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Iraq: just about time to go

January 20th, 2005

The latest terrorist bombings in Iraq came closer than usual to home for Australia, with two soldiers suffering (reportedly) minor injuries in an attack on the Australian embassy[1], while 20 more innocent Iraqis were killed, adding to the tens of thousands already killed by both/all sides in this terrible war.

It’s pretty clear by now that Iraq has descended into something approaching full-scale civil war and that, as is usually the case in civil wars, the presence of foreign troops is only making things worse. But rather than arguing about this, it might be better to put it to the test. This NYT Op-ed piece by three researchers from the Center for Strategic and International Studies suggests a referendum on US withdrawal to be held soon after the forthcoming elections. They make a pretty good case that it would be hard for the insurgents to justify disrupting such a referendum, or for nationalists like Sadr to justify a boycott.

I expect such a referendum would lead to a majority vote for withdrawal. But a majority the other way would certainly be an improvement on the current situation. The only really bad outcome would be the case where the Kurds voted solidly for keeping US troops, reversing a majority vote the other way among Arab Iraqis.

fn1. Despite this event, Australia has suffered far less direct loss in Iraq than many nations who were far less deeply involved in the decision to go to war.

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  1. Andrew Reynolds
    January 20th, 2005 at 13:11 | #1

    You are right that it would be a fascinating exercise, but I think the insurgents would be able to make a good case to disrupt it – the only bodies that could realistically organise it would be either the US military or the Iraqi government. I do not think that the insurgents would accept either as non-partisan in the matter. In addition, the Zaqarwi group apparently reject the entire notion of elections as ‘un-islamic’ on the (justifiable) basis that elections appear neither in the Holy Koran nor the Hadith, the sayings of the Prophet.

  2. Nemesis
    January 20th, 2005 at 13:33 | #2

    I have a question: Given that Iraq holds the scheduled election, what on earth would possess any sane person to actually go anywhere near a polling station on the day? Granted that Iraqis are vested with far more optimism and courage than I could ever muster, but what special form of insanity would it take for someone to go along to the polls and risk getting blown to kingdom come.

    Or is there some other mechanism for voting that doesn’t involve fronting up in person?

    God help them. And I take off my hat in advance to anyone who actually goes along to vote. Whatever our feelings about this stupid, unnecessary, frigging failure of a “war”, you have got to admire people who have that sort of courage.

  3. Katz
    January 20th, 2005 at 16:07 | #3

    A sane US administration would welcome any fig leaf. My reading of the Bush Administration suggests that they may have to content themselves with a pine needle when they finally decide that it’s time to go.

    PS I wonder if Federal Policeman Keelty might merit an apology for being lambasted for stating the blindingly obvious truth that Australian interests are on the al Qaida hit list.

    PPS exciting the enmity of al Qaida would be a badge of honour if the Howard vice-sheriffalty had done anything useful to provoke it.

  4. kyan gadac
    January 20th, 2005 at 17:30 | #4

    This quote from Dahr Jamail writing from Baghdad on the 17th January says it all
    I say “electionsâ€? because the Higher Commission for Elections announced that it won’t be releasing the names of the candidates prior to the “elections.â€? With four of Iraq’s 18 governorates unable to participate in them, an estimated 90% of the Sunni population not voting, a sizeable amount of the Shia boycotting and a very large percentage of Iraqis unwilling to vote because of the horrendous security situation, calling them elections seems a bit of a stretch.”

    What he is recording in his blog is quite literally horrific. The Americans will it seems be guilty of warcrimes on a grand scale once the dust has settled. The idea that there could be a peacful withdrawal in the current circumstances is a dangerous illusion. It is only a matter of time before the US will be defeated. The hajj has just started in Saudi Arabia and the forces of insurrection in that country will be sure to take advantage

  5. observa
    January 20th, 2005 at 21:18 | #5

    “It’s pretty clear by now that Iraq has descended into something approaching full-scale civil war and that, as is usually the case in civil wars, the presence of foreign troops is only making things worse.”

    Well it’s not clear that Iraq is facing full civil war but the presence of foreign troops now may be exacerbating Iraqi problems. Let’s look at some arithmetic here. Some estimates put insurgent numbers as high as 200,000, which may include 10% foreign fighters(say 20,000). In a population of 26mill, current insurgents could represent about 0.8 of 1% of the general population. With Sunnis representing about 20% of the overall population, AND if all insurgents are Sunni, then about 3.8% of them, or about 1 in 26 of the population, are the problem. Now you don’t have to have a degree to imagine what 200,000 committed troublemakers like these could do to an area like Newcastle/Sydney/Woollongong/Canberra, while the rest of the country enjoys relative calm. Here in Adelaide we might not need to be particularly brave to turn out and vote for our very brave Canberra representatives.

