The American public needs to force its leaders to act before the Iraq war becomes even more a replica of the Vietnam tragedy.

When United States Congressman John Murtha made his passionate speech on 17 November calling for the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq within six months, it seemed for an instant as though the public mood had swung so strongly against the Iraq policies of the Bush administration that to hope for a change of course wasn’t unrealistic.

A month on, any such hopeful prospect of addressing the realities of Iraqi failure has now vanished beneath a presidential sky beclouded by tired reiterations of an utterly unconvincing “plan for victory”. Indeed the rededication to “complete victory” recalls the May 2003 delusion of “mission accomplished” proclaimed on a banner draped in the background while Bush delivered his notoriously premature speech of celebration on the deck of the USS Lincoln.

Murtha’s ideas were the reflections of a foreign-policy hawk that had the integrity and prudence to cut American losses in Iraq, and thereby diminish the prospects of a deeper tragedy. The timetable of his basic proposal could be faulted, but not the principle. I think a year makes more sense, to give time to the main Iraqi political forces to take account of the US departure and strike a deal based on compromise and reconciliation. As long as American forces remain, the imbalances between the main groupings in Iraq — especially the privileged positions of the Kurds and Shi’a — virtually guarantee a prolonging, and even an escalation, of the violent civil strife.

A time of radical uncertainty

Present indicators of violence suggest a rising curve of death and devastation, not, as the White House and Pentagon constantly claim, an increase in domestic security. The more reliable polls also suggest that average Iraqis are desperate above all for security in their daily lives, and feel overwhelmingly that their situation would improve if American forces were to leave the country.

Such an outlook makes sense. Without the protection of an occupying army the Kurds and Shi’a would likely succumb to the insurgency, but if the foreign military presence were to be gradually removed, the incentives for those now benefiting from the occupation to strike a political/economic bargain would rise dramatically. As it would for the Sunni as well, if their alternatives were a fair share of authority and a secular governing process versus a civil war that might result in either a stalemate or an Iranian intervention, and possibly in a combination of the two.

American policy prospects are also enhanced by an unconditional military departure. It would be widely regarded in Europe and the Middle East as a constructive, if belated, move that gave both peace and diplomacy a chance, and clearly renounced imperial goals relating to oil and bases, which are widely believed overseas to be the main rationale for “staying the course”.

If Iraqi political tendencies can deliver a sustainable compromise, it would save lives, money, and reputations. If the Iraqi domestic situation should further degenerate as US forces withdraw — which cannot be ruled out — it is likely to produce a return to secular, authoritarian rule under Sunni leadership (most likely without the Tikrit entourage of Saddam Hussein), which would likely keep Iraq unified and stable, though certainly not democratic. This outcome can be anticipated if negotiation and compromise fail, as there is little reason to believe that either the Kurds or Shi’a can prevail against an insurgency that draws on the superior experience and weaponry of the Ba’ath-led military forces of the Saddam era.

There is no way to avoid the radical uncertainty of the situation. It was after all Donald Rumsfeld (characteristically assimilating Iraq into a wider frame of reference and thus failing to register the particularity of its conflict) who acknowledged in October 2003 that the US government “(lacks) metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror”. Not surprisingly, such a revealing acknowledgement was made in a secret internal Pentagon memo, and conflicted rather sharply with Rumsfeld’s public posturing portraying a rosy picture in Iraq after the invasion marred only by the nuisance of mopping up what he once called “the dead-enders”. What remains true and crucial to admit on all sides is that offering recommendations and speculating about Iraq’s future is afflicted by this condition of radical uncertainty: we simply do not know what will happen in the future in Iraq, and can only make reasonable conjectures based on the circumstances understood as objectively as possible.

It is here where the Bush administration is again failing the American and Iraqi people – and in a sense, itself. Leaving aside the pre-invasion manipulation of evidence in the mobilisation of support for the war, what seems now inexcusable is to falsify the current situation on the ground. To pretend that the occupation is succeeding, that the majority of the public in Iraq is satisfied with the rate of progress in achieving stability and reconstruction, and that democracy is taking hold in the country is to become enmeshed in a net of delusion that rigidifies policy, and precludes adjustments, except those made below the radar of media awareness.

For instance, a gradual transfer of security roles to Iraqi military and police forces without an appreciation of the virtual certainty that these forces will lack the will and capabilities to deal effectively with a resistance movement that a major US military presence and engagement could not defeat. Even worse would be efforts to reduce American combat fatalities by relying more and more on airpower, which in urban settings is a blunt and illegal instrument that is sure to kill mainly civilians and would further turn Iraqi public opinion against the US presence.

We know that Bush/Cheney seem incapable of admitting errors and changing course. Bush seems to be proceeding apolitically, buoyed by his apparent underlying belief that his victory plan for Iraq is divinely ordained. We also know that the Pentagon has been planting disinformation in the Iraqi press by paying Iraqi journalists and newspapers to print US propaganda (we in the United States can only wonder whether we are not being fed similar falsehoods manipulations at home, presumably by more sophisticated techniques.)

The echo of Vietnam

In such a public atmosphere of distrust — what was called “a credibility gap” during the last stages of the Vietnam war — wildly contradictory views get a hearing. For instance, Nixon’s Secretary of Defence, Melvin R Laird believed that the United States lost the Vietnam war only because it did not appreciate the success of its tactics of Vietnamization and counterinsurgency, and risks repeating the same mistake in Iraq. Such a reconstruction of historical memory amounts to resurrection of the credibility gap, a retelling of the story of Vietnam, where victory was always a horizon away, and required only perseverance and added troop strength (see “Iraq: Learning the Lessons of Vietnam”, Foreign Affairs, November-December 2005).

Dangling the prospect of victory before the American public after the Tet offensive of January-February 1968 prolonged the Vietnam war for as many as seven blood-soaked years after most US policymakers privately understood that the war was lost. We should act now in order to avoid repeating in Iraq the Vietnam-era mistake of waiting year after year for a leadership willing to acknowledge defeat.

There is no assured path toward peace and stability for Iraq. But there is accumulating evidence that the occupation is not succeeding in producing a viable Iraqi state, and is now resting its prospects for a democratic Iraq on a highly regressive constitution that among other things sets things back for women far below what it was during Saddam’s brutal rule. It is also clear that the daily incidents of violence are adding to casualty totals in an environment where a favorable political outcome under American occupying auspices is even less plausible than it was a year or so ago. Whatever else, under these overall circumstances it is obscene to continue the killing and dying.

Richard Falk, chair of the board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, is the author of Religion and Humane Global Governance (Palgrave), The Great Terror War (Olive Branch), and most recently, The Declining World Order (Routledge). Since 2002 he has been Distinguished Visiting Professor of Global Studies at UC Santa Barbara.