Why the Left Won’t Accept Success

Exclusive: A curious feature of the American Left is its resistance to recognize its own successes. So, even as President Barack Obama is bringing the eight-year U.S. occupation of Iraq to an end, some on the Left refuse to celebrate, as Robert Parry reports.

By Robert Parry

Last Friday, President Barack Obama announced that the United States would complete the withdrawal of its troops from Iraq by Christmas, a development that you might have thought the anti-war Left would cheer.

But that’s not been the case for some activists, at least based on a sampling of the writings that I’ve been sent. Instead of celebrating the success of the anti-war movement in bringing this war to an end, I’ve been reading commentaries either insisting that it’s all a trick or giving the credit to President George W. Bush.

It appears that some don’t want to accept that the anti-war movement has won a hard-fought victory and that Obama’s election was a factor. It’s almost as if the fact that something has been achieved through the deeply flawed U.S. political system threatens a preferred political analysis, which holds that nothing good can happen.

So, instead of giving credit to the many Americans who protested the war or who found ways to explain its injustice to the public, some activists are stressing the negative, noting that security contractors will remain to protect the U.S. Embassy or that U.S. corporations will still try to sell weapons systems and exploit Iraq’s oil reserves.

Others observe that the Iraqi government negotiated the “status of forces agreement” setting the timetable for a drawdown of U.S. troops with President Bush in late 2008 – and thus President Obama should get no credit. He should just be denounced for not ending the war sooner.

But these arguments largely miss the point. This final withdrawal of U.S. troops at the insistence of the Iraqi government – and with Obama’s acquiescence – is a very big deal. Oddly, it is being acknowledged more by the Right than the Left, with prominent Republicans condemning Obama’s announcement as an admission of U.S. defeat.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich declared, “The president has announced what will be seen by historians as a decisive defeat for the U.S. in Iraq.”

The neocons are furious because they saw Bush’s SOFA as only a holding action and expected that the U.S. government would twist the arms of the Iraqis to get them to accept a permanent U.S. military presence in Iraq. The neocons are now condemning Obama for not doing so.

After all, Bush would not have made the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad the largest in the world, along with over-sized consulates in other Iraqi cities, if the neocons did not expect to turn Iraq into something of an American colony, a home for U.S. military bases to threaten other countries in the region, such as Iran and Syria.

Now, with the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops, the neocon dream of U.S.-controlled bases in Iraq has been dashed and the diplomatic outposts are already being downsized. The gargantuan embassy complex in Baghdad may well be viewed in the future as more a monument to American hubris than a hub of U.S. intervention.

Bloody Folly

When the last U.S. convoys rush to the Kuwaiti border in December, the world will see the event for what it is, a stunning reversal for America’s imperial overreach, a $1 trillion neocon folly that killed nearly 4,500 U.S. troops and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.

Yet, instead of driving home that important lesson, some on the Left seem to prefer insisting that this historic defeat is just an illusion or that the anti-war movement (including Obama’s election) had nothing to do with the outcome.

Perhaps that’s because it’s fashionable these days to say that elections don’t matter. Yet, one only has to think about what the U.S. approach toward Iraq would have been under a President John McCain or even a President Hillary Clinton.

Because Obama had built his political career largely on his opposition to the Iraq War – while McCain and Clinton were eager war supporters – Obama had a lot to lose if he reneged on his campaign promise and left behind a sizeable contingent of U.S. troops. In the end, he didn’t push very hard to maintain a U.S. troop footprint in Iraq.

Obama’s election, therefore, marked a significant turning point in the difficult struggle to bring this ill-begotten war to a close. It shows how anti-war dissent and electoral politics can combine – however imperfectly – to get results. Achieving an outcome may take time and surely is frustrating, but victories can be won.

So, this could be a time to cheer the many people who stood up against the ugly pro-war pressures of 2002-03, the likes of weapons inspector Scott Ritter, former CIA analyst Ray McGovern, members of Code Pink, the many bloggers who spoke truth to power, the young people who marched in the streets, and many more.

However, some activists prefer to see the U.S. government as all-powerful and thus certain to find some way to transform this ignominious defeat into permanent political control of Iraq. But history has shown us that sometimes imperial powers simply lose.

