That Americans are irritated and frustrated by the war in Iraq is clear. What is less clear is what voters want to do about it. If President Bush could convince people that more of the progress Gen. David Petraeus has demonstrated can bring enough order to reduce violence and inch Iraq toward stable political institutions, would most Americans still want to pull up stakes and bring the troops home? Probably not.
George Patton comes closest to the truth: “Americans,” he famously insisted, “love a winner and will not tolerate a loser,” an observation that offers a losing Republican president as little solace as a Democratic-controlled national legislature that calculates it can claim credit for ending a war while escaping the blame for its loss — and more importantly, what is likely to follow the loss. And if the hysterics that Bush’s name generates could be brushed aside for a moment, Americans might even reflect that where Abraham Lincoln went through a platoon of commanding generals before finding a winner, Bush — although he took too long to do so — got a winner the moment he decided he’d had enough of what had already been tried.
It’s unlikely that Petraeus’ gains will suffice militarily, although they could form the basis of subsequent political arguments if Americans come to see clearly the cost of abandoning the Iraqis to their fate. So far, those whose chief public position has been to end the war and bring home American troops have paid more attention to the war’s unpopularity than to the results of withdrawal. Neither arguments nor facts have produced a clear political mandate. Unclassified sections of a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that were made public in mid-July added fuel to the partisan debate over whether Iraq or the tribal sections of west Pakistan — where Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are likely holed up — represents the central front in the war against the jihadists. But the NIE generated an odd exchange. Leaders in both political parties agree that the character of this war is profoundly different from con¬ventional ones, in which the term “central front” means the place where an enemy has concentrated his strate¬gic effort.
War against the jihadists is impor¬tantly different from the traditional kind of war because its metastasizing nature, decentralized leadership, civil element and potential for extraordi¬nary, unforeseen violence diminish the concept of central military effort. But even if one ignores the problem of try¬ing to apply old terms to new circum¬stances, the politicians who want to withdraw now continue to miss a point that never eluded FDR and Churchill: A global enemy will not be defeated seri¬atim.
Reducing the U.S. military effort in Iraq to concentrate on Afghanistan — as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and several of her colleagues have suggested — would be like abandoning the Pacific to fight the Nazis in Europe — an inexcusable blunder. But even in a war as formless — by traditional standards — as the current one, withdrawing from Iraq would have far-reaching, concrete results.
Some of these can be predicted. American military with¬drawal from Iraq would allow al-Qaida to shift its operations elsewhere. Afghanistan is an obvious choice, one where Pakistan’s cooperation, however tenuous, has been impor¬tant. It is impossible to imagine that Pervez Musharraf’s hold on power or his confidence in the U.S. as an ally will be strengthened by a precipitous withdrawal of American forces from Iraq. More important, a transfer of al-Qaida effort from Iraq to Afghanistan, even if accompanied by a strengthening of American military support for the govern¬ment in Kabul, would likely increase roadside bombings and suicide attacks in Afghanistan, then lead to political pressure within the U.S. to leave that country, too. If frustration is the underlying cause of departure from Iraq, does it make sense to create another frustration that will produce the identical result? Would the U.S. and its allies be better off with two defeats and two Muslim states that had become havens for jihadists?
There are other likely consequences, none of which is incompatible with a shift of the battlefield from Iraq to Afghanistan. The U.S. maintains air bases and storage facili¬ties in the Middle East from the Persian Gulf to Turkey. They offer al-Qaida attractive targets if it astonishingly chooses to sidestep the accelerated internecine violence that would fol¬low an American departure. Were Iraq to become either a vassal to neighboring Iran or a limited al-Qaida fiefdom, the revenues from Iraq’s known oil reserves — third largest in the world — would be applied to advance the jihadist cause with international effects that would dwarf anything Saddam Hussein ever achieved in his efforts to retain domestic power.
However, the jihadists’ biggest target remains the U.S. Pointing to its own role in encouraging the Soviets’ with¬drawal from Afghanistan, al-Qaida would claim a second tri¬umph over a superpower, and the jihadist movement would experience a commensurate infusion of spirit, blood and material support. This would be complemented by a propor¬tional loss of American influence in those parts of the Arab world that looked with distress on the emerging slaughter of Sunnis by the Shiite majority in Iraq. Fighting jihadism at its source would become more difficult exactly as the threat to the U.S. heightened.