    John may have a point about the presence of COW troops inflaming Sunni sensitivities in particular and provoking them to oppose any free elections. There may be a window of opportunity here. It may well be profitable to all parties in this conflict, for elections to be delayed 1 month and coupled with a referendum on withdrawal of all foreign troops. Perhaps this would induce some truce on behalf of Sunnis in particular(probably not foreign fundamentalists), in order to hold reasonably civil elections. Candidates could stand on an independent ‘foreign troops out’ platform for this very purpose. If a majority of Iraqis want us to leave then this represents a free and democratic choice and we should abide by it. They will then have to get on with their new independent democracy the best way they can. At least their new govt would be reasonably representative of their wishes to kickstart it.

  6. Andrew
    January 21st, 2005 at 08:34 | #6

    Katz states that –

    “PS I wonder if Federal Policeman Keelty might merit an apology for being lambasted for stating the blindingly obvious truth that Australian interests are on the al Qaida hit list”.

    As I recall – the problem wasn’t that Keelty said we were on the al Qaida hit list (which, as you say, is a blindingly obvious truth), but that our involvement in Iraq increased the chance that we’d be a target.

    Keelty was criticised by the government because his comments could have been interpreted as saying that our involvement in Iraq was reason why we’re a target(and in fact were by most left leaning comentators). The government’s point being that we were already a target simply because of who we are. I don’t think the government disagreed with Keelty – just that, coming from someone in his position of responsibility, his comments were unhelpful and likely to mis-used by the media (as they were).

    Of course Keelty was right that we are a bigger target because of our involvement in Iraq, but that wasn’t a reason not to get involved (there are plenty of other more important reasons – such as the fact that Iraq had no links with al Qaida!). As a leading Western nation, we need to stand up to terrorism and can’t just hide under bed. These guys won’t just leave us alone if we stay out of their way – they hate us because of who we are, not because of what we’ve done.

  7. Katz
    January 21st, 2005 at 09:02 | #7

    More accurately, Keelty copped a pasting because he stated that Australia’s status as a target was augmented by membership of the COW.

    Fundamentalist Islamists, like fundamentalist Christians, won’t be happy until everyone believes what they believe. The difference between these fundamentalisms is that Christians haven’t behaved like present-day Islamists since the seventeenth century.

    For Christians in most of seventeenth-century Europe the change in behaviour came only after nation-states were largely religiously cleansed of the despised opposition denomination. The authorities created a monoculture and called it peace. (Remnant heterodox groups were often tolerated as long as they knew their place.) It took a century before enlightenment principles of tolerance gained a foothold. Paradoxically, it could be argued that tolerance could flourish only under conditions of the kind of cultural security provided by the consequences of the prior religious cleasng.

    This is a hard lesson. It suggests that large numbers of Muslims will cease to accept radical Islam only after they feel culturally secure. The Iraq fiasco, on the other hand, increases enormously a pervading sense of Muslim insecurity.

    Encouraging Muslims to feel accepted in and accepting of a heterodox world will be a long and expensive process. If we were a million miles away from that objective before Iraq, we are two million miles away from it today. But if the world is to drain the sea in which the al Qaida fish swim, this is the only approach to take.

  8. Michael Burgess
    January 21st, 2005 at 12:29 | #8

    To pull out of Iraq would just play into the hands of Islamic extremists who would claim it as a victory and encourage the further spread of extremism and anti-western sentiment in the Muslim world. The cowardly behaviour has already encouraged the view that the west has no stomach for a fight. Pulling out of Iraq would also be a betrayal of the more liberal minded elements of that society who largely support intervention (unlike most pseudo-liberals in the west) as well as in other countries such as Iran. Incidentally, the majority of young people in Iran would welcome western intervention. It is a very strange world we live in when Western liberals siding with Muslim reactionaries simply because both hate the US.

  9. Michael Burgess
    January 21st, 2005 at 12:30 | #9

    Sorry after ‘cowardly behaviour’ I should have put ‘the new Spanish government’.

  10. January 21st, 2005 at 13:01 | #10

    Michael: if the new government asks the Coalition to pull out, can we do otherwise? Both the Sunnis and Shi’ites will want us gone. (I can’t guess what the Kurds would do.) The insurgency has mainly been Sunni so far, and that’s been bad enough. Do we want Sadr and Sistani to get their lads out on the road? If they ask us to go, we go. They have made their own bed. Let them sleep in it.

    Could a Shi’ite dominated government do counterinsurgency better than the Yanks? After all, they know the country, they know the people, they know the language, etc… Unfortunately, counterinsurgency turns so quickly into payback. I’m pessimistic about the aftermath.

