Former Under-Secretary of Defense Douglas Feith, a button-down bureaucrat whose puzzlingly mild demeanor made him look more like a public school teacher than the architect of an ideological crusade to re-order the Middle East, certainly provided the audience at the recent New Yorker “Town Hall Meeting on Iraq” with a hearty dose of liberal self-satisfaction when asked about the invasion of Iraq. When asked, “what did you think would happen?” regarding the Iraq’s internal politics, he replied, “The thinking was not focused entirely on the internal concerns in Iraq – we focused on Saddam's threat to us and others.” As laughter rippled throughout the hall, he struggled on, “The concept was to address the danger – the danger was that Saddam could make WMD available to terrorists. That appears to be wrong.” There was a pause for more jeers. He continued, “It's a large country, who knows?”

But, despite the satisfying image of Douglas Feith squirming, the sold-out town hall meeting exemplified the way in which the public debate on Iraq has been narrowed into parameters acceptable to those who support Feith’s views. The event took place on the eve of the 300,000-strong anti-war March in Washington. A recent poll taken by F.A.I.R. (Fairness and Accuracy in Journalism) cited that 41% of Americans supported immediate withdrawal from Iraq, “even if that means civil order in not restored there.” And yet, not a single person on the panel represented the viewpoint that America should withdraw all its troops immediately.

Moderator Jeffrey Goldberg opened the discussion with the question, “Where is Iraq now? Is the United States achieving its goals?” Fellow New Yorker journalist George Packer answered by reading an email he had received from a Sunni friend, Omar, who had recently visited a town in what he referred to as "the Sunni badlands." In it the friend remarked, "I think we are walking toward the civil war." Packer quoted a Sunni “insurgent” who told Omar, "Sooner or later the Americans will leave and we will begin the liberation of Baghdad." According to Packer, Americans may be an exacerbating factor to the violence, but they are the last line of defense between Omar and the insurgents.

The sentiment that America was the only force preventing civil war was echoed by nearly everyone on the panel. Former CIA agent Robert Baer said, “America is the only thing between Iraqi and chaos… which threatens to spread into the Gulf.” Iraqi Rend al-Rahim blamed the deaths in Iraq entirely on the insurgency, “The fallacy is that the insurgency fights America because Americans are killing Iraqis. If there was no insurgency killing Iraqis, no one would be killing Iraqis.”

When asked how the Americans should get out of Iraq, al-Rahim ignored the question and replied, “It’s been less than two and a half years… we are at the beginning of the road.” She continued, “We need to stick this out. I cannot say that we cannot edge into a civil war, but Iraqis deserve a chance. We cannot pull out American troops.”

Former CIA Director James Woolsey used several rationales for staying in Iraq, from Iraqis begging the U.S. not leave, to the noble cause of bringing democracy to the Arab world. His most memorable though, was the rationale that threatened, “If you leave, you could go to a different type of warning system: Run. Hide. Leaving will empower the Jihadists in their attacks against the Mid-East, Europe. They will come after us, both in Iraq and New York,” he said.

This surprising consensus made for a convincing argument that pulling out of Iraq would destroy the country and lead to interminable bloodshed. However, the real source of the consensus came mostly from The New Yorker’s decision to pick a panel of people whose views differed only slightly from one another on the topic of Iraq. The man putting questions to the panel, Jeffrey Goldberg, was the prominent pro-war journalist who wrote a piece for The New Yorker in 2002 that attempted to link Al Qaeda to Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. In August of 2002, Goldberg published a lengthy piece called “The Great Terror” detailing Hussein’s genocide of the Kurds in the 1980’s. In it, he highlighted the supposed threat Hussein posed to the world. “There is little doubt what Saddam might do with an atomic bomb or with his stocks of biological weapons,” he wrote.

