Losing Lives or Face: Time to Leave Iraq

Guest Commentary

Saddam Hussein richly deserved his execution, but Iraq is no less a strategic disaster for America because of it.  It will be years, if not decades, until the world overcomes all of the consequences of George W. Bush’s misbegotten war.

Most people—other than President Bush, who admits that “we’re not winning” but still thinks the invasion was a good idea—recognize that the U.S. should not have attacked Iraq. There remains wide disagreement over what to do now, however.

Even some critics of the war believe America must stay.  If not to win, then at least not to lose.

As outgoing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld explained at his farewell ceremony: “It should be clear that not only is weakness provocative, but the perception of weakness on our part can be provocative as well.”  Thus, the U.S. must continue to fight.

It’s an appalling argument.  Even the most obvious mistake can never be acknowledged; patriotic young Americans must continue to die to disguise the folly of their political leaders.

Concern about America’s reputation is legitimate.  But it’s a bit late to worry about how Washington looks to the rest of the world. Launching, and then botching, an unnecessary war already has wrecked Washington’s image.

Indeed, the disaster in Iraq demonstrates what should have been obvious before: the importance of not frivolously putting America’s credibility on the line in a dubious cause.

U.S. officials seem incapable of grasping this lesson.  For instance, what did America have at stake in Vietnam that warranted putting a half-million troops into a guerrilla conflict half a world away?

What sense was there for President Ronald Reagan to have America ally with a minority political and religious faction in the Lebanese civil war, leading to the deadly attack on the Marine Corps barracks?  What national purpose was served when the Clinton administration decided to choose among competing warlords in Somalia, leading to the Mogadishu humiliation?

Hawks cite America’s disengagement in all of these conflicts as examples of “weakness” which allegedly emboldened America’s enemies.  But what would persevering have meant in practice?

In Vietnam, Uncle Sam should have conscripted more young men to fight in a war which wasn’t critical for the security of America or even, it turns out, for America’s Southeast Asian allies?  In Lebanon, the U.S. should have killed as many people as necessary to “win,” whatever that would have meant in Lebanon’s multi-sided civil war?  In Somalia, American forces should have destroyed some warlords, leaving other, equally brutal and evil warlords alone?

As for Iraq, does anyone seriously believe that the U.S. is likely to create a liberal democratic system?

Does victory mean defeating the insurgency, which prospers largely because so many Iraqis have come to dislike America? More Americans mean more targets for IEDs, snipers, and car bombs.  The insurgency will only be defeated by Iraqis.

Perhaps victory is the triumph of a U.S.-backed government. That’s a more realistic goal, but not one obviously enhanced by a larger American troop presence.  Military action often creates more enemies and thereby counter-balances any positive security impacts.

Presumably Washington should at least defeat the “terrorists,” meaning al-Qaeda and other foreign fighters.  Yet this group would most quickly be wiped out in a pure Iraqi civil war.

In short, there is little chance that America can attain “victory” and little good that the U.S. can do by staying in Iraq.

Withdrawal is inevitable.  The likelihood that the Bush administration—which is responsible for today’s catastrophic mess and has chosen the wrong strategy and tactic at virtually every turn—will come up with a strategy for victory is about the
same as the likelihood that President Bush will receive the Nobel Prize in literature.

Since Washington will have to withdraw without achieving “victory,” the U.S. will appear weak.  The only question is how weak.

Today, at least, Washington can plot a withdrawal with a semblance of dignity.  If the U.S. waits, it risks being forced out in the midst of a humiliating collapse of its Iraqi allies, as in Saigon in 1975.  The impact of the latter would be far worse.

Advocates of a troop “surge,” of another stab at victory, intone that failure is not an option.  Actually, the president guaranteed failure by undertaking an unnecessary, unpromising war and blundering at every opportunity.  Those who opposed the war from the start were the ones who really recognized the high cost of failure.

No one likes to admit to having made a mistake.  But wishing for “victory” won’t make it so.  There is nothing the U.S. can do in Iraq to avoid the perception of weakness.

The best Washington can do today is plan an orderly withdrawal from Iraq, despite all of the ugly consequences likely to follow.  America must count its losses and say “never again.”