was Won

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Though it is swarming over the political high ground now, like soldiers coming into Saddam’s palaces, the left is hardly in agreement on what to do. But there’s a growing consensus on one crucial point: The war cannot be won—not now, not ever. And there is an opportunity now, in a way that there hasn’t been since Vietnam, to change America’s view of itself and its imperial reach—all else will flow from that.

The first thing the U.S. has to do is change course—admit its policy is a failure and try to open a dialogue with those it has been trying to erase. We must “publicly give up the war-fighting role,” says Antonia Chayes, a professor with affiliations at both Harvard’s law school and school of government. We must declare that we have no long-term interest in Iraq and don’t want bases there, says Tom Hayden. All the solutions arising on the left look to an international Jesus for Iraq who is not named George Bush, who is not, in fact, American. David Mack, former ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, says America must abandon the neoconservative delusion that “Washington is the new Rome” and allow Iraq’s future to be worked out by an “ad hoc international coalition” that includes two great neocon Satans, Syria and Iran.

This is not anti-American. It is realpolitik, of the sort that used to be practiced by the likes of Henry Kissinger. From the time that it dissolved the army and the Baathist party, the U.S. has erred by repeatedly disenfranchising the Arab nationalist segment of the country—the Sunnis, who regard every development in the new Iraq as a power grab by competing factions. If the new constitution goes into place, there could be fifteen years of civil war, Congressman Jim McDermott of Washington State warns, based on meetings he had with exiled Iraqis in Jordan. The insurgents operate inside a support “envelope” of the Sunni population, explains Ken Katzman of the Congressional Research Service. “The Sunnis have accepted nothing that has happened to them.”

But none of the experts at Lynn Woolsey’s hearing agreed on just when the U.S. should leave. It’s pretty evident in these discussions that, for most of the movement, calls for an immediate withdrawal are a form of sloganeering—a tactical way of calling out the war-makers, forcing them to concede that they failed miserably. At the hearing, no one actually said to get out now. Still, the thrust of the position is to set benchmarks for withdrawal in the next year.

During Vietnam, the left always called for an immediate withdrawal and meant it. Others had started the war we’d entered; the puppet state of South Vietnam had never reflected the will of the people. We could argue that whatever bloodbath ensued was a piece of homegrown postcolonial business long deferred. When Harvard professor George Wald was asked how we could extricate ourselves from Vietnam, he said, “In ships.” This time around, the movement by and large does not have that sangfroid. The thinking is, We created the problem, we have obligations. Iraq could become a failed state, Ambassador Mack says; its quagmire could become a “sinkhole,” destabilizing an entire region. Max Cleland says, “You need the international community to cover your rear end on your way out.”

That is not to say that there aren’t proponents of the out-now program. Norman Solomon says we have to get past the imperial narcissism that says the U.S. is “indispensable,” that if we walk away the whole world falls apart. “Where does it end?” he asks. “Are we going to police every aspect of the Mideast?”

The antiwar movement is, to use that great seventies expression, relevant again.Will America give it the keys to the car?

And the interesting thing about this view is that it seems to be the most popular with the American people—it resonates most strongly with an isolationist strain in the American psyche that has gathered strength only since Katrina showed we have a world of problems right here in our backyard. Senator Russ Feingold says that he held seventeen town meetings in northern Wisconsin this summer, and over and over he heard people say, “You know, if we don’t have an idea of how long this thing’s going to last, let’s just cut and run.”

The redoubtable Walter Jones made a similar comment at the hearing. “If I can use a football analogy, there would be a fourth quarter, and we would declare victory after a fourth quarter.”

In that sense, the amazing irony may be that the American people are out-lefting the left. And ultimately, so could George Bush. There is a growing belief in Washington that, as Woolsey told me she feared, George Bush’s next plan will be “just cut and run.”


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