The Nation took issue with much of Goldberg’s reporting, citing exaggeration and a slant toward neo-conservatives and an expert “so alarmist she carries bleach and an oversized plastic bag whenever she visits a shopping mall.” Daniel Lazare wrote in June 2003, “[I]f Goldberg’s articles are blinkered at best, at worst they are… examples of irresponsible fear-mongering whose principal effect has been to fuel the White House war drive.” That they appeared in The New Yorker, the paper of New York’s liberal elite, showed a systematic shift in attitude of the paper under the editor David Remnick. “Rather than challenge the hawks,” wrote Lazare, “the magazine either confined itself to criticisms of the way the war was being conducted or, in a few instances, sought to one-up the boys on the Defense Policy Board by running terrorist scare stories more lurid than even they could dream up.”

This criticism is surprisingly apt when applied to The New Yorker’s town hall meeting. The two most stridently critical voices of the night came from New Yorker journalists Mark Danner and George Packer. But, while a critic of the administration’s handling of the war in Iraq, Packer was part of the liberal establishment that condoned the invasion of Iraq on “humanitarian” grounds. In a March 2004 piece for Mother Jones, Packer wrote, “A minority of liberals – I was one – decided not to oppose the war that was bound to have the singularly happy result of ending one of modern history’s worst regimes… They decided that instead of protesting an already scheduled war, they would try to steer it toward ends they wanted: human rights, political change in the Arab world.”

Mark Danner, who was one of only two members of the panel who opposed the war before it began, still put his major emphasis on criticizing the policy as a “stupid idea” for solving the problem terrorism. He also explained that he supported military involvement to install democracy in some cases, just not in Iraq. This fine line between anti-war and pro-imperialist sentiment is exemplified by an October of 2002 editorial he wrote for The New York Times. “Baghdad is not Mogadishu. It will not be enough, as after the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, to declare victory, sail over the horizon and invade Grenada,” Danner wrote. “The risks of a failed intervention in Iraq are more grave: weakening regimes friendly to the United States, kindling a broader Middle East war, bringing terror to American cities. … If America chooses in this dark season to go abroad in search of monsters to destroy, it had better well destroy them – and show the will to leave something lasting in their place.” And, while many of Danner’s points were both compelling and damning evidence of the folly of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, his criticism, in its rueful dismissal of the way in which the war was carried out, offered few solutions to the violence.

The other panelist to oppose the war before it began, Baer opposed the war because he thought we should be killing Al Qaeda instead of Saddam Hussein. He supported a withdrawal from Iraq, but only to ensure that America would be able to protect its interests in the rest of the Gulf. And, he also conceded that withdrawal will not happen. Baer put it succinctly when he stated, "The problem is oil – the outcome of this could affect our lifestyle, forever."

Post-invasion Iraqi Ambassor to the United States, Rend al-Rahim was the only Iraqi on the panel. And unfortunately, hers was only outdone in vague platitudes by Douglas Feith himself. Prior to the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime al-Rahim was an Iraqi exile who in 1991 became the co-founder of the Iraq Foundation. This "think-tank," as al-Rahim described it, is a Washington D.C. based non-profit set up to support the liberation of Iraq from Saddam Hussein. A paper submitted by the foundation to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in August of 2002, months before America had declared war on Iraq reads, “[T]he Administration has the unmitigated support of Iraqi-Americans in its evident determination to eliminate what the President has rightly termed an evil regime.”

Al-Rahim also presented prepared remarks to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. On August 1, 2002 al-Rahim wrote, “Iraqis will welcome the United States as the liberator, and many will join U.S. forces in dismantling the regime’s edifice.” Later in the paper she denied any complication in regards to a civil war, “To anticipate civil war is to ignore or misrepresent modern Iraqi history.” In an interview with Jim Lehrer, al-Rahim denied that an occupation was still on-going in Iraq, stating, “Now that we do not have an occupation anymore, I think we are back on track. … I do not think that the presence of troops in the country undermines sovereignty.”

