If you are reading this sentence, let me apologize for the somewhat misleading title of this article. I am not arguing for the withdrawal of our military from Iraq; rather, I am asserting that those making that argument owe it to the American people to be more forthcoming in stating their reasons why they favor that course of action.
Troop withdrawal may or may not be the right policy. I’ll take the cowardly approach and say that I favor whatever policies lead to the least loss of human life—especially American lives—in the coming years, even though I don’t know which policies those would be.
What concerns me is that some Americans advocating withdrawal are doing so for inferior reasons and without consideration of the consequences. Some are ideological holdovers from the anti-Vietnam War era who believe that America has been “on the wrong side of history.” This belief took hold in the Democratic Party and was explicitly reiterated in 1988 by Michael Dukakis in a presidential debate. What a grotesque error. We tried to prevent Indochina from being subjugated by murderous tyrants; when we evacuated from Vietnam, the dominoes fell, including the Cambodian genocide that accompanied the brutal enslavement of the South Vietnamese. Those horrors, and the illiberal ideology underlying them, were not, as Dukakis implied, the “right side of history.” While we failed to accomplish our objective in Indochina, we must never forget that we fought on the right side—the side of life and freedom. Similarly today, despite our multiple blunders in Iraq, we are fighting on the side of freedom and self-determination against murderous, potentially genocidal tyrants. We are not the bad guys.
Another factor motivating those advocating withdrawal is take-no-prisoners partisanship. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid declares the war “lost,” and then strives to make his assessment a self-fulfilling prophesy by attempting to cut off funding to the military. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently refused to meet with Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of the current troop surge. She has already made up her mind to hang her party’s electoral future on the strategy of guaranteeing America’s defeat in “Bush’s war.”
Writing in this column in February, the brilliant Doug Bandow advocated withdrawal from Iraq so that fewer American troops would die. Here, at last, is an excellent and worthy reason for withdrawal. But was Bandow right? Would Islamist attacks against Americans cease if our troops leave Iraq, or would withdrawal precipitate a chain of events that ultimately results in greater loss of American life?
One of my students recently asked me, “What would happen if we withdrew our military from Iraq?” This is an intelligent question—in fact, it is the central question—but few politicians dare to address it. Our troops are in Iraq, whether you like it or not, whether you think we should have gone over there or not. We can’t change the past. The next step should be determined by one consideration only: What course of action will best protect American lives? Let us, then, look at a few possible (and, due to space limitations, necessarily simplistic) scenarios, some obviously less likely than others:
1) We leave. Iraq settles down, peace spreads across the Middle East, and Islamist militants beat their swords into pruning hooks. If that’s the likely outcome of U.S. withdrawal, sign me up.
2) We leave. Shiite-dominated Iran and Iraq decide to settle age-old scores with the Sunni Muslims; our nemeses, Ahmadinejad’s regime and al-Qaida, like rival mob families fighting to expand their gangland fiefdoms, annihilate each other, leaving only peaceful Muslims alive; Islam, purged of hate-consumed fanatics, makes peace with religious pluralism and the modern world. We should be so lucky.
3) We leave. As happened in Vietnam, our abandoned allies in Iraq are exterminated, imprisoned, sent to re-education camps or whatever cruel reprisals their murderous Islamist brethren can dream up, but the orgy of violence and terrorist mayhem stays confined to the Middle East. This is a tougher call. The realist, pragmatic school of thought is that the purpose of American foreign policy is to preserve the life of Americans, not foreigners; the idealist school says we have moral obligations to aid others. Where do those who advocate departure stand on this? Would they view a bloodbath of Iraqi citizens following our departure—and the concomitant massive loss of faith in the reliability of the United States as an ally—as an acceptable price to pay for bringing the troops home?
4) We leave. Moderate, democratic Iraqis are crushed, and there is a blowback effect, with Islamist fanatics believing the American spirit is broken and expanding the battlefield to our homeland. The Vietnam parallel breaks down here: We were never concerned that Viet Cong fanatics wanted to fly airliners into our buildings or wreak havoc on our cities. If withdrawal were to enlarge the American casualty zone from Iraq to the United States, then: No, thank you.
It would be a lot easier to decide what course to pursue if we knew with certainty what the consequences of withdrawal from Iraq would be. The stakes are immense. Bush believes that continuing the fight is the best of unpalatable options. Democrats are fixed on withdrawal, apparently believing that we can disengage from Iraq with no calamitous repercussions. Which side is right? We’re going to find out in the next few years. When we do, I hope it is not with regret.