Politicians Fiddle, Iraq Burns

Baker Commission: Another Study Group Charade
Politicians Fiddle, Iraq Burns

By Brian Becker and Mara Verheyden-Hilliard

November 30, 2006

In 1970, Henry Kissinger chaired the Vietnam War’s version of the Iraq Study Group (ISG). Its name was virtually the same as today’s bi-partisan commission headed by James Baker. Kissinger’s commission was called the Vietnam Special Study Group (VSSG). Both the 1970 and 2006 commissions have the same goal: to extricate the United States from a losing war of aggression. The Baker Commission will have as much success as Kissinger’s “Study Group” from a generation ago. After the Kissinger Commission made its report for a phased disengagement, the U.S. war effort dragged on for three more years. Thousands more U.S. soldiers and hundreds of thousands more Vietnamese were killed before the U.S. acknowledged its defeat in 1973.

Bush’s criminal war against Iraq has failed. Military victory is unachievable. Now the two parties of imperialism are attempting to avoid a catastrophic defeat or the appearance of a catastrophic defeat. This is pretty much how the Vietnam War appeared to the policymakers of both parties by 1968.

How many more Iraqis will have to be killed, raped or maimed so that the U.S. government can avoid the appearance of defeat? Should one more U.S. soldier give their life so that the Pentagon can spin its losses for the media? 

A lesson From the Vietnam War: Phased Withdrawal is the Prolongation of the War

For all the chatter about the similarities or dissimilarities between the Iraq war and the Vietnam War there is little useful study of how the U.S. disengagement from Vietnam actually took place and what role the U.S. anti-war movement played in bringing the conflict to an end.

Even under pressure from a truly massive movement against the war in Southeast Asia, Congress followed the lead of the generals and the president. Today, some people in the peace movement are excited that some members of Congress favor a phased withdrawal instead of what is called an open-ended commitment. 

The lesson of Vietnam should not be lost on those who are putting their faith in the “pragmatists” or so-called doves in Congress. Anything less than an immediate, unconditional withdrawal is a disaster for the people of Iraq and for U.S. soldiers. But Congress today, as during Vietnam, will not accept responsibility for the military defeat of U.S. imperialism. The euphoric and gushing utterances from some in the peace movement about the makeup of the new Congress will not alter this reality one iota.

Just as in Vietnam, the policymakers in Washington have redefined the mission in Iraq. Avoiding catastrophic defeat is now the primary objective. 

It took five years for the U.S. military to withdraw from Vietnam following the recognition by President Johnson, and Nixon who succeeded him in 1969, that a military victory was impossible. 

"Withdrawal" Simultaneous with the Escalation of Mass Murder

Between 1968 and the final exit of U.S. forces in 1973, the U.S. government engaged in a phased withdrawal of troops, similar to what the Iraq Study Group is likely promoting. Nixon announced in May 1969 that 25,000 troops would be withdrawn, then 35,000 more in September 1969. In April 1970, he announced that another 150,000 soldiers would be withdrawn by May 1971.

Did that mean peace was at hand in 1969? On the contrary.  As Henry Kissinger put it in an article in the December 1968 Foreign Affairs magazine, “The United States cannot accept military defeat.”

While Nixon and Kissinger’s phased withdrawal of soldiers was underway the war not only raged on -- it dramatically escalated. Between 1969 and 1973 more than 20,000 GIs were killed. The number of Vietnamese who died during those years is unknown but it was many hundreds of thousands. During that time, the U.S. Air Force carried out the “secret” bombing of Cambodia. More than 500,000 tons of explosives were dropped on Cambodia during this period -- more than double the bombs that were dropped on North Vietnam during the Nixon Administration. Half the population of Cambodia was made refugees by the bombing. Hundreds of thousands were killed.

It was during this same period of “phased withdrawal of U.S. troops” from Vietnam that Nixon invaded Cambodia (April 30, 1970) with 32,000 soldiers. Students rebelled against the invasion of Cambodia and were shot dead at Kent State, Ohio (May 4, 1970) and in Jackson State, Mississippi (May 15, 1970). It was not just at college campuses, but in high schools, in communities, and most importantly among rank-and-file soldiers that militant anti-war confrontations became a central feature of every day life. It was this growing, angry grassroots protest that changed the political climate in the country.