The Vietnam Precedent

I witnessed something similar after the Vietnam War, when it became conventional wisdom inside much of the Left that the many years of anti-war marches, teach-ins and reaching out to the public via media had failed to make much of a difference.

Many progressives bought into the Nixon administration’s insistence that the powers-that-be paid little heed to the “bums” as President Richard Nixon once called the anti-war protesters. So, when the war was finally brought to an end in the 1970s, the Left denied itself much sense of success.

President Richard Nixon

It would take many more years before documents and books – from Nixon’s White House tapes to The Haldeman Diaries – would reveal how big a concern the anti-war movement was to the nation’s leaders, including the thin-skinned Nixon who undid his own presidency by overreacting to anti-war whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg and setting the stage for the Watergate scandal.

Yet, the American Left not only failed to appreciate its success, but many progressives – especially those with money – absorbed the false lesson that the anti-war movement had been largely unsuccessful.

Thus, it became a relatively easy sell to persuade progressives to dismantle the infrastructure that had brought millions of Americans into the anti-war fold.

The “underground press,” including promising outlets such as Ramparts magazine and the Dispatch News wire service, were shut down for lack of funding. Other outlets were sold off either to profit-oriented corporations, as happened to Boston’s WBCN, or handed off to neoconservatives, like The New Republic.

Largely abandoning a national media structure, the Left turned to “local organizing” as the key to the future, under the slogan “think globally, act locally.”

Meanwhile, the Right observed the actual success of the Left during the civil rights and anti-war eras and modeled a movement that copied the Left’s strategies, focusing heavily on building media outreach to the American people and constructing a political movement with national messages.

The result was that these two ideological ships passed in the night, the Left throwing its media advantage overboard and the Right loading on as much media power as possible. The consequences should now be apparent.

Over the past several decades, the Right has achieved a political dominance that the inherent quality of its positions wouldn’t justify, while the Left largely lost touch with the broad American population and drifted toward irrelevance.

It turned out that local organizing – while admirable – doesn’t match the value of framing a way of understanding the world and aggressively pushing those ideas to the public. Only recently – relying mostly on underfunded Web sites and unorthodox protests like Occupy Wall Street – has the Left begun to recreate its approach of the 1960s.

Faulty Analysis

The danger to the Left now from misinterpreting its anti-war success once more – this time regarding Iraq – is that the faulty analysis will again drive future actions.

By refusing to recognize the value of Obama’s election as, in part, an expression of the nation’s anti-war sentiments, the Left could veer off into a rejection of electoral politics altogether – arguing there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between Obama and, say, Mitt Romney or Rick Perry, either of whom would restore the neocons to their place of preeminence in U.S. foreign policy.

Yes, I know Obama’s numerous missteps. Indeed, I have written critically about them. For instance, he kept on too many Bush holdovers, appointed too many Democratic neocon-lites, failed to conduct investigations into the Bush administration’s war crimes, and escalated the war in Afghanistan (although he has begun to reverse that course).

I’m also aware of the deep flaws in the U.S. political process, especially since the right-wing-controlled Supreme Court opened the floodgates to secret corporate financing of the political process.

The national news media is also skewed heavily to the right, with CNN seeing nothing wrong in collaborating with Tea Party extremists, while NPR can’t tolerate an anchor for an opera show participating in pro-democracy protests in Washington.

Nevertheless, as distorted as it by money, the electoral system is how the United States apportions power and – especially through the office of the presidency – that power can do enormous harm through actions such as war or inaction on issues like global warming.

If nothing else, the American people have a responsibility to mitigate that damage by voting for the candidate likely to do the least damage. That may not sound inspiring but millions of innocent lives – and conceivably the future of the planet – can be lost if the wrong choice is made.

However, some on the American Left operate under what might be called “the vanity of perfectionism,” the notion that what’s most important is to have the “perfect” analysis even if its consequences are destructive to mankind.

Thus, flawed political leaders who compromise are judged as no better than extremely dangerous ones who would initiate wars like the bloody mess in Iraq – or who would ignore long-term threats like global warming.

