An Anti-War Liberal Balks At Withdrawal

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A reader writes:

I think you, as someone whose view of the war in Iraq has evolved over the last year or so, might be able to appreciate how my opinion is suddenly undergoing a major transformation.

I have been against the war from the start. In fact, I was even skeptical of our mission in Afghanistan, although the Taliban, in offering sanctuary to Al Qaeda, gave us little choice but to invade. As for Iraq, I viewed it as pure folly, and everything I predicted -- sectarian strife, unleashed tribal and ethnic passions, a breeding ground for terrorists, seeds sown for more blowback -- has come to pass. The only thing I found surprising was the sheer incompetence of the American operation -- and the ongoing, unrelenting blundering, with one absurd mistake piled atop another. No one, not even the fiercest Bush critic, could have predicted how horribly he and his cronies have managed this war. From the very beginning, and from every angle, the incompetence has been mind-numbing. Thus, like many, I've been clamoring for us to do the only sensible thing: get the hell out before things get worse (and they can get much, much worse for both the coalition soldiers and the Iraqi citizenry).

That said, the more I turn the problem over in my mind, the more I realize I can't morally excuse a U.S. withdrawal. The Pottery Barn Rule is cliché, but the underlying principle is not. No matter how horribly we have failed in Iraq, and no matter how ill-conceived the mission was from the start, we own the mess. Yes, Bush and Cheney and Rice and Powel lied through their teeth to sell the war. But as Americans and as citizens of a democracy, don't we all have to take ownership of this colossal fuck-up? Isn't it all of our problems, not just the administration's and its knee-jerk supporters'?  Consider how awful it is now, with more than 100,000 U.S. soldiers stationed in Iraq and trying to maintain order. Now imagine what it will look like when we leave. It will make the exodus from Saigon look like a holiday. There was a reason why Saddam was so brutal. He had to be to keep a lid on all the centuries of brewing tensions. (Thus, any sane person with a grasp of history, while despising Saddam, viewed the invasion as an impossible task.)

But here we are. Is it possible, however unlikely, that the U.S. and Iraq can survive 1 1/2 more years of Bush incompetence and hand the problem over to a more competent administration? It may sound like a pipe dream -- and I recognize that a shit load of tragedies could still play out over the next 18 months. But don't we owe it to the Iraqi people, having invaded their country and having unleashed all these demons, to do our best by them, even if it means emptying our treasury and sacrificing many more of our soldiers' lives? Doesn't a democracy that voted for Bush twice (and/or looked the other way while he stole the office) have a responsibility to the world to rebuild everything he has methodically destroyed? Isn't Iraq our responsibility as much as it is his? Can we really just wash our hands of it and walk away, as if the problem belongs only to W?

In some ways, it isn't my liberal side that is countenancing withdrawal at this point. It is my cold conservative side. I do think the moral costs of withdrawal are immense. I fear the moral and strategic costs of staying are higher.

(Photo: Wathiq Khuzaie/Getty.)