I have been a critic of the Iraq War from the months preceding the invasion (when everyone knew that the Bush Administration was intent on invading regardless of what the UN inspectors found) until now, when rarely a day goes by that new allegations of torture and various forms of abuse, graft, and corruption don’t make the front pages of major newspapers. At the moment I am particularly disgusted and dismayed by the Administration’s insistence that it will veto any bill making torture illegal (Bush’s first veto in five years!), which seems to me the most short-sighted and un-American decision of my adult life.
Yet right now I also find myself feeling a bizarre desire to defend the Bush Administration on one fundamental count: that withdrawing troops right now would be premature and undermine both Iraqi and American interests. As I have mentioned before, I am not going to argue over military specifics that I know nothing about; but I will address general points that I think anyone who has paid close attention to this conflict can understand.
At the most basic level, the furor over Congressman John Murtha’s call for an immediate troop withdrawal smells of Democratic political opportunism. Fresh from their electoral victories two weeks ago, and with President Bush’s approval ratings at nearly an all-time low, Democrats smell blood in the water and are prepared to capitalize. But what is troubling is that no Democratic lawmaker, Murtha included, has put forth a coherent plan that assesses the likely effects of disengaging from Iraq, which must be a prerequisite for any discussion of troop withdrawal. Nor have the Democrats provided their own assessment of what would constitute “victory” in Iraq.
On another level, I still can’t understand what supporters of the war (both Democrats and Republicans) honestly expected Iraq to look like only two and a half years after the overthrow of a despotic ruler of a state crippled by more than a decade of sanctions, constant bombings, and war. I can’t decide which is more disturbing, the Bush Administration’s initial fables about how we would be warmly greeted as liberators and that “securing the peace” would be relatively swift and painless, or the fact that so many of our elected Congressmen and Senators actually believed such nonsense. You don’t need to be a military historian to realize that turning an ethnically divided country like Iraq into even a semblance of a multi-party democratic state was going to take more than 2+ years and come with a tremendous price. And however bad the conditions are in Iraq (which they are), the political process has so far been relatively successful and new elections are only weeks away. With the recent decision by radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to join the political process, and evidence that Sunnis in large numbers are starting to join as well, this seems like the worst time to start discussing our exit.
When voters granted Bush a second term last November, in a sense this was their way of saying that Bush has ownership of the Iraq War and that he has another four years to finish it. While I think criticizing the Administration’s handling of the war is justified, I don’t think that Murtha’s call for troop withdrawals is at all constructive. Although comparing total numbers of war dead is a tasteless activity, the fact is that by any measure the costs of the Iraq War have so far been very low by historical standards. Anyone who was not prepared for at least 2,000 dead American soldiers should never have supported the use of force in the first place; war brings death and suffering, plain and simple.
Above all else, what the Bush Administration owes the American people is a clear benchmark for assessing “victory” in Iraq; i.e., how we can determine when Iraqi democracy is sufficiently rooted and the Iraqi government has the authority and manpower to maintain stability. The Administration must convey this clearly to the American people and provide us with frequent updates on the progress or the lack thereof that are honest and forthright. The Administration, however, does not owe the American people a specific timeline for troop withdrawal; that timeline is already hovering in the distance, and it’s called the 2008 presidential election.
P.S. A good article on Bosnia 10 years after the U.S. engagement, which potentially holds some lessons for Iraq, can be accessed here.