In Campaign 2000, Al Gore had shortcomings, but he was not the same as George W. Bush. To pretend otherwise was not only wrongheaded, it was reckless. It kept the race close enough for Bush to steal the White House.

The result was that many people died unnecessarily and the future of the planet was put at greater risk by Bush’s hostility to warnings about global warming.

The JFK Model

Campaign 2012 and Obama’s reelection bid will also have some historical parallels to the expected reelection race of John F. Kennedy in 1964.

Many Vietnam War scholars have argued that Kennedy, who made his own hawkish blunders with the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and an early escalation in Vietnam, had learned his lessons and would have withdrawn U.S. troops from Vietnam if he’d won a second term.

Instead, Kennedy was gunned down by an assassin in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, and his troop withdrawal never occurred. Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, dispatched hundreds of thousands of more soldiers to Vietnam, making the human catastrophe in Indochina much worse.

Like Kennedy, Obama has faced a steep learning curve as president and has made his share of mistakes. But his completion of the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and his timetable for phasing out a U.S. combat role in Afghanistan by 2014 suggest that he is following a JFK-like trajectory.

Except this time, what might reverse the course of history would be Obama’s electoral defeat in 2012. Republican front-runners, including Mitt Romney and Rick Perry, have made clear that they would again pursue a muscular neocon agenda with higher military spending and insistence on U.S. global dominance.

Romney has turned to prominent neocons to write his foreign policy manifesto, entitled “An American Century,” a tribute to the neocon Project for a New American Century, which provided the ideological framework for the invasion of Iraq.

So, the question now is whether the American Left will learn from these past experiences and recognize that – as difficult and as imperfect as it was – the movement to get the United States out of Iraq succeeded.

[For more on related topics, see Robert Parry’s Lost History, Secrecy & Privilege and Neck Deep, now available in a three-book set for the discount price of only $29. For details, click here.]

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & ‘Project Truth’ are also available there.

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22 comments on “Why the Left Won’t Accept Success

  1. Callie Weintraub on said:

    >>”the movement to get the United States out of Iraq succeeded..”

    Not because the Drone Bomber Obama wanted it, because “we” didn’t want our troops subject to Iraqi laws. Which was stipulated in the bush agreement. Parry left out the fact that Obomba is still trying to renegotiate that little sticking point.

    The twisting continues…On and On they go

    Glenn Greenwald is the New Parry because Parry has been deluded by the (D), that’s why there are typically 300 replies to one of his columns and 10 or so for these pathetic attempts to fool people into the old division b/w R and D

    Go Glenn Go

    Ron Paul 2012 and no one else

    • Dennis Brasky on said:

      I agree with Callie – Parry’s refusal to even mention Obama’s demand for immunity for crimes committed by US troops in Iraq is a lie of omission which discredits this entire article. Nice try to sell us Obama as the lesser evil Robert, but we’ve had enough of his drone bombings, war against whistle-blowers, cowardice with Israel and complicity with Wall Street. To hell with BOTH pro-war, pro-Wall Street parties!

      • anniebella on said:

        I’m not in favor of war. But I also don’t want those terrorists coming over here blowing us to pieces either.

        • Ron Paul, during Republican presidential debates years ago, said, that our meddling, beginning with the overthrow of the democratically elected Mossadeq in 1953 and keeping our troops on Muslim soil was background to 9/11. Rudy Guliani responded, “that is the craziest thing I have ever heard. I was there [at ground zero]“. Not only was Guliani clueless, his clueless response drew the loudest applause of the debate. Bin Laden said repeatedly that all he wanted was the removal of foreign troops from Muslim soil—the immediate cause of 9/11. Our continuing military action recruits more terrorists, which are the product of British/American meddling in the middle east.

    • anniebella on said:

      Glen Greenwald ain’t worth dog doo!!!!!!

    • CFWard57 on said:

      Ron Paul? Seriously? Are we talking about the racist who sent around newsletters during the 1980s about “those people” and their perverse habit of burning down their neighborhoods? Are we talking about the lunatic with his fantasies of a secret agreement between Canada, the U.S., and Mexico to create a new currency called the Amero? Are we talking about the guy who thinks the government shouldn’t provide social welfare programs, that it shouldn’t protect our environment or issue regulations to protect consumer safety and keep us from tainted air, land, and water? Are we talking about the same guy who wants us to end the drug war but thinks it’s OK to make abortion?

