The ideological spectrum is not really a horizontal line neatly demarcating liberals and conservatives, leftists and rightists, radicals and reactionaries. Rather, it is something like an arc, bending and sloping at either end, until the extremes finally touch.
Just consider Sen. Barack Obama’s recent declamation that US troops should not stay in Iraq to prevent genocide. The AP reported it this way: “Presidential hopeful Barack Obama said Thursday the United States cannot use its military to solve humanitarian problems and that preventing a potential genocide in Iraq isn't a good enough reason to keep U.S. forces there.”
“If that's the criteria by which we are making decisions on the deployment of US forces,” Obama explained, “then by that argument you would have 300,000 troops in the Congo right now—where millions have been slaughtered as a consequence of ethnic strife—which we haven't done.” He continued: “We would be deploying unilaterally and occupying the Sudan, which we haven't done.” (In 2006, Obama did raise the prospect of NATO intervention in Sudan. “I don't think that the issue right now is US troops,” he said in a PBS interview. “Having NATO forces there that could be supplied by some of the middle powers, Canada, Australia, others that have experience in peacekeeping, would be absolutely crucial.” There are only three problems with those two sentences: NATO doesn’t do anything without US help; NATO’s under-strength, under-funded European militaries have been straining to muster the forces necessary for the mission in Afghanistan; and Australia is not a member of NATO.)
In any event, Obama’s “if we deploy here, then we would have to deploy there” stance sounds surprisingly, jarringly, similar to isolationists on the far right, who have been using this line of reasoning to oppose American intervention and justify inaction for decades. In the 1990s, for instance, they employed it to oppose President George H.W. Bush’s Middle East intervention and President Bill Clinton’s Balkans interventions, echoing what an earlier generation of isolationists said of other “faraway places.”
The Coming Cataclysm
Sounding more isolationist than internationalist, more nationalist than humanitarian, more realistic than idealistic, Obama said of Iraq in late 2006, “There have been too many flag-draped coffins…too many heartbroken families.”
It’s a defensible, albeit cold and calculating, position. The implication of it, of course, is that American lives are more important, more valuable, than Iraqi lives in 2007—or Bosnian Muslim lives in 1992, or Tutsi lives in 1994, or Shiite lives in 1991, or South Vietnamese lives in 1975, or Czechs in 1968, or Hungarians in 1956, or Poles and East Germans in 1945, or European Jewry in 1942, or Nanking in 1938.
To be sure, presidents should never waste the lives of those who defend us. But sometimes great nations have a special responsibility to look beyond their own narrow interests, to hear the cries for help, to fight the good fight. From time to time, America has done just that. And uncounted millions in every corner of the earth are better for it. Indeed, no other country in history has so often or so feely used its military power to help others. The counterpoint to the previous paragraph is just as long—thankless and sometimes bloody peacekeeping missions in Kosovo and Bosnia, Haiti and Lebanon; humanitarian efforts to save West Berliners and Indonesians, Somalis and Kurds; daring invasions that freed Frenchmen and Filipinos, Kuwaitis and Koreans, Afghanis and Iraqis.
Fighting the good fight has its costs—to date, 4,046 Americans have died in Iraq and Afghanistan; another 28,581 have been wounded—but so does washing your hands and averting your gaze. Just ask the survivors of last century’s genocides and tyrannies.
Indeed, realpolitik is not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach. And even if a president wants to avert his gaze from the horrors, the unblinking, all-seeing eye of the global media makes that virtually impossible in this information-saturated age.
But it seems that’s what Obama and other opponents of the Iraq War are willing to do. And if they have their way, that’s what all Americans will want to do.
John Burns of the New York Times—who is anything but a puppet of the White House—says “the most likely outcome of an American withdrawal any time soon would be cataclysmic violence.” He adds that a high-ranking Sunni political leader believes US withdrawal means “we will all be slaughtered.”
What Burns is saying, without saying it, is that no mater how awful the news reports seem today—15 Sunnis murdered by car bombings here, 12 Shiites executed in revenge killings there, three US troops killed by an IED elsewhere—it will be much, much worse if America heeds the realists and reverts to its isolationist inclinations.
How much worse? No one knows for sure. But imagine a Balkan-style ethno-religious war without the geographic, diplomatic or material constraints that prevented the Bosnian Muslims and Croat Catholics from achieving a bloody parity with the Orthodox Serbs; or a Rwanda with arsenals of modern weaponry instead of machetes; or a California-sized Gaza; or a Vietnam in which both sides are willing to fight to the death; or a decade of Darfurs, a generation of Gettysburgs.
And as the cataclysm rages inside Iraq, imagine what an American retreat will do to America’s standing outside Iraq. No matter how Washington spins it, if America leaves Iraq in chaos, history will consign Operation Iraqi Freedom to a place alongside the fall of Saigon, Desert One, and the Beirut and Mogadishu pullouts.
Trying to address such worries, Obama assures us that “Nobody is proposing we leave precipitously.” But actually, somebody is proposing that—and that somebody is Sen. Obama. In January 2007, according to his own press office, he outlined a plan to begin “redeployment of US forces no later than May 1, 2007” and “remove all combat brigades from Iraq by March 31, 2008.”
That is the definition of precipitous.
Given the nature of the enemy, such a policy would have cataclysmic consequences for Iraqis and Americans.
Revealing new intelligence on al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), President George W. Bush recently detailed how Osama bin Laden dispatched his top Afghanistan commander to Iraq. “The fact that bin Laden risked sending one of his most valued commanders to Iraq shows the importance he places on success of al Qaeda's Iraqi operations,” Bush observed.
AQI's other senior leaders include a Syrian, a Saudi, an Egyptian, a Tunisian and a Turk. They are commanding what bin Laden has called the “Third World War.” It will end in “victory and glory, or misery and humiliation,” according to bin Laden.
In other words, no matter why America went to Iraq, no matter what the war critics think about the Bush Doctrine or its architect, Iraq is a central front in the wider War on Terror—because the enemy says it is. On this we should take the terror mastermind at his word.
More than a century ago, President Theodore Roosevelt argued that there are times when America should listen to its conscience, times when humanitarian concerns trump the cold calculations of national interest. “There are occasional crimes committed on so vast a scale and of such peculiar horror as to make us doubt whether it is not our manifest duty to endeavor at least to show our disapproval of the deed and our sympathy with those who have suffered by it,” he explained. “What form the action shall take must depend upon the circumstances of the case; that is, upon the degree of the atrocity and upon our power to remedy it.”
At mid-century, pointing to the fragile nations of postwar Europe, President Harry Truman warned, “It would be an unspeakable tragedy if these countries, which have struggled so long against overwhelming odds, should lose that victory for which they sacrificed so much. Collapse of free institutions and loss of independence would be disastrous not only for them but for the world…The free peoples of the world look to us for support in maintaining their freedoms. If we falter in our leadership, we may endanger the peace of the world—and we shall surely endanger the welfare of our own nation.” He could just as well have been speaking about America’s obligation to Iraq in 2007.
A decade ago, Clinton echoed Truman and TR by concluding, “There are times and places where our leadership can mean the difference between peace and war and where we can defend our fundamental values as a people and serve our most basic strategic interests.”
Indeed, there are places when America’s national interests and moral responsibility intersect. Iraq is such a place.