“It was a week when U.S. forces had engaged in combat in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan—a string of countries stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean—following the footsteps of Alexander the Great, the Romans, and the British. For thousands of years, it has been the fate of the West’s great powers to become involved in the region’s politics. Since the Suez Crisis of 1956, when British and French influence suffered a major reduction, it has been the United States’ turn to take the lead there. And sitting on that wall, it struck me that the more we talk about getting out of the Middle East, the more deeply we seem to become engaged in it.”
– Thomas E. Ricks, “The war in Iraq isn’t over. The main events may not even have happened yet.” (Washington Post Outlook, February 15, 2009)
Dear citizens, we will contemplate fate in this essay because we have just learned that a long stay in Iraq is our common fate. We have no choice but to remain there. This is our burden as it was the burden of foreign conquerors and colonizers for millennia before. It is now our turn to endure the responsibility for the affairs of the Middle East that has been placed squarely on our shoulders. We simply have no choice. The charge has been handed down to us by forces unseen and beyond our control. The costs have been grand. The costs will be grand. Such is our fate. Woe are we.
Thomas Ricks, for whom I have had a great deal of respect over the past several years for his efforts to call attention to the sacrifices of our men and women in uniform, has just consigned those troops to an unforgivable and unnecessary fate. But, “fate” is not the important word, the vital concept, in this construction. The fatal word is “consigned.” The fatal, truly, the very lethal flaw, is agency—the powerful and the influential making decisions that satisfy themselves at great cost to the less powerful and the less influential. Ricks embarrasses the world when he suggests that the most powerful are consigned by fate to assume particular burdens that are, in fact, willingly assumed for their own benefit and that come at no real personal cost. We have choice; we have agency. It is only those who suffer the painful and lethal consequences of our decision who have the right to blame fate, and even then, only as a limited excuse.
Ricks recruits support from those whose agency is keeping us in Iraq to show that fate determines our action. Here are the actors who simply have no choice. The supreme U.S. Commander, General Ray Odierno “told me that he would like to see about 30,000 troops still there in 2014 or 2015.” Otherwise? Otherwise the consequences are just too horrible to consider. The former executive officer for General David Petraeus tells Ricks “This is not a campaign that can be won in one or two years. The United States has got to be willing to underwrite this effort for many, many years to come.” Never you mind that a bilateral security agreement between the United States and Iraq requires that we leave before 2012. Fate will intervene. You see, Ricks says, “The thought of having small numbers of U.S. troops dying for years to come in the country’s deserts and palm groves isn’t appealing, but it appears to be better than either being ejected or pulling out—and letting the genocidal chips fall where they may.” Ricks tells us that this is the certain future because “the Iraqi tendency toward violent solutions will increase” if we leave. Rich stuff from the invading country that kicked off the bloodshed.
Here at home our leaders sit in air-conditioned complacent comfort bemoaning their inability to decide not to send Americans to their fate in Iraq and not to consign the Iraqis to their fate of invasion and occupation. Woe to we who have, as our last President sympathetically noted, sacrificed our peace of mind. What cost! What cost! What a burden! Oh! Cruel fate! Would that we, the most powerful, had just one moment of free will! Would that we could make a decision that reflects more than our own interests! Woe! Woe! Woe!
The glorious blessings of fate include our ability to deny our culpability, to deny that we are agents, and to deny that our power allows us to act against the wishes of others, of the weak. The glorious blessings of power are that we determine the fates of others. And in this hypocrisy between fate and agency, with our actions simply beyond our control, we wallow in self-affirmation. Why? Why do they not appreciate us? Why? Why do they not worship our goodness? The good we bestow? We had no choice but to save them from themselves! We are saving Iraq and the Middle East! Fate consigns us to a dominant role in the lives and fortunes of the people there. Fate consigns us to determine who should rule. Fate consigns us to empire and colonies. Would that another fate rescue us!
Dear citizens, it is of course true that we can decide to honor our agreement and leave Iraq. We can, and we must. Ricks and others argue that we will be blamed for the consequences. Who is to blame now? Who is to blame for the consequences of the U.S.-powered economic sanctions? Who is blamed for the consequences of the U.S.-powered invasion? Withdrawal—full and complete withdrawal—is the necessary step to ending U.S. blame for the situation in Iraq. As long as we are there—as long as fate (Ha!) consigns us to owning Iraq—we are the responsible agent. It is only after we leave, perhaps long after we leave, that Iraqis will earn full responsibility for their future. That is, only after the fate we impose on them ends, can Iraqi agency take its rightful place as the preeminent cause of Iraq’s successes and failures. Ten years after we leave Iraq, the blame will hardly be ours. If we stay longer, as many hope, our blame will last longer. But know, dear citizens, that this future, this responsibility, this blame is not our fate. If we earn it, it will be by our choice. It will come from our agency.
The colonizers, those bent on staying, will use any argument to justify our continued presence. It was not time to leave because Iraq was awash in blood from the violence we ignited. More violence means more occupation. When the violence subsided our “victory” loomed, and so we must not depart and jeopardize our “gains” in Iraq. More peace means more occupation. During the Presidential contest, Senator John McCain avowed that he would not mind staying in Iraq for one hundred years as long as the violence remained low. Still, others warned and, as Ricks does today, continue to warn that Iraq is inherently and pathologically unstable and requires our continued, even perpetual presence. Never mind that our presence destabilizes. All these points can be effectively argued and a decision to depart can still be made by people who believe they control their own destiny, people who believe they are agents, not pawns, of their future. But fate, ah, fate cannot be avoided. We are fated to stay because the Middle East is the Middle East. One might conclude from Ricks that we must maintain a military force in the region until the end of time. Of course, we need not. We need not, that is, unless we require a colony, or unless fate demands that we have one.
– Alan Howe, February 2009