Congress Did Not End the War

What role did Congress play in this epoch-shaping confrontation? Although Congress is the only body that has the legal authority to declare war under the Constitution, the Nixon Administration decided to tell only two members of Congress that he and the generals had decided to invade Cambodia in 1970. Did Congress move to impeach for this illegal escalation of the conflict or for the blatant usurpation of their constitutionally mandated authority? The question is pure rhetoric. History knows that Congress only cut funding for the Cambodia operation in the summer of 1973. (They never prohibited the ongoing aerial slaughter in Cambodia by the U.S. Air Force.) And Congress cut off funding for Vietnam in 1974, more than one year after U.S. troops had already been withdrawn. 

The bombing of Cambodia was undertaken in 1969 and was a complete secret. Congressional oversight committees were by-passed and no member of Congress was informed of this massive, sustained attack against another country. When news of the bombing became public through press reports in late 1969 and 1970, Congress took no action against Nixon or the generals.

Congress Then and Now

Congress is a talk shop. Dominated by a caste of professional politicians, who with few exceptions are feeding at the trough of corporate donations, Congress today is a relic of earlier era. Power today resides in the executive branch of government. The White House, Pentagon, FBI and CIA are the centers of decision-making.

Howard Dean, in his capacity as chairperson of the Democratic Party, went out of his way to make the point that the Democrats’ new control of Congress won’t mean anything significant. “The President is still Commander in Chief,” Dean repeated over and over again as if to assure the real power that Congress will only tinker, or pretend to tinker, with war policy. Despite having the “power of the purse" -- the power to decide whether to finance an illegal war - Nancy Pelosi pointedly stated that Congress won’t reduce, much less end, funding for the Iraq war. Harry Reid has now outlined his program for the new Congress, which does not include any spending cuts for the war in Iraq. Directly dismissing the voters and pledging obedience to Bush, he announced: “Now he's the commander-in-chief, and we're not going to do anything to limit funding or cut off funds.”

Disengagement from Southeast Asia was hard for the U.S. ruling elite to accept. Disengagement from the Middle East is not a fathomable option for U.S. imperialism. Oil is not just a source of immense profit. It is a vital strategic resource. If the U.S. was compelled to leave, the void would be filled by Germany, Japan, France, the UK or another imperial power. Or anti-U.S. resistance could sweep away the governments of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. It is this over-arching and fundamental reality that makes a so-called exit strategy so difficult in the Iraq war.

The problem with Congress is not simply that they are "spineless" in the face of the real power in the White House, Pentagon, FBI and CIA. The leaders and overwhelming majority of the Democratic as well as Republican representatives embrace the same imperial foreign policy objectives. They share the objective of U.S. domination of the world economy and over peoples and countries trying to chart an independent course.

Solidarity with the Arab People, Not Congress 

Attempting to make the program of the anti-war movement acceptable to the mythological “anti-war” wing of Congress requires the exclusion of Palestinian, Lebanese and other Arab people who are targeted by the U.S.-Israeli military alliance. It requires the abandonment of the fundamental struggle against U.S. imperial ambitions in the Middle East -- the basis for the Iraq war to begin with. The Democratic Party is not only unwilling to take responsibility for the defeat of the U.S. in the Middle East. It is a wholehearted supporter of the U.S.-Israeli terror against the Palestinian and Arab people. On July 22, 2006, as Israel rained cluster bombs and high explosives down on the Lebanese people, the House of Representatives passed a resolution saluting Israel for its “longstanding commitment to minimizing civilian loss.” This breathtakingly cynical resolution passed by a thoroughly bi-partisan vote of 410-8.

Congressional representatives cannot pretend to be “anti-war” while they support the endless war against the Palestinians and other peoples of the region.

On March 17 and 18, the 4th anniversary of the start of the war against Iraq, there will be a global day of action. We will demand an immediate unconditional withdrawal from Iraq and reparations for the Iraqi people as well as an end to colonial occupation in Palestine, Haiti and everywhere. The real challenge to the warmakers will come not in the halls of Congress, but by continuing to forge a global movement of protest and resistance.

The Bush White House, the Pentagon, and Congress intend to maintain a large U.S. military presence in Iraq for many years to come. Even those advocating phased withdrawal and "redeployment" will support maintaining tens of thousands of U.S. troops in Iraq or in the region in order to maintain and defend the gigantic U.S. embassy in downtown Baghdad; to function as a shadow government in Iraq; and to serve as a force designed to intimidate and obstruct the ability of the people of the region to exercise genuine self-determination.

This is a war for empire and the people of the United States must let the rest of the world know that it is not our war, not our empire. The United States contingent in the global movement must make clear that we stand with all those throughout the Middle East and the world who are resisting in a just struggle for liberation. 

(First of two parts)

Brian Becker is the National Coordinator of the A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition. Mara Verheyden-Hilliard is a civil rights attorney and co-founder of the Partnership for Civil Justice.

follow us

get updates