I found myself seated at a meeting the other day next to a correspondent for an influential national news outlet. The discussion turned to Iraq. Having spent several years covering the Balkans in the 1990s, my counterpart voiced his concern that he sees in Iraq now many of the same actions - forced migration, for example - that proved to be the incipient signs of ethnic cleansing and genocide in the Balkans then. Then he surprised me. He stated that his fear was that should the US leave precipitously, such atrocities would become headlines rather than speculation, and the world would have no one to blame but the United States.
Nevertheless, over the abyss we happily plunge, with sober heads nodding as Sen. Carl Levin appears on a Sunday morning talk show calling for a "phased redeployment" of US forces to begin in "four to six months."
Why not now? What does the distinguished gentleman from Michigan believe will be accomplished then that isn't already? If the entire enterprise is a miserable failure, why ask our military, whom Mr. Levin will no doubt be the first to vociferously support, to stay one day longer? What magical event will occur four months hence? An optimist might wonder whether Mr. Levin was attempting a clever bit of early April Fools' Day humor, but such levity coming from Levin seems unlikely.
Rather than concerning ourselves with April 1st, 2007, or January 1st, or July 10th, or August 4th, or Saint Swithins Day, there is but one day that should be foremost in our minds during these debates, and that is the 5th of October, 1938. On this day, Winston Churchill addressed the House of Commons, beginning "by saying the most unpopular and most unwelcome thing . . . that we have sustained a total and unmitigated defeat." Churchill was the wet blanket at the parliamentary party to celebrate Neville Chamberlain's efforts at the Munich Conference, where the Sudetenland had been ceded to Hitler. About Czechoslovakia, Churchill said, "All is over. Silent, mournful, abandoned, broken, [she] recedes into the darkness."
And so it will be in Iraq. When comparing the two, it is hard to know which is more ignoble: in one case, Britain bargained away a portion of another sovereign state; in our own, we are ready to cede a sovereign state to (insert here: Iran, Al Qaeda, or pure chaos), after having bought such real estate with the blood of thousands of our young.
Some Senators, mindful of the disaster a withdrawal will prove to be, warn against a precipitous exit. Yet precipitous or not, it is an exit that they seek. Yes, this is truly the problem. Having suffered decades ago from an affliction known as the Vietnam Syndrome, we seem forever destined to have periodic relapses, punctuated by someone offering a cure for our national hangover with a remedy called the Powell Doctrine.
It's an interesting brew, this one: it contains a dash of the idea that we should only fight wars that we know in advance that we'll win, even though no such creature exists; a bit of the notion that at the same time, we'll do so with every possible ally; and most importantly, a bit of whimsy called an "exit strategy," which in every other part of the world, where the inhabitants don't move every two years as we do, means that sooner or later the Americans will bail.
What a strange way to wage a war. It's almost as though everyone were promised . . . that they'd never really be waging one at all! Contrast that concoction with Marine Lieutenant General James Mattis, who related over the summer his reply to an Iraqi who asked when we would leave the country. "I said I am never going to leave. I told him I had found a little piece of property down on the Euphrates River and I was going to have a retirement home built there. I did that because I wanted to disabuse him of any sense that he could wait me out."
Iraq is dangerous. Progress is measured in weeks and inches, not minutes and miles. It is weakly governed when governed at all. But to leave too early will be to compound these seemingly intractable attributes with the most deadly of sins: a failure of willpower. The world will know that when Iraq becomes the next Taliban-like state, or the next Rwanda, that it was only because the United States, the most able, powerful, and wealthy nation in the history of the world, gave up. If that disturbs you, imagine how much it delights our adversaries.
When the "phased redeployment" begins, and the cries of "peace in our time" are shouted from the ramparts, the only important difference between now and 1938 will be that the British at least had a Churchill to tell them, "Thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting."
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