DEPARTURE AND SLAUGHTER
Still, the moral consequences of an American decision to leave Iraq to its fate far outweigh the strategic and tactical ones. American officials on the ground in Iraq, including the ambassador and senior military officers, have warned repeatedly that the Iraqi population lives in fear of increased sectarian violence. The killings that have occurred so far have been suppressed by the presence of U.S. and coalition forces. What is likely to happen as American forces relinquish control in Iraq: hundreds of innocents killed daily instead of merely scores? Thousands? Do we politely forget the thousands of Iraqis who have cast their lot with us, and who will be obvious targets of re-born terror in Iraq? Would the 1 million Iraqis who have fled to neighboring Jordan feel compelled to continue the civil conflict in their place of refuge, and if so, what then? Do we also stand by and shake our head sadly if moderate rule in Amman is threatened?
How will the slaughter look to Americans? Even the leading Democratic presidential contenders understand that with¬drawing U.S. forces from Iraq cannot be accomplished overnight. Barack Obama’s proposed legislation aimed to with¬draw all U.S. combat brigades over an 11-month period. How will Americans — and the rest of the world — respond to the images of large-scale bloodshed in Iraq placed alongside nightly pictures of U.S. troops departing in ships and planes and doing nothing to stop an event for which we are, in no small measure, responsible?
American policymakers’ argument that wholesale killings in the Balkans were not our business eventually surrendered to the images of atrocities. We were compelled to act. No such excuse would exist in Iraq, nor is it plausible that the departure of American forces will inject reason into a fraternal struggle that has raged for centuries unencumbered by rationality. U.S. politicians’ predictable justification — that the Iraqi bloodbath is the warring parties’ responsibility alone — will neither escape the fact that our actions helped launch the killings nor the parallel truth that our presence minimized casualties as our departure accelerated them.
True, no one could claim that Americans were the bombers or the shooters in the Iraqi slaughter. But what would it say for America to stand aside during a bloodbath we had helped pre¬cipitate — albeit with only good intentions? Defeat — no mat¬ter what excuse for withdrawal is offered — will diminish our strategic and diplomatic standing, as well as our security at home. Fleeing while Iraq sinks into a bloodier mess will add national moral culpability to the already existing failures, a perfect disaster.
Americans, since before 1776, have seen a moral pur¬pose in their political existence. The “city on a hill” phrase that Ronald Reagan liked to quote comes from a 1630 ser¬mon by the Puritan cleric John Winthrop. Nearly 170 years later, Washington, in his farewell address, warned that morality was an “indispensable support” to the nation’s political future. “Can it be,” he asked, “that Providence has not connected the permanent felicity of a nation with its virtue?”
Lincoln invoked the same sense of right when he suggested in his second inaugural address that the war was punishment for slavery. The point, of course, is not that America has always acted virtuously, but rather that we have long believed the nation’s general principles of decency and specific respect for human liberty form the core of both our domestic aspira¬tions and relations with others. Does a surgeon who makes a serious mistake sew up the patient and move on? How will Americans respond to the sight of the killings caused by our departure?
President Bush could have driven home the point with even greater force when he reminded the Veterans of Foreign Wars in late August about the killing fields and murders that took place in special “re-education” camps after the U.S. left Vietnam. In Vietnam, the mass killings took place after the U.S. military and the media had already left the premises. Iraq’s sectarian and jihadist violence is well underway: It will worsen if we begin large troop withdrawals. Will the rules of engagement for the exiting U.S. military then be the same ones as in the New York subways: look in another direction? What will that say about our moral compass? What kind of moral compass fails to regis¬ter when confronted by the truth of what we have done?
a dark pledge
Political leaders from both parties have demonstrated, and are now demonstrating, shortsightedness. Bush and his lieu¬tenants didn’t think carefully enough about what to do after going into Iraq. The Democrats are not thinking carefully enough about the consequences of getting out. Electoral uncertainty tainted Bush’s first election as president and set the stage for today’s rancor. Promising to withdraw from Iraq may secure election, but keeping the pledge will darken not only the next presidency, but the United States’ view of itself as an essentially moral state.
Seth Cropsey was deputy undersecretary of the Navy in the Reagan and Bush administrations and served for 20 years in the Naval Reserve