  11. Paul Norton
    January 21st, 2005 at 13:53 | #11

    Michael, have you considered the possibility that the new Spanish government might have pulled out of Iraq because it thought a US-led war and occupation was wrong in principle and/or misconceived, and because this was also the view of the great majority of the Spanish people who the government is supposed to represent?

    Bear in mind that some of the Spanish voters who elected the current government were alive during the Spanish Civil War, and of these many would have been involved in some kind of resistance against the Fascists under Franco, and perhaps also against the Stalinists acting at the behest of the Comintern against their rivals on the left. This, of course, doesn’t necessarily make them right on the contemporary question of Iraq, but it does put them beyond any credible accusation of cowardice.

  12. Katz
    January 21st, 2005 at 13:58 | #12

    The “cowardly behaviour” of the Spanish government to which Michael Burgess refers is the decision to keep promises made to the electorate.

    The Socialist Party found themselves in a position to keep their promises because their conservative opponents made themselves obnoxious to Spanish voters for “courageously” refusing to tell the truth that the Madrid bombings had nothing to to with Basque separatists.

    COW apologists should never be allowed to falsify this story in the cause of lending counterfeit respectability to their intellectually and morally threadbare case.

  13. January 21st, 2005 at 14:52 | #13

    I think a post-Iraqi election US military withdrawal (“exit strategy with honour”) at the invitation of the democratic Iraqi state is the most likely outcome. This would be timed in late 2005 or early 2006 – in time for the US 2006 Congressional elections – to politically capitalise on public relief at the end of the whole bloody affair.
    A full scale civil war might ensue, but not if the Suunis were given a reasonable and fair share of power. Even so, the US will probably have to continue to prop up the Iraqi military (with “private” security) and economy (with redevelopment aid) until the state can totter onto its feet.
    The US should have regime changed Kurdistan, rather than Iraq. The invaders really would have been treated as liberators. And it would have given the US a friendly state right in the middle of injun territory (Saudi, Irani & Iraqi states). A Kurdistani liberation would have annoyed the Turks, but they are headed for the USE anyway.

  14. doctor k
    January 21st, 2005 at 15:23 | #14

    The “cowardly behaviour� of the Spanish government to which Michael Burgess refers is the decision to keep promises made to the electorate.
    That the Spanish government is keeping an electoral promise does not make its behaviour less cowardly. I think that the reasons to go to war are sort of ‘sunk costs’. The fact is that we are there and that the best course now for supporting Iraqis is to stay there. I also tend to agree with Jack’s analysis/predictions.

  15. January 21st, 2005 at 17:54 | #15

    Some minor points of information:-

    – Only most European states ceased to have religious trouble in the 17th century. Switzerland, for instance, had a religious war in the 19th century, about the time other states had revolutionary struggles.

    – Tolerance wasn’t fully understood and embraced until the 19th century, and that wasn’t a result of “enlightenment”. The enlightenment was in fact intolerant, although its targets were secular. In fact the usual French response to tolerance was to suppose it implied apathy. While this was true of the then prevalent Dutch ethos, the British ethos included respect, for the individuals involved and their sincerity if not necessarily for their perceived errors and the system of those preceived errors (and thir may have been some humility too, embracing the Gamaliel principle).

  16. Katz
    January 21st, 2005 at 18:14 | #16

    1. Eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe was a patchwork. There was no lockstep, merely general tendencies. But the tendencies toward religious toleration were coherent and unthinkable without the impetus of enlightenment principles.

    2. Catholic emancipation was achieved in Britain in 1829. Toleration came late to Britain.

    3. The failure of a government to contemplate rethinking the rationale for a war is a particularly egregious form of intellectual cowardice regardless of the magnitude of “sunk costs”.

  17. January 21st, 2005 at 18:46 | #17

    No, Katz, toleration came early to Britain. Don’t forget that everywhere else – under the grip of enlightenment thinking – was taking a sort of neocon approach, thinking that their version of the “truth” was worth fighting for and imposing by force, whether they were being reactionary or revolutionary. It was just that the subject matter was no longer religious.

    On the other hand the British barriers to full civil rights for non-Anglicans were actually pragmatic, based on the need to keep Jacobitism down. That was a genuine need until the late 18th century, and widely considered a regrettable necessity even when it was in force, with lots of loopholes. Basically, it was operated the way that anti-homosexual legislation usually was, to make people lie low rather than to suppress them – a very pragmatic spirit, and not usually used viciously, just on people who had made it clear that they were willing to disrupt public order for their beliefs.

