The Moral Cost of Withdrawal


In my description of our only two real options in Iraq as "double-down" or complete withdrawal, I of course have to grapple with the moral consequences of a swift withdrawal. A reader writes cogently:

You've been remarking recently on your blog about how our only options in Iraq are a) doubling-up on troops, or b) 'getting out completely, and finally giving the region the civil and religious war it so obviously and deeply wants'. This last option strikes me as glib and shortsighted. Most Iraqis don't want civil or regional war, they want stability. It's a minority of thugs with guns and bombs who want civil war. Our invasion set loose all of these thugs, so don't we have a moral obligation to at least limit the damage? In other words, if option a) (doubling-up) is politically impossible, doesn't 'stay the course' (slow-burn civil war) remain a less irresponsible option than complete withdrawal (fast-burn civil war, possibly raging for years)?

Most estimates conclude that the current sectarian violence is killing tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians a year. Well, the Iran-Iraq war killed a million people. I fear that withdrawing merely out of frustration with Bush’s incompetence and Iraq's inability to police itself would mean consigning millions of ordinary Iraqis to total anarchy rather than limited anarchy. The difference between those two states of anarchy could be hundreds of thousands of lives.

I think this is the gist of David Brooks' column today, but it was written so artfully I cannot tell whether it is an endorsement of allowing the place to go to hell or a warning that we cannot afford to. It could be that David, like me, is simply pinioned between fear and what's left of hope.

The "slow burn and fail" option may indeed restrain the toll of the civil war and ethnic cleansing in the short run. But that ethnic cleansing is happening anyway. And in order for the US to actively stop the civil war, we would have no option but to get involved on one side or the other, depending on the circumstances, and provoke those sectarian hatreds into targeting us as well. The danger of this is that we actually get ourselves embroiled in an insane new Thirty Years War in which we have no real stake. By that I mean no sane American cares for theological purposes whether the Shiites or Sunnis deserve to win, or the minute details of their ancient hatreds. We have already lost treasure and human beings in the attempt to build a democracy where no one with any power wants it. The one chance we had - a quick, overwhelming invasion, a long and lucky process of nation-building, winning over the people with massive investment and the establishment of order - has been lost.

I want to believe we can endure and win. But a conservative looks at the world as it is, not as he wants it to be. The small chance we had of achieving our goals of a stable, democratic Iraq is gone for ever. Maybe there is a chance to leverage the neighboring powers' fears of a regional bloodbath  into some kind of deal to stabilize the "country". But that is a long shot, and risks enmeshment in a civil war that is increasingly hard to control or even monitor.

Meanwhile, Oakeshott's dictum rings in my ears;

"Those who in fields Elysian would dwell
Do but extend the boundaries of hell."

(Photo: Mohammed Sawaf/AFP/Getty.)