Skippy-san and I have had the occasion to disagree from time to time, and it looks like we will again. In a blog post over at his place, he takes me to task for – and I’m being charitable to both of us here – being mistaken in my facts on a previous post having to do with Iraq and the political demands of a certain presidential candidate. I have no intention of engaging in a point-by-point refutation of the issues he raises with my post, but will assert that it is not necessary that one must believe in an emerging Utopia-on-the-Euphrates to acknowledge that significant things have indeed been accomplished there, and that good work may yet be accomplished.
Let us be clear up front: I consider Skippy-san to be a patriot whose loyalty to his country is beyond question. I humbly beg for myself the same indulgence. We both of us want what’s in the best interest of the nation whose Constitution we swore an oath to support and defend. Where we differ then is not in ends, but in definitions and means: What is in the national interest? What is the best way to promote it?
(At this point, certain among our international readers may feel a tendency to get tight-lipped: More self-referential American navel gazing? But I make no apologies, as a serving military officer my loyalties and responsibilities are clear. I also happen to believe that, in general, what’s good for the US is also good for freedom-loving countries and peoples everywhere, although there’s certainly room for argument there. Perhaps we can have that discussion another day, but my short answer to such objections is here.)
So: We went to war in Iraq because we believed it was in our national interest to do so. Our reasons for thinking this to be true were varied and sundry, but they were all laid out in front of the responsible arms of government under the watchful eye of the American public. We had a debate as befits a great republic, and having made a decision through the prescribed process, we went to war – no trifling undertaking.
Even back in 2003, when vast majorities of both the public and Congress agreed that doing so was in the national interest there were people who disagreed. In the intervening years, the people who thought it was a bad idea from the outset have actually increased – hindsight may or may not be 20/20, but there are advantages which accrue to those who remain silent when important decisions are being discussed. But Skippy-san is not one of those. Like John Donovan and many others, he went on record at the time as saying that the idea was dangerously fraught with unforeseeable consequences.
This was a logically supportable, honorable and patriotic position to take during the national debate of 2002-2003. John – to his credit in my view – put aside his personal reservations once our forces crossed the line of departure and continues to acknowledge the need to win the fight we are engaged upon. Others have not done so, in fact for some – and I do not lump Skippy-san in this category – the most important thing seems to be an ugly emotional need to be publicly applauded for their original perspicacity, as if the most important thing was for themselves to be proven correct even if it meant that their country had to lose a major war to do so. There is an equally revolting obverse to this tendency – the need among certain of the war’s supporters to be proven right no matter how many among the flower of the nation’s youth have to die to do so. But I take it for granted that Skippy-san does not engage at this level and I have probed my own soul deeply enough to believe that I do not. As I said, I believe we earnestly seek what is in the nation’s interest.
Now some of the reasons that we went to war over have proven chimerical in retrospect, and some of them have proven vastly more difficult to implement than even the war’s most reluctant proponents could have envisioned. Neither of these things was clear at the moment of decision however, which is the only way that such decisions can reasonably be judged.
History, moreover, does not stop its inexorable progress down the trail of time once a particular path is chosen. In an alternate reality wherein we did not choose to depose Saddam by force, the UN sanctions regime – which was already groaning under the weight of all those dead Iraqi children even while the Monster engorged himself on their miseries – would very likely have collapsed. Remember “Smart Sanctions”?
Perhaps a nuclear armed Saddam would have been a better buttress to world stability than an emergently nuclearized Iran – not all cards on that issue have yet been played, by the way – but those who insist that this is true have a duty to explain to rest of us precisely how, as do those who stubbornly impute that the whole thing would have turned out better if only we had gotten a self-interested and in any case pouting, truculent France on side back in ’03.
But one thing leads to another and no reasonable person can deny that 2006 was indeed a very bad year. After many false starts, the Sunni rejectionists finally managed to goad the Shia majority into a murderous rage – all along an inexplicable and incomprehensible tactic – and now their co-religionists are nightly reaping the retributive whirlwind. The security situation in the capital is atrocious, the government inept and corrupt and the costs continue to mount in both fiscal and human terms. Iran feels growingly empowered, US prestige in a critically important region is under assault and everywhere fingers are wet to the winds. To acknowledge this is to understand the scope of the problem.
So what is to be done?
Well first of all, it goes without saying that we don’t get to have a “do-over,” and probes of original sin are rightfully the work of disinterested historians, not pragmatists forced to operate in the world as it is, knowing only what can be known. We are where we are and the only real question is what we do from here.
Skippy-san argues that our interest is best served by returning American forces to their stateside garrisons, effectually abandoning whatever influence we might have on events in a region whose strategic value is almost incalculable. But even setting aside the moral implications of an act that would in effect if not intent equate to fomenting genocide, it’s hard for me to understand how that would serve the national interest. What do we gain by allowing nations and non-national actors who bear us no good will, including Iran and Syria to rush into the vacuum we leave behind? What do we gain by forcing our nominal allies in the region to either align with these forces or else take arms against them?
What do we gain by returning a demoralized force to garrison, troops who had never been beaten in the field, to an echoing and embarrassed public silence, evident pawns in a game of domestic power politics? What do we gain by confirming to an all-volunteer force the realization that once again their political class and electorate had sent them into sacrifice unseriously, lacking the political endurance to match their personal heroism? What do we gain as we execute a multi-year “reset” of their equipment and training, during which time our power to militarily influence overseas events will be sharply reduced even if we could muster the political will?
What do we gain if we abandon to barbarism and slaughter those overseas who trusted in our promises of freedom, self-determination and support? What do we gain by leaving vast swaths of Al Anbar to grow into a Qaedist mini-state? What do we gain by providing the jihadis graphic evidence of our provocative weakness? What do we gain by proving to allies that our word cannot be trusted?
How does any of this serve the national interest?
And all of it would even make sense if it were demonstrably true that in staying we would be throwing good money – and lives – after those unwisely spent, that all is lost or that the cost of remaining outweighs even the costs of defeat. I myself do not believe in insoluble problems, nor do I believe – as Skippy-san asserts – that Islam and democracy are fundamentally incompatible. Indonesia after all, is the most populous country in Islam and has a functioning democracy, however challenged it might otherwise be. And while I remain agnostic on the effect that 21,000 additional troops may have on the stabilization of Baghdad, it is at least worth a try. There are no other recommendations on the table that do not lead to national defeat, no matter what other name you use to label it.
But all of that is really beside the point. The issue at hand was and is that if any of the candidates campaigning for the presidency truly believe that our defeat in Iraq is inevitable, they have a duty not to wait two more years but to demand – on the record – that the power of the purse be used to thwart the surge and bring the troops home now. That is the only principled stand.
Those who in 2003 voted “aye” on the authorization to use military force are welcome to change their minds in the light of newly understood reality, but they have no right to resent the fact that victory cannot be achieved on a timetable favorable to their personal political ambitions.
Skippy-san is fond of repeating some fervently held beliefs. I will respond in kind: We cannot be defeated. We can only decide to lose. Before we do so, we ought to seriously consider the consequences.