Losing Lives or Face: Time to Leave Iraq

Iraq is a disaster, probably America’s greatest strategic mistake since World War II. It will be years, if not decades, until we see, let alone overcome, 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 swell idea – recognize that we 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.

The basic argument is simple. As 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.”

In this view, leaving Iraq would suggest weakness. Thus, the U.S. must continue to fight. And U.S. soldiers, Marines, and civilians must continue to die.

It’s an appalling argument. Even the most basic and obvious mistake can never be acknowledged, since doing so would exhibit weakness. As a result, 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 world. The mistaken decision to launch an unnecessary war of choice, and the appalling decisions that led to a worsening sectarian war, already have wrecked Washington’s image.

Indeed, the disaster in Iraq well 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 the detritus of France’s colonial struggle in Vietnam that warranted putting a half million troops into a guerrilla conflict half the 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 great national purpose was served when the Clinton administration decided to choose among competing warlords in Somalia, leading to the Mogadishu humiliation?

Neocon warriors cite America’s disengagement in all of these conflicts as examples of “weakness” which allegedly emboldened America’s enemies. While lolling in their finely appointed offices in government bureaucracies and private think tanks, the über-hawks argue that Washington should have persevered.

What would that have meant in practice? U.S. troops should not have been withdrawn from Vietnam, presumably. Instead, 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. U.S. Soldiers should have battled for years, or decades, until “victory” – when Washington’s corrupt, incompetent client regime in South Vietnam proved able to defend itself.

How about in Lebanon? There, apparently, the U.S., which zealously employed the USS New Jersey to bombard Muslim villages, should have killed even more Lebanese – as many as necessary – to “win,” whatever that would have meant in Lebanon’s multi-sided civil war. Never mind that Washington would essentially have found itself in Iraq 20 years earlier.

As for Somalia, hawks seemingly believe that American forces should have destroyed any and all antagonistic warlords. This would have empowered other, equally brutal and evil warlords, but no matter. At least the latter had the foresight to ally with Washington. The U.S might have been no closer to protecting human rights, promoting democracy, and preserving the Somali state, but America would have looked “strong.”

Then there is Iraq. Those who babble on about victory rarely specify what they mean. Does anyone seriously believe that the U.S. is likely to create a liberal, pro-American democratic system no matter how many soldiers it deploys for how long?

Is victory defeating the insurgency, which prospers largely because so many Iraqis have come to hate America? Indeed, even now a majority of Iraqis say that attacks on U.S. forces are justified and want American troops to leave. More Americans mean more targets for IEDs, snipers, and car bombs. The insurgency will only be defeated by Iraqis.

Perhaps victory means the triumph of a U.S.-backed government, no matter how flawed. That’s a more realistic goal, but not one obviously enhanced by a large and potentially even larger American troop presence. We like to view U.S. soldiers as liberators, but the Iraqis stopped doing so long ago. American military action often creates more enemies and thereby counterbalances 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. Even many Sunni insurgents have criticized urban bombings directed at Shi’ites. The foreigners wouldn’t last long once American forces disappeared.

In short, there is little chance that America can attain “victory” and little good that the U.S. can do by staying. Doing so would only postpone the inevitable withdrawal, making us look stupid today before appearing weak tomorrow.

It’s time for the Beltway War Party to face reality: withdrawal is inevitable. At this stage, no one is likely to come up with a strategy that can stabilize Iraq, establish a pro-American government, and convince the Iraqi people to accept permanent U.S. bases. 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 point in the conflict – will come up with the answer is about the same as the likelihood that President Bush will receive the Nobel Prize in literature. The American troops will be coming home.

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

Today, at least, Washington can plot a withdrawal under its own power while retaining a semblance of dignity and hoping that a reasonably friendly regime survives in Baghdad. 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 former would harm America’s reputation, but the damage would fade over time. The latter would have a catastrophic impact.

Advocates of a troop “surge,” of another stab at victory, intone that failure is not an option. The price of failure is simply too high, they say.

Actually, the president and his neocon retainers guaranteed failure by undertaking an unnecessary, unpromising war and blundering at every opportunity. Those who really recognized the high cost of failure were those who opposed the war from the start. It’s easy for hawks to jump off the wreck of the Bush bandwagon today. Those with foresight recognized that the project was doomed from the start.

No one likes to admit having made a mistake, least of all President Bush. 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 Bush administration’s unilateral warmongering has weakened rather than strengthened America.

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