      You Ron Paul fanatics really get me. It’s like you can’t see anything other than his desire to return to a policy of early 20th century isolationism and to make it possible for you to toke in peace without fear of arrest. In exchange you’ll support this nut whose speeches often feature his arguments with Woodrow Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt and who believes in a magical land where a pure free market reigns supreme and all businesses will curb themselves voluntarily because they’ll have robust competition. In Paul’s magical land no businesses ever get together to form monopolies and all recognize their obligation to respond to consumer demands for purity, safety, and low cost. In Paul’s magical land the citizens exist in happy equality with the businesses and their tiny local governments, choosing from an abundance of businesses competing on the same level playing field and enjoying self-sufficiency just like what we see in old Westerns.

      I call bullshit.

  2. AlwaysAskWHY on said:

    Well, clearly Bob Parry is right. After the long years of the Viet Nam war, mass marches and protests with seemingly no results for years — at the end we were all exhausted… really, really exhausted and probably, even though it ended, still disillusioned. We didn’t even know how to handle our friends coming home from Viet Nam…so sad. It seemed clear then, as now, that money trumps democracy and human life – and it’s almost overwhelming!

    Bob’s analogy of what happened afterward is perfect: “The result was that these two ideological ships passed in the night, the Left throwing its media advantage overboard and the Right loading on as much media power as possible. The consequences should now be apparent.”

    No great surprise that we may have mentally tried to find a way to not see what was happening. We probably all needed a good long sleep… too little energy left to recognize that, unsated and undeterred, money was still on the march… gobbling up media, creating right wing institutions, grabbing up, indoctrinating and bribing students with money (tuition) and power in order to guarantee obedient, unthinking future corporate soldiers.

    The radical right was creating a propaganda machine, ala Frank Luntz, second only to Hitler and Goehring’s, who intentionally and successfully diverted the frustrations of “Good Germans,’ impoverished by Hitler’s Fascist regime, toward a target: the Jews, instead of where it belonged. Hitler bragged about it. Frank Luntz brags about it now.

    But I think there are deeper reasons for our inability to recognize and claim success. Exhaustion, yes, but also confusion! HOW do you fight people who are completely, utterly and obviously CORRUPT, INSANE SOCIOPATHS with no conscience, but LOTS of MONEY? These criminals should clearly be in jail in order to protect the public – but never are! No. They just get into power (evidence Scott Walker) and change the laws! Listening to these people spew screamingly obvious lies over and over and over; watching them succeed at disconnecting people from what they KNOW about science, religion and the world; whipping up our families, friends and neighbors into a frenzy of insanity and turning against each other is a crazy maker. For me, at least, the stress and rage have been almost too much.

    And watching the media devolve into a propaganda machine that can’t even recognize human suffering, death and destruction as crimes hurts more. How do you fight that??? HOW?

    We do keep plugging away though! But today, it’s difficult, almost impossible, to keep track of which element is more insane, more dangerous and doing immediate damage: the NeoCONS who seem to think theirs is a righteous capitalistic (even moral) cause to take over the world for its own good (their grand delusion)no matter who or how many people are robbed, injured or die — who are themselves USED by opportunistic corporate war-profiteers (who don’t care who or how many people are robbed, injured or die) – who are encouraged by other corporate and financial predators who see US imperialism and colonialism as a guarantee to their international success/profits (and who don’t care who or how many people are robbed, injured or die) – who the USE the nut job (sometimes criminal) Fundamental Religious Radicals in this country, who themselves PROFIT and gain POWER from their whipping up their otherwise “Christian” followers, convincing them to give them their last dime, and to remain on their knees praying for salvation instead of fighting for their life and liberty (and who don’t care who or how many people are robbed, injured or die). More shocking is that they convince these self-proclaimed “Christians” to not only ignore, but embrace a corrupt and violent political system as ‘necessary’ to do the work of God, and to vote against their own best interests, irregardless of whether they and their families are suffering in poverty, hunger, homelessness, joblessness and ignorance. It reminds me of Rodin’s “Gates of Hell” sculpture http://museum.stanford.edu/view/rodin__1985_86.html

    As an exhausted anti-war protestor and organizer, I became disillusioned long ago… even angry at the people I walked with in this struggle. Unable to focus on the most important issues, progressives and activists again and again spread themselves too thin, each person insisting on their pet issue, unable to recognize what I thought was the ONE thing that would end this crap early on: IMPEACHMENT.