Nor would the presence of absent Kanan Makiya, the other slated Iraqi guest who missed the meeting due to illness, have changed drastically the Iraqi viewpoint presented at the meeting. Makiya is also an exile of Iraq and also co-founder of the Iraq Foundation. Also pro-war, Makiya presented a paper entitled “A Model for Post-Saddam Iraq” to the American Enterprise Institute in October, 2002. This model, he wrote, would only come into being from his “pious hope and dreams” on the assumption “that the United States actually proceeds with its stated policy of regime change in Iraq.” Makiya is also a client of a publicity firm whose founder, Eleana Benador, uses her skills as a publicist “brokering deals” to disseminate the ideas of “neo-conservative writers, thinkers and talkers reshaping US foreign policy.” James Woolsey, also on the panel, is represented by this firm.

This kind of lopsided debate, in which experts discuss the seeming impossibilities of withdrawal without even considering it as a genuine option, is typical of the discussion surrounding Iraq. It is also one of the main reasons for the impotence surrounding anti-war, anti-occupation stances. In an editorial for The Washington Post in June 2005, columnist Harold Meyerson summed up this phenomenon. “Confronted with a choice between U.S. occupation and chaos, millions of Americans -- chiefly liberals and Democrats -- who'd been against the war decided to give occupation a chance,” wrote Meyerson. “In the streets, demonstrations dwindled; in Congress, Democrats (save for a handful) did not call for withdrawal. With unprecedented discipline, Democrats who had opposed the war lined up behind the candidacy of John Kerry, whose position on the war was muddled at best. The question of the occupation fell off the liberal agenda. At the Take Back America conference, a national gathering of liberals held this month, the issue barely came up at all.”

In a true debate, just as much compelling evidence could have been produced to support withdrawal from Iraq as continued occupation. Tariq Ali recently wrote in London’s The Guardian, “The argument that withdrawal will lead to civil war is slightly absurd, since the occupation has already accelerated and exacerbated ethnic and religious tensions in Iraq. Divide and rule is the deadly logic of colonial rule – and signs that the U.S. is planning an exit strategy coupled with a long-term presence is evident in the new Iraqi constitution, pushed through by U.S. proconsul Zalmay Khalilzad. This document is a defacto division of Iraq into Kurdistan (a U.S.-Isreali protectorate), Southern Iraq (dominated by Iran) and the Sunni badlands (policed by semi-reliable ex-Baathists under state department and Foreign Office tutelage). What is this if not an invitation to civil war?”

In a February article for The New Republic, Spencer Ackerman wrote, “The prospects for outright civil war and for jihadist propaganda victory, however, are significant. But they're far more likely if the United States stays than if we leave. The Sunnis, 82 percent of whom want the United States out in short order, could continue to direct their anger at the occupation to what they increasingly see as its Shia beneficiaries. Conversely, the Shia, 68 percent of whom want the U.S. to leave Iraq expeditiously, could grow frustrated with their more moderate leadership--which cautions patience with both the United States and the Sunnis--and answer Sunni attacks in kind. Similarly, the global Salafist jihad gains much more with the United States in Iraq than out. As the U.S. National Intelligence Council recently assessed, the occupation is providing the jihad with both a rallying cry and a training ground.”

Justifying further occupation of Iraq by limiting the discussion of why America “can't” get out distracts from the real issues that must be addressed when talking about Iraq. American involvement in Iraq demands a debate not just about the state of Iraq as a country, but the state of our own country. It demands that we bring imperialism –shorthand for the economic and military domination of the U.S. over major parts of the world, which ensures our prosperity and has been the major function of American foreign policy for decades – into the discussion. Saying America can’t get out without addressing these issues, conflates the idea of "impossible" to "inconvenient for the status quo of American foreign policy." When others say America cannot get out of Iraq, what they mean is – American won't. Those who allow that refusal to define the debate, allow those who persecuted this war: Douglas Feith, James Woolsey, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, George W. Bush and the rest of the neo-conservative troupe to see their long-term goals of permanent American dominance in the Middle East, regardless of the bloodshed and cost, to the very finish.