Even the most partisan critics of the war in Iraq insist they are every bit as determined as President Bush to secure a democratic peace there. Regardless of whether the administration's decision to go to war was correct, they say, the United States cannot now afford to cut and run.
Yet, even as the president's opponents give lip service to the importance of victory, they seize upon every setback suffered, exploit every challenge ahead, to suggest that defeat is inevitably what our nation is doomed to suffer. Their fatalism is often veiled -- allusions to Vietnam, innuendo about quagmires -- but the implications are clear. For the president's critics, there is a domestic constituency to be won from failure abroad. They are campaigning on defeat.
To be sure, there can and should be a robust debate this year about the tactics and strategy adopted by the Bush administration in the global war on terrorism, including its choice to remove Saddam Hussein from power. But that should be a debate about how to win. Those who believe going after the Middle East's most brutal dictator was a distraction that has exacerbated the problem of terrorism still have an obligation to explain what they would do in Iraq now that we're there. How would they secure victory?
But instead of trying to chart a path of progress, many of the president's critics have devoted themselves to fomenting public despair over a war that, they keep repeating, should never have been fought. They lament the money "wasted" on the Iraqi people and the damage done to America's reputation in its struggle against Islamist insurgents. They even suggest that Iraq is worse off today for having been freed from the grip of a tyrant -- never mind what the majority of Iraqis themselves might think.
While some cynics may dismiss the hand-wringing from the halls of Congress and elsewhere as little more than electioneering, its effects are far more profound.
This is not just a question of political honesty. The global war on terrorism is not a game from which we can simply walk away when it seems it isn't going our way. At the same time critics of the Bush administration insist it should have done more to combat al Qaeda in Afghanistan before Sept. 11 (on the basis of intelligence far weaker than that pointing to Hussein's weapons of mass destruction), they miss the more profound lesson that national tragedy should have instilled: that the only deterrent to terrorism is strength and that weakness -- real and perceived -- is an incitement to further attacks.
What is weakness? Weakness is when America's leaders compare Iraq to Vietnam, announcing to the world a faltering resolve to see our mission through. To our allies in the Middle East and beyond, these predictions of defeat send a clear and chilling message to hedge their bets, because the United States cannot be counted on. And to our enemies, they send an equally clear message: You can win.
Let there be no doubt: Every time there is a call to abandon Iraq to the United Nations or unnamed "international allies," our enemies know this is a call to cut and run. And they are heartened.
The president's critics cannot have it both ways. They cannot claim to be in favor of winning the war and also oppose fighting it, funding it and offering any coherent strategy for succeeding at it. They cannot credibly claim to be in favor of winning the war while decrying it as a "mistake" that cannot be won.
Iraq is no longer a war of choice, if indeed it ever was. The choice now is between the long, hard slog to victory -- and negotiating terms of surrender.
The writer is a former Republican senator from Tennessee. He is currently a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.