On Murtha: Withdrawal, Redeployment, and the Antiwar Movement

Until last Thursday, the ideological battle lines of the occupation of Iraq were drawn around a central question — to “stay the course” or withdraw the troops immediately.  Of course, the reality was more complicated, with many Americans who opposed the war arguing that to leave now would be “abandoning our responsibility” to Iraq, letting loose civil war, an Islamic theocracy, or worse.  With more and more of those people now being won to the idea that the American occupation is actually making things worse, however, the hardening of the basic dichotomy between the Bush administration’s position and that of the antiwar movement was well underway.

Rep. John Murtha has opened up a new front in the ideological war over Iraq and created a new, third option — changing course, to be sure, but not quite withdrawal, either.  What do we make of this third way, and how should we in the antiwar movement respond?

First, the initial shock and (at least partial) euphoria over the first prominent politician’s call for “withdrawal” in the antiwar camp have given way to a more sober assessment of exactly what it is that Murtha is proposing.  It is not withdrawal, it is not immediate, and it is not worthy of the name “antiwar.”

Murtha’s press release announcing his resolution ends with the line, “IT IS TIME TO BRING THEM HOME” (capitalized in the original),1 yet his plan would do nothing of the sort for tens of thousands of American troops.  Instead, it would “redeploy” them — Murtha said on Meet the Press last Sunday to the “periphery,” meaning just outside Iraq2 — in order to create a “quick-reaction U.S. force and an over-the-horizon presence of U.S. Marines.” This presence would, presumably, be available for US incursions into Iraq should the Iraqis get out of hand, much as Israel “withdrew” from Gaza only to retain the right to intervene at will should events go against their wishes.

In fact, nowhere in the resolution itself, his press release, or the Meet the Press interview does Murtha use the word “withdrawal.” Redeployment is what he uses, over and over again, and while many seem to assume this is a mere case of semantics, it is actually a crucial difference.

So what exactly would this redeployment look like?  A report put out by the Center for American Progress, interestingly titled ” Strategic Redeployment: A Progressive Plan for Iraq and the Struggle Against Violent Extremists” (emphasis added),3 suggests:

As redeployments begin, the remaining forces in Iraq would focus on our core missions: completing the training of Iraqi forces; improving border security; providing logistical and air support to Iraqi security forces engaged in battles against terrorists and insurgents; serving as advisors to Iraqi units; and tracking down terrorists and insurgent leaders with smaller, more nimble Special Forces units operating jointly with Iraqi units.


By the end of 2007, the only US military forces in Iraq would be a small Marine contingent to protect the US embassy, a small group of military advisors to the Iraqi Government, and counterterrorist units that works closely with Iraqi security forces. This presence, along with the forces in Kuwait and at sea in the Persian Gulf area will be sufficient to conduct strikes coordinated with Iraqi forces against any terrorist camps and enclaves that may emerge and deal with any major external threats to Iraq.


14,000 troops would be positioned nearby in Kuwait and as part of a Marine expeditionary force located offshore in the Persian Gulf to strike at any terrorist camps and enclaves and guard against any major acts that risk further destabilizing the region.

So what has been portrayed as a proposal for “immediate withdrawal” of US troops is, in fact, what Murtha has called it all along — redeployment of troops away from Iraq in order for the greater aims of US imperialism to be more successfully carried out.

In addition,

Up to two active brigades — approximately 20,000 troops — would be sent to bolster US and NATO efforts in Afghanistan and support counterterrorist operations in Africa and Asia. In Afghanistan, more troops are urgently needed to beat back the resurging Taliban forces and to maintain security throughout the country. If NATO is unwilling to send more troops, the United States must pick up the load. In the Horn of Africa, countries like Somalia and Sudan remain a breeding ground for terrorists.

Simply moving troops from one imperialist adventure to another is, to say the least, a less than ideal solution insofar as self-determination and the struggle against imperialism are concerned.

None of this is to say that, were Murtha’s proposal to be adopted, it would not be a major setback for American imperialism.  The Iraqi resistance has, in the opinion of a growing section of the ruling class and the upper echelon of the military, made the Iraq war unwinnable and further attempts to bring the country to heel futile.  It is this fact that has caused such an hysterical backlash against Murtha — ranging from Dick Cheney’s predictable tirades to Rep. Jean Schmidt’s comments on the House floor calling Murtha a “coward.” Not to mention the Democratic leadership’s shameful response — from the likes of Harry Reid, John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton — which consisted of running as quickly as possible in the other direction, yet another reminder of their status as the second party of American imperialism.

What we are witnessing is a — tentative, hesitant — split in the ruling class. One camp consists of those who wish to “stay the course” with all its corollaries: a puppet regime, permanent military bases, etc.  This is a continuation of the line espoused since the beginning of the war, an attempt to revolutionize the Middle Ease, redraw borders, and upend regimes according to the dictates of Washington, and establish US dominance over oil reserves that would define geopolitics for the next 50 years.  This dream is in tatters, largely due to the resistance in Iraq, but dreams die hard for those who refuse to open their eyes. The other camp is noticing the obvious — that the US is losing in Iraq, losing support at home, and that without a dramatic change in course all hell is going to break loose.  Saving imperialism from itself is its battle cry, or put another way, living to fight (invade, conquer, invade) another day.

Most of the Democratic leadership is too slow-footed or dim-witted to read the writing on the wall, so to speak, and argue for the second option.  Enter Murtha, the canary in the mineshaft for those who believe the war is now unwinnable and that grand schemes for a radically different Middle East more favorable to US interests ought to be abandoned in the interest of preserving the US Armed Forces and the image of US imperialism.  Avoiding the utter breakdown of the military, as happened in Vietnam, is the goal, as is the fear of another Vietnam Syndrome, which stymied the US in its global ambitions for a quarter century.  Strategic retreat and redeployment are the watchwords, not the moral imperative of immediate withdrawal.

So this is an important moment, sure to be remembered by history and worthy of attention and optimism from those of us in the antiwar movement.  But it is so because of what it represents, namely that our side has the momentum, that more and more Americans are growing disgusted by the war and its attendant immiseration at home, and that the ruling class has gone in four short years from proclaiming new doctrines of pre-emption and the resurrection of imperialism (in a kinder, gentler guise, no less) to scrambling to find a way to get out of the mess they’ve created.

There is a tremendous disconnect between the beliefs of ordinary Americans who no longer support the occupation, and the political force that we can bring to bear in order to actually end it.  There are, of course, no magic formulae for bridging that gap between consciousness and action, but the continued unraveling of the Bush administration and the ever-worsening situation in Iraq, when combined with the serious discussion on the possibility of withdrawal that has now been engendered by Murtha’s (half-hearted) broadside against the occupation, has opened up opportunities for the antiwar movement that were difficult to imagine six months ago..  Add to that the effects of Cindy Sheehan’s protests and the burgeoning work on campuses against military recruitment, and the light at the end of the tunnel — actual withdrawal of American troops from Iraq — is getting brighter by the day.


1 John P. Murtha, “War in Iraq” (17 November 2005).

2 “Transcript for November 20: John Murtha, Anthony Fauci, Julie Gerberding, Michael Leavitt, and Michael Ryan,” Meet the Press, NBC (21 November 2005).

3 Lawrence Korb and Brian Katulis, “Strategic Redeployment: A Progressive Plan for Iraq and the Struggle Against Violent Extremists,” Center for American Progress, (29 September 2005).

Michael George Smith is a student at the University of California, Berkeley.  His writing has appeared in Socialist Worker, Z Magazine, and the International Socialist Review.  He can be reached at michael.smith3@gmail.com>.