Magazine article The American Conservative

Fire Fight: Only after America Leaves Iraq Can the Conflagration We Started Be Brought under Control

Magazine article The American Conservative

Fire Fight: Only after America Leaves Iraq Can the Conflagration We Started Be Brought under Control

Article excerpt

[Editor's Note: This is the second installment of a two-part essay. The first, entitled "Open Fire," appeared in our last issue and is available at]

THE FIRST HALF OF THIS ESSAY had one central message: the war in Iraq did not go wrong, a spectacular military victory spoiled by a botched occupation, but always was wrong, a delusional attempt to do the impossible. This recognition is still vital for policy because the U.S. seems bent on continuing its efforts to fix the war, thus missing the remaining opportunity to end it and contain the fire we started.

Odd though it seems that this policy persists despite failures, enormous and growing costs, and major shifts in public opinion and politics since 2004, it is easy to explain. The American consensus on the need for change is fairly wide but not profound and includes no consensus on the kind of change needed. Many divergent proposals compete for attention under the rubric of "getting out of Iraq;" none commands general agreement. Beneath this lack of consensus on how to get out lies a deeper reason for the reluctance to leave: one thing military and political experts, politicians, and the public can agree on is that withdrawing will be difficult and delicate and could have grave adverse consequences.

The risks of withdrawing at this juncture are constantly discussed, usually in lurid terms--more ethnic cleansing; all-out civil war and total breakup in Iraq; free rein for al-Qaeda and other jihadists; increased Iranian influence; the spread of conflict and civil war to the rest of the region; more homegrown terrorism in Europe; instability and possible overthrow of important governments; loss of access to Middle Eastern oil and/or use of the oil weapon against the West resulting in economic chaos; and finally (the least important and likely but apparently the most feared by Americans), more direct terrorist attacks on the homeland.

Even if the dangers are often overblown, this fear of unintended consequences is natural, though it regularly leads to wrong conclusions and bad policies. The administration insists that the only answer is to fight on till America prevails--a predictable and contemptible argument. Every threat Bush now cites as a reason to stay the course has either been produced by this war or greatly worsened by it. The arsonist still poses as a firefighter. Other common reactions include a kind of paralysis born of indecision over which is the worse evil, staying or withdrawing, and a Micawberish hope that something will turn up.

A word on the current wave of Micawberism, fed by misleading or mendacious reports that the surge is succeeding; the Iraqi government, police, and security forces could still improve; sectarian violence is declining; and so on. This illustrates how hopes derived from misplaced patriotism and nurtured by clever propaganda can survive unnumbered disappointments, broken promises, and wrong predictions. Gen. David Petraeus, whose views presently command such remarkable credibility, may be an able, honest officer (there are skeptics), but anyone who expects a general handpicked by this president and serving this Defense Department to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about the results of the strategy he devised and is responsible for executing is naive. Petraeus's own record shows this. In October 2004, just in time to influence the presidential election, he published a highly optimistic portrait of progress in Iraq in the national press. It proved totally wrong. As for the statistics on casualties and violence, it requires little knowledge of military history to know that governments, war departments, and military officers always cook the books. The Pentagon has been doing this blatantly throughout the war. Above all, every one knows that this alleged military progress, even if real, cannot be decisive. It rests on a temporary military escalation that cannot be sustained, while the political reconciliation and national unity in Iraq on which durable stability and security depend grow ever more remote. …

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