    BUT HERE WE ARE NOW: THANK GOD for incredible authors, journalists, progressive media and whistleblowers who, with great integrity like Bob Parry, Chris Hedges, Amy Goodman, Thomas Frank, Naomi Klein, and dozens of others who have investigated, reported, spoken out and testified, written expository books, created blogs, internet news media like Truthout and AlterNet.org, 9/11 Truth.Org (very brave souls!), Thom Hartmann, Bobby Kennedy, Jr. and Mike Pappantonio at “Ring of Fire”, Jeremy Scahill, Al Jazeera, all the veterans against the war, many of whom refused to be redeployed AGAIN. And so many others! I don’t think we will ever let down our guard again! Ever!

    AND NOW WE HAVE BEEN BLESSED WITH THESE COURAGEOUS and CREATIVE SOULS WHO ARE OCCUPYING WALL STREET around the world, who are holding the mirror up to the world’s face!

    Thank you, Thank you, Thank You!!!! I AM RESTORED!

  3. Bill Jones on said:

    Anybody who persists in viewing American politics through the lens of “left” and “right” is a deluded fool.
    There are only the looters and the looted.

  4. Jym Allyn on said:

    The only disagreement I have with Robert’s criticism of the “stupidity of the Left” is that he failed to emphasize that the emotions of the 1968 anti-war movement helped get Richard Nixon elected and likely prolonged the Vietnam war for 6 more years and the waste of an additional 28,000 dead American soldiers.

    AND the “stupidity of the Left” is what got Bush #43 elected in 2000 because of the Nader/Moore campaign with the waste of an additional +6,000 dead American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    (Has anybody counted the dead American soldiers from our “war” in Libya?)

    It is likely that if Bush #41 had the brains or the balls to support the Shiites or Kurds in 1992, Saddam would have been long gone from Iraq. Instead we continued to view the Shiites as our enemies failing to realize that WE helped supply Iraq with WMD’s which is why the Iranian description of the US as “The Great Satan” is not an opinion but a statement of fact.

    Rumsfeld’s handshake with Saddam should have gotten Rumsfeld executed along with Saddam.

  5. Gregory L Kruse on said:

    In a way I don’t feel qualified to give an opinion that goes so deep into knowledge and participation that I don’t have, but it seems to me that the “end” of the Iraq war is like the return home of a young soldier who had long participated in the invasion of Iraq, got hit by an IED which damaged his brain and blew off an arm and a leg. Yeah, he might be happy to be home, but it’s hard to celebrate when your brain and body isn’t all there. The troops are out, but there is no reason why they can’t go back into, and through Iraq to Iran. There is an enormously powerful fleet just over the horizon to conduct terrorist assassinations at will throughout the region. There are thousands of “security” mercenaries being paid three or four times what the troops were paid to maintain the occupation. The oil corporations have their oil fields back on good terms. We are still terrorizing Afghanistan for their oil and gas, as well as Pakistan for their resistance to our whole program of giving over all the power to multi-national corporations. Am I relieved that Obama executed Bush’s plan to withdraw? Yes. Am I a little encouraged that he seems ready to use executive powers given to him by the neo-cons to defeat the neo-con agenda? Yes. Am I happy that he keeps trying to compromise between those who prefer corporate rule and those who love democracy? No.

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  7. As for the reason given of “immunity from Iraqi laws”, I don’t care what the reasoning is, getting out is what matters the most and what will be remembered as a success. Thank you Obama! Having troops returning to the USA in time for the holidays will be spectacular.

    “Reasoning America” recognizes the imperative to only allow republicans to enter the White House on a bus tour, anything beyond that increases the likelihood of a doomed America. At least another entire generation will be struggling to dig out from the havoc inflicted by Reagan/Bush/Bush, in fact it may take until the end of this century to repair the all their destruction.

