President Bush is right about one thing: the Iraq War is the central issue facing America. It is arguably one of the worst foreign policy mistakes in American history, both strategically and morally.
I have listened to and read dozens of hours of interviews with generals, other military experts, commentators, soldiers, and Congressmen and women, and there is no consensus on how best to extricate ourselves from this terrible situation. While most believe that Bush’s planned escalation will not work, there are credible people, including the new commander in Iraq, General Petraeus, who believe that it has a reasonable chance of success.
The more I learn about the Iraq War, the more I realize how complicated Middle Eastern politics is. I do not say this to deflect blame on the Iraqis or to chalk up our failures simply to cultural differences; I say it to recognize the swirl of forces that the war has turned loose, and to recognize how essentially impossible it is to predict what might happen as all these forces interact and the situation finally plays out.
This is why, at the end of the day, facts must trump faith.
Virtually every single judgment made by the proponents of the war has been wrong since before the war even started. Looking back, the Bush Administration and their neocon supporters appear completely delusional, with Cheney, who just this November called Rumsfeld the “greatest Defense Secretary in American history”, at the top of the list.
The Administration has had a blank check to wage the war exactly as it wanted since the war’s inception. It had a “rubber stamp” Congress that didn’t even bother to conduct oversight. Even now, with Congressional control passing to the Democrats, the President’s new plan is almost exactly what the neocons have been calling for. It is essentially the same old strategy with an additional 20,000 troops, along with some reshuffling of duties, mixed with vague commitments to demand more from the Iraqi government. Even so, and as I have said, there are credible people who think the plan has a chance of working.
Fine. This is their last chance.
Faith and rhetoric do not equal victory. Only results do. If the president wants to run out his term hoping that his strategy will finally work, he will likely have the ability to do so, regardless of Congressional opposition. And just as he will deserve credit for victory, he must be held accountable for defeat.
Some take a longer-term view and see the Iraq War as part of a generational struggle. They are not so concerned with whether we win now or in 10 years, and they cite our decades-long military commitments in Europe and Asia. This seems to me the height of irresponsibility and historical blindness.
The longest large-scale military commitment in U.S. history was our eight years in Vietnam from 1965-1973, during which we had a draft. The Iraq War currently stands as the second longest U.S. war. While we still have troops stationed in Asia and Europe, they are not the daily targets of snipers and IED’s; the American military is simply not equipped for such intense long-term engagements. Just this week the military dramatically increased tours of duty; men and women will now be called on to serve two continuous years in Iraq without coming home, and then can be called back again for long tours. This is the first time in our history that we have engaged in a conflict in which the costs have so disproportionately fallen on a small number of our volunteer forces; at the same time as we have called on them to do more and more, we have enacted record tax cuts for the rich. It is simply unsustainable, morally, politically, and militarily.
Of course, those who insist that we could “win” in Iraq if we really wanted to are in some sense correct. Maybe it would take 15, 20, 25 years, but if we committed the necessary resources we could probably stabilize the country. But we could say the same thing about any country, including Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. Such a claim is both vacuous and morally corrupt; war must be weighed against both the direct costs in lives, suffering and treasure, and the opportunity costs. War is not simply a pit into which one keeps throwing money and lives in the hope of some vague future benefits.
In the end, I hope President Bush is right. I hope Iraq in another year is on its way to stability and peace. I hope the Islamic extremists are defeated. But the time is up for hope. Either it happens or we have to get out of there and deal with the consequences. (One cannot fail to wonder why, if Bush truly believes that the Iraq conflict is so central to U.S. interests, he has prosecuted the war so badly and committed relatively little troops for the past four years.)
I reject the notion that if we leave Iraq before the country is completely stable and all of the extremists defeated, that this will be catastrophic. Again, there are many unknowns. The Shiite majority is unlikely to tolerate a large Sunni Al Queada presence and we will surely keep troops in the area to destroy any terrorist training camps that take root. With respect to humanitarian concerns, there is a lot we could do to rescue the Iraqi civilians and provide humanitarian relief; it is not as if the current policy, in which millions have been displaced and hundreds of thousands butchered, is providing much benefit to the Iraqi civilians anyway. There are other problems in the world that require our attention, and the open-ended nature of our commitment has so far not inclined the Iraqis to make the compromises they need to end the civil war.
P.S. Here's the President's take: Check it out.