Thinking, Re-Thinking Iraq

A reader writes:

One way of looking at the 'correction' in your thinking regarding the war is to say that in the wake of 9/11 your judgment was impaired by the sheer emotionally destabilizing power of that event. In this state you could simply not think clearly about what a decision to go to war really means and so once confronted with the realities attendant to all wars you became disillusioned.

Conservatives like myself sometimes use this defense to explain why they suddenly found themselves open to appeals made by those who believed Arabs capable of secular democratic self rule. We too have experienced (or re-experienced) disillusionment. As I said, we all make mistakes. But supporting a war is not like supporting other political positions we might take from time to time. If emotionalism caused you to support this war, perhaps it is the same phenomenon that now causes you to seek ways to abandon it even as hopeful signs continue to mount. The flip side of romanticism is paranoia and despair.  The reason no serious person takes the get out argument seriously - even those who opposed the war originally - is that it is simply and manifestly unserious.

In my own case, while I still hold out hope that Iraqis will emerge from their ordeal with something better then what they could ever have hoped for with out it, my arguments have shifted more heavily towards the pragmatic. But part of that pragmatism is the certainty that whatever loss to our moral credibility you imagine Abu Ghraib to have represented, we could not survive the abandonment of the Iraqis to those who would fill the breach in our absence.

I'm grateful for the painfully tough critique. I'm particularly grateful because it exposes the rawness of the choice before all of us - whatever our various positions on this war since 2002 (and the polls alone will tell you that a hefty majority of Americans have shifted positions - quite rationally, I should add - since the war began). Let me respond to a couple of points as best I can.

Are "the realities of all wars" similar to what has befallen us in Iraq? I don't think so. Those of us who have changed our mind on Iraq have not done so because we have been shocked that war costs lives or money or suffers setbacks. In many ways, it was stunning to see how successful the actual war to depose Saddam was in terms of casualties and disruption. Awful - but by historical standards, very swift and remarkably free of collateral fatalities on any large scale. The problem is the occupation, which is now almost in its fifth year, and the multiple, shifting insurgencies, counter-insurgencies and insurgencies against insurgencies that have happened since - and the appalling human casualties on all sides that continue.

The occupation force was never big enough to prevent the disintegration of Iraq, and was also denied, retroactively, its primary justification: the securing of stockpiles of WMDs. Its sole legitimacy springs from its attempt to create a functioning non-dependent non-despotism in a unitary state called Iraq (a task self-evidently quixotic, at this point, for the foreseeable future). So now, its point is to prevent something worse. We have created a vacuum and only we can fill it. And so the occupation continues, with no logical or feasible end-point. Do we really believe we will ever be able to leave Iraq to a unitary, non-despotic, America-friendly government? And if we came up with the illusion that we had, how long would it take, after our departure, for it to become otherwise? I don't want to be too pessimistic here, but I also want to be realistic. This is the Arab Middle East. It has always defied the ability of external powers to control, shape or understand it. Once we lost the window of opportunity to use the shock and power of Saddam's removal to imprint a new country with a template strong enough to hold, it's been a vortex of unintended consequences (largely, the empowerment of Iran).

So we can say one of two things:

it is now our fate to stay there for ever for practical purposes; and we can only hope that at some point in the next ten or twenty years, the muddling through will have created a space for something more modern, less violent or dangerous than what is raging across the region right now. Or we can insist that we will be leaving soon, give the warring parties a final opportunity to reach some kind of modus vivendi, and remove ourselves from what is clearly a struggle best understood and fought by those who live there. Could the ensuing chaos come back to haunt us? Absolutely. Could the occupation make us more enemies across the region and continue to recruit for Jihadism? Absolutely. The security threat works both ways, especially when you consider the strain on the military, the risk of having no real lee-way for a crisis elsewhere on the globe, and the chance of even worse unintended consequences from staying in a hell-hole of competing hatreds.

Is it immoral to leave and allow a genocide to take place? After five or six years of offering the Iraqis a peaceful way to resolve their differences, it's a hard call. We are not responsible for everything. And if we are to be held responsible for preventing sectarian strife in the Middle East from becoming much worse as a consequence of our invasion, we are going to be digging in a lot more deeply than even now.

These are our two awful options. Neither is unserious. As this country enters a recession, continuing a $3 trillion war for another two decades with no guarantee that we will be any further forward at the end of it than now is not something the American people have to accept as a given. I don't deny that the McCain argument is a valid one. I can absolutely see its power. Under a president McCain, if he were to win a clear majority for perpetuating the occupation, having been candid with the American people (as this administration never has) about its length and cost, you could see a chance to reboot the enterprise. But I fear that the emotional need to win (even when we cannot win in any conventional sense), and McCain's bristly sense of honor, may blind us to the hard reality of what is in our long-term best interests.

So make the case for a renewed war and indefinite occupation under clearer leadership and a renewed trust in a new president (McCain; Clinton is incapable of evoking trust). But don't pretend that this option is the only feasible one, as the Beltway seems to assume. Let's debate it. This is the promise and necessity of an Obama-McCain campaign.