    Celebrate the Obama victory, and condemn any republican rhetorical attack against Obama as a deadly threat to our nation. There have always been enough differences between republicans, democrats, and some 3rd party candidates to never vote republican.

  8. Sorry, Robert, but I can’t do it. I can’t vote for anyone who is such an obvious backstabber. The guy is the ultimate politician — he has a nack for saying what his current audience wants to hear. As a marketer, I’m impressed, until I remember that he’s the one running the country.

    Tell the lower 99% he’ll fight Wall Street greed, while at the same time telling the bankers he’s the only one between them and the pitchforks. Tell the people he’s getting lobbyists out of government and that he’s doing his best to clean up the environment while he hires a Keystone lobbyist to his 2012 team. Tell the people in the Pentagon they’ll get everything they need while he tells his base he’s working to end the wars. Completely fabricate a rationale that allows him to commit us to a war in Libyia without the consent of Congress. And worst of all, fabricate yet another rationale by which he can kill any U.S. citizen, anywhere, if he designates them a terrorist.
    The sad part is, I’m barely scratching the surface.

    So now, as 2011 draws to a close, what do we get? Why, it’s Obama back to full 2007 campaign mode. Tax the rich, reform Wall Street, blah blah blah. Spare me. We all know what ‘ol George JR said: “Fool me once…”

    I refuse to put my faith in someone who has repeatedly stabbed me and mine in the back. After all, when you play golf with guys who are carving up our country into little bits, and you see the other 99% behind bullet-proof glass, who’re you gonna screw?

  9. Hershell Bryant on said:

    Wonderful piece! It meanders a bit and there are a lot of theses to chew on, especially in this format. Still, I really enjoyed it.

  10. Magginkat on said:

    Excuse me! Wasn’t Obama trying to keep troops there for more years? And we’re supposed to celebrate because the Iraqi people would not agree to being occupied for many more years? Ok. I’ll celebrate that. Good for you Iraq!
    Now let’s take that gawd awful embassy in Iraq and turn it into a city with housing for the Iraqi people who have been left homeless. Likewise for all those military bases. Let’s really get the hell out of Iraq.

  11. CFWard57 on said:

    Good article, Bob, and it gets to the heart of what’s wrong with the “pure” left today. I can see from the comments stream here that there are plenty here who – because they are unsatisfied with Obama for not being as purely left as they are – are planning not to vote in 2012 because that’ll show him. Yes, it certainly would, and it would show President Romney and the GOP that no matter how much they screw this country over the purists on the left will make sure that though they may complain and whine and decry the awful GOP leadership, the one thing they WON’T do which might actually change things is vote or encourage anyone else to vote. No, much easier to go around pissing and moaning about how the two parties are EXACTLY the same and so there’s NO difference at all between, say, a President who wants to give us things like universal health care, educational opportunity, efficient government services, and adequate social welfare programs and the other guy who doesn’t support any of those things and and believes the solution is to let the economy crash because then investors can come in, buy all the foreclosed dwellings, and make slum subdivisions for us all. But at least they’ll have their PURITY, won’t they? They can say it’s not their fault since they didn’t vote because voting would have made them less pure.

  12. Handle on said:

    Problem is, the movement against the Iraq war was never as large or as influential as the anti-Vietnam War movement. And the Iraq insurgency never was as effective as the fight by North Vietnam, with support from the USSR, and spearheaded by the NLF. In Iraq, the US has been the loser , but it is not clear that our movement has been a winner. It is more like a stalemate, and that leaves room for more aggression in Libya, Pakistan, Somalia etc. The way things are going, we will have plenty of chances to update our anti-war credentials.

  13. I do not foresee a more liberal future when a conservative politician, by virtue of happenstance, makes some humane gesture; and I do not applaud Obama, liberal, good intentioned or not, when he acts out the same agenda and timetable that the finance class of London and New York find amenable to their present condition.

    As to the mioptic view that American interests are not perfectly served by a total US troop withdrawal.. well, ask the next question, ‘Then are international financial interests served? Yes?’ Maybe that is the answer that even the conservatives will someday choke on.

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