    I want to make it here that I am being descriptive, not endorsing anything one way or another. The point to learn is that this legislation wasn’t inspired by intolerance but was more in the spirit of Marcus Aurelius’s hostility to Christianity: he thought it was too disruptive to have around. It was in exactly the same spirit that this legislation was repealed – not out of any respect for Judaism, Catholicism, or dissenters but in the light of a fading Jacobite threat and the new luxury of dealing with things through the same political safety valves that were applied to the rest of the populace (still not “democratic” as we understand it).

    Actually, movements to widen the franchise rather than promote people into it by giving them a stake in the country seem to have been very much a second best approach, in the light of hindsight. Promotion was what was happening in places like the Cape until Boer influence changed the franchise to a more “democratic” one. Also, the reform acts preferentially disenfranchised groups in the West Country that had been grandfathered into the vote, a change which not coincidentally favoured the new industrial areas more than enough to restore equity from their previous comparative lack of parliamentary representation.

  18. Katz
    January 22nd, 2005 at 16:44 | #18


    Your version of the advent of Catholic emancipation in Britain was entertaining.

    The actual field of sectarian combat in Britain by the third decade of the nineteenth century was not England but Ireland.

    As a result of the abolition of the Irish parliament (as part of the repression of an enlightenment-inspired nationalist uprising), Irish protestants voted directly for representatives to Westminster.

    Dan O’Connell, like Sistani keen to use the institutions of the occupier to destroy the occupation, organised the Catholic tenants to thoroughly intimidate their Protestant landlords into compliance with land reform. In order to prevent this insurgency from spinning out of control, the British Government agreed to emancipate the Catholic Church while at the same time severely restricting Irish franchise. This worked for a bit. But militancy and extremism returned to Ireland.

    I don’t believe that restriction of the franchise is an option open to the American occupation in Iraq. Egalitarianism is now hardwired into most cultures around the world–one of the great achievements of enlightenment thought that does seem to be almost universally acknowledged.

  19. January 22nd, 2005 at 19:28 | #19

    More later, Katz, but do remember these things:-

    – The only available forum for representation was Westminster, after the union with Ireland; and

    – Most reasoned discussion was in terms of a wider group, including dissenters and Jews, not just Catholics. In fact, it was the lack of informal political clout in Ireland that led to the violent modes of expression. However, the changes followed a pattern of change in the UK as a whole. We can find examples of what was going on at the intellectual level in such things as Macaulay’s “Civil disabilities of the Jews”. Granted, the Jews had less force behind them – but the form of the change (not the pressure) followed the abstract patterns that had been worked out at the intellectual level.

    I should declare an interest. I am od Scottish and Irish stock, and my immediate maternal ancestors were politicals (my mother’s uncle was the Irish Minister to Madrid in the 1930s and early 1940s).

    I may have more to add at lebgth if I have opportunity to compose it off line, but I have many other promises to keep which may take priority.

  20. TJW
    January 22nd, 2005 at 23:16 | #20

    I dont know how relevant or accurate this survey is, but apparently a significant number of Iraqis intend to vote:

    See also:

  21. Katz
    January 23rd, 2005 at 21:04 | #21


    I believe I understand your comments to mean the following:

    The perception that Wesminster was the only forum for political negotiation after the Act of Union had some impact on both the representatives of the Anglican ascendancy and on the Irish/Catholic/Natiionalist forces. I have no objection to this proposition. The question is: what impact.

    I believe that you agree that the question of Jewish and Dissenter emancipation was far less problematic in the eyes of right-thinking Englishmen than the emancipation of Catholics. As you hint, Macaulay expressed a sentimental predisposition to the notion that modest and unoffending folk like Britain’s Jews deserved relief from legal discrimination. And that Macaulay’s Jewish case was a stalking-horse for toleration of Catholics. But I believe that you would acknowledge that practical politicians perceived that there were far more serious consequences for Protestant Britain arising out of the emancipation of Catholics than the emancipation of Jews. The fact that emancipation (which satisfied the diocesan hierarchy of Ireland) was linked with restriction of Irish suffrage suggests that there was much more at stake in the minds of Westminster’s legislators than the consequences of liberal humanitarianism.

    To return briefly to Iraq: American policymakers and their Iraqi proxies have no such intellectual resources to counter the likes of Sistani who is analogous to a combination of Dan O’Connell and the Irish catholic hierarchy — a potent combination indeed.

  22. January 25th, 2005 at 11:19 | #22

    No, Katz, I was just providing backing for the refutation of the idea that tolerance was inspired and transmitted by the enlightenment. I was doing this by showing its outworkings in a context where the enlightment had not prevailed.

    If you want to see what happened – and was thoroughly intolerant – under the enlightenment tradition, just look at France with its anticlericalism and “mission civilisatrice”.

    But as I said, a full reply needs more than I can spare at the moment. If I get the chance I will provide one, and attend to your remarks just above as well.

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