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Iraq and the Language of De-Escalation

A Perilous Path?

by ANTHONY DiMAGGIO

The de-escalation of U.S. troops in Iraq has been accompanied by celebrations of American humanitarianism.  This week’s withdrawal of troops from Iraq’s urban areas is part of the larger agreement made by the Bush administration to remove all military forces by the end of 2011.  An Iraqi referendum coming up this month, if passed, would escalate the required deadline to mid 2010.  Predictably, it has motivated American officials to pressure the Iraqi government to cancel the vote.  Resistance to the required 2011 withdrawal date is also emerging, with General George Casey claiming that troops may remain in Iraq through 2019.

Journalistic discussions of de-escalation concentrate on claims that Iraq will destabilize.  The Washington Post, for example, ran a June 26th story emphasizing that “Iraqi civilians” will “become less protected.”  The story referenced attacks in late June that killed dozens of Iraqis, and “heightened concern about the readiness of Iraq’s security forces to operate with limited American assistance.” The Associated Press discussed the deaths of over four hundreds Iraqis in June as raising “concerns about the readiness of Iraqi forces to take over their own security.”  At the New York Times, the editors discussed the need “to help Iraqis prepare the withdrawal and to reduce the chances the country will unravel as American troops leave.”  This concern revolves around questions of “whether Iraq’s army – still plagued by corruption, discipline problems, equipment shortages and security breaches – is ready to keep the peace in the cities.”  Such concern is merely a reiteration of the old assumption, repeated by Times reporters this week, “that sectarian violence could return” following withdrawal.

There are strong grounds to question assumptions that Iraq is consigned to oblivion without America’s stabilizing military power.  For one thing, violence in Iraq has fluctuated greatly throughout the six years of the occupation, making it difficult to attribute increasing attacks to any single factor without the benefit of a systematic, empirical study.  For example, violence in Iraq grew in 2009, despite the continuation of the occupation and the alleged success of the surge.  In Baghdad, 200 people were killed in April, a 100 percent increase from March, and a 200 percent increase from February.  National trends indicate that over 450 Iraqis died in April, a 25 percent increase from March and a 36 percent increase from February.  Such fluctuations could just as easily be attributed to withdrawal, if similar increases occur after the U.S. withdrawal.

The view that the occupation stabilizes Iraq is rejected by nearly everyone in Iraq as little more than propaganda.  As one February BBC poll from Iraq revealed, American forces ranked near the bottom of the list of trusted social actors.  Occupation forces enjoyed a “great deal” or “quite a lot of confidence” from just 26 percent of Iraqis, and ranked second to last on the list of eight actors, in front of “local militias” which are responsible for the sectarian violence and ethnic cleansing of Iraq’s Sunni and Shia.  This is a quite damning finding, considering the brutal reputation Iraq’s militias have garnered (rightly so) amongst Iraqis and American journalists and politicians.

Iraq’s governing institutions are viewed with far more legitimacy.  In the BBC poll, Iraq’s police and army receive three times the support of U.S. troops (with 73% and 74% confidence respectively), while confidence ratings for the national Iraqi government and for judges and courts stand at 61% and 68% respectively.  Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki also saw his popularity rise from a low of between 33 to 40% in 2007 and 2008 to 55% in 2009.  His slim majority support is contingent upon his insistence over the last eight months that the U.S. set a withdrawal timetable and commit to enforcing it.

The required 2011 timetable, although popular with the Iraqi and American people, is viewed with contempt by the “Paper of Record,” which warns that “Before American troops can really go, Iraq’s Army will need to develop enough of [its] missing [military and governmental] capacities to be able to fight on its own.  The United States is going to have to help Iraq build an air force and a navy so it can defend its own borders – an effort that will stretch far beyond the 2011 withdrawal deadline.”

Although the mainstream press has finally come around and acknowledged the need for a drawdown of the war, it is not for the reasons subscribed to by the American and Iraqi public.  Assumptions that the U.S. must violate its international withdrawal agreement in order to promote the “common good” in Iraq are deeply problematic.  This plan necessarily negates the understanding of most Iraqis and Americans that the U.S. is causing Iraq’s deterioration, not its rejuvenation.

ANTHONY DiMAGGIO teaches Global Politics and American Government at Illinois State University.  He is the author of Mass Media, Mass Propaganda: Understanding American News in the “War on Terror” and the forthcoming When Media Goes to War (February 2010).  He can be reached at adimag2@uic.edu