No Room for Retreat
Proponents of a speedy withdrawal of American troops from Iraq advance two major arguments in support of their position. The first: “Bush lied.” According to that argument, the fact that no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq shows that the war was misbegotten from the inception, and as such should end forthwith. The second major argument, as stated last week by a Democratic primary challenger to Senate Hilary Clinton, is: “too many American troops and Iraqis have died.”
What the first argument lacks in honesty, unfortunately, is not compensated for by logic. Whatever mistakes in conception and execution may be laid at the door of the Bush administration over the decision to invade Iraq, having deliberately deceived the American public about Saddam Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction – biological, chemical, and nuclear – is not one of them. Every single major Western intelligence service concluded that Saddam was in possession of such weapons, and that view was repeatedly voiced by President Clinton and senior members of his administration, as well as many Democratic senators now found in the chorus “Bush lied.”
But the fundamental flaw of this argument is far deeper: there is no connection between the issue of whether the initial invasion was warranted or wise and whether the United States should now pullout precipitously. Francis Fukuyama, a conservative critic of the war, chides neo-conservatives for not having recognized the hubris of thinking that America has the means to remake Iraqi society in its own image. Those who have spent decades criticizing liberal domestic policies for failing to take into account the unintended consequences of those policies, he argues, should have been far more alert to a host of likely, albeit unintended, consequences, in Iraq. Yet for all his criticism of the initial invasion, he is unambiguous that today the United States has no alternative “to win[ning] militarily in Afghanistan and Iraq.”
On the Democratic side of the aisle, Senator Clinton, who is busy triangulating between her anti-war supporters on the Left and swing voters whom she hopes to attract on her Right, argues that establishing a timetable for withdrawal would be a mistake, even as she accuses President Bush of having misled the American people by believing her husband and his advisors about Saddam’s WMD capabilities.
The argument that the price in terms of the number of deaths of American troops and Iraqi civilians is simply too high to continue may not, in all cases, be simply a disingenuous political exercise, but it is similarly unfounded. There is something morally objectionable about ever describing the number of deaths in any military operation as “light.” But responsible policymakers must nevertheless always place those deaths in a certain context, and evaluate them in light of the consequences of not placing American troops in harm’s way.
Two thousand combat deaths, in the course of three years of warfare, represent a heavy loss. But in context, it is only two-thirds the number of those killed in one day on September 11 2001, and less than half the number of soldiers killed on D-Day alone.
Those who add to the equation the number of Iraqi civilians killed must be suspected of shedding crocodile tears, for those casualties would almost surely increase after an American withdrawal. There is absolutely no reason to believe that the number of suicide bombings would abate if the United States were to remove its troops from Iraq. The opposite is far more likely. Most of the famous letter sent by Abu Musad al-Zarqawi to Osama bin Laden, intercepted in February 2004, is devoted to expressions of his extreme loathing for Shi’ites, whom he characterizes as deceitful deniers of Mohammed. Zarqawi’s expressed strategy was to sow civil war between Shi’ites and Sunnis through suicide bombing targeting the Shi’ite population. His incentive for doing so would not lessen after an American withdrawal, while his operative capacity to carry out such operations would increase greatly in the absence of American forces on the ground.
Focusing entirely on the number of those killed is a modern version of the Paremides Fallacy. The fallacy is to compare the situation that exists now, after some action, to what existed prior to the action in question. But the real test for policymakers is to compare the situation after the intervention to what would have been the likely situation in the absence of intervention.
Absent the latter perspective, the presumption in favor of inaction is almost always insurmountable. Let us say, for instance, that American intelligence had warnings that Al Qaeda was planning an attack on America six months prior to September 11. Still, an exclusive focus on the predictable negative consequences of an invasion of Afghanistan to remove the sanctuary provided Al Qaeda by the Taliban would have argued against any major military action. After all, no one had yet died as a consequence of an Al Qaeda attack, while any military action would undoubtedly result in some combat deaths, as well as the death of Afghani civilians. The same calculation would still have obtained on September 10 2001.
Following this logic, the Clinton administration undertook no military action against Al Qaeda, other than to lob a few cruise missiles in its general direction, even after the bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which claimed hundreds of lives.
THE PRINCIPLE ARGUMENT against a quick withdrawal of American troops from Iraq is that it would send a message of American weakness and lack of determination to enemies around the globe. And it would represent a victory for Zarqawi’s terror tactics that would be noted by terrorist wannabes everywhere. If such tactics can force the withdrawal of the most powerful military machine mankind has ever known, Islamic terrorists everywhere will ask themselves, is there anything that can stand against sufficiently determined group of suicide bombers?
An American retreat is by definition a victory for Zarqawi. And we cannot afford to permit such a victory, both for the sake of Iraqis and for the sake of the entire Western world, all of which is a potential target for jihadists driven by dreams of a reestablished caliphate. According to a Time Magazine poll, 70% of Iraqis describe their lives at present as good, and express confidence that they will be even better off in the year to come. Even more surprisingly, 60% describe the local security where they live as good. These figures would plummet if Zarqawi succeeded in turning Iraq into an even greater bloodbath in the wake of an American withdrawal.
Zarqawi’s expressed aims in Iraq, include preventing the establishment of a functioning democratic government, which he views as a great sacrilege. In his letter to Bin Laden, he explicitly spoke of the suffocating effect of democracy on his jihad. Democratizing winds are currently blowing throughout the Middle East. Many of those currents are being generated from Iraq. Zarqawi’s goal is to prevent those winds from gaining force by plunging Iraq into anarchy and civil war. It would be an incalculable tragedy for the future of the Middle East if he succeeds.
The perception of American strength and determination has already paid major dividends since the invasion of Iraq: Libya’s revealing and renouncing its nuclear ambitions, the Syrian departure from Lebanon, glimmerings of free elections in Egypt. None of these events can be completely separated from the projection of American strength, and some are direct consequences.
The history of the last 70 years runs red with the blood caused the reticence of major powers’ to use or project their power in favor of a policy of appeasement. As Joshua Murachavik has sharply observed, every war fought by America in the 20th century was a war that it had earlier sought to avoid.
Chamberlain’s ceding of Czech sovereignty at Munich convinced Hitler that he could launch World War II with impunity. More recently, America’s departure from Lebanon in 1982 in the aftermath of a suicide bombing of a Marine barracks, which killed over 240, the subsequent retreat from Somalia, the tepid response of the Clinton administration to the attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa and the attack on the USS Cole all combined to convince Osama bin Laden that the United States was a paper tiger, and emboldened him to attack the United States itself.
The Mitterand government did its best to cuddle up to Islamists in the ‘80s, and reaped a series of terrorist attacks, in which nearly a hundred Frenchmen died in France and twice that number abroad, as its reward. The British government gave jihadist preachers free rein in London (which they renamed Londistan), and the July terrorist attacks were the result.
The hatred of the Islamists for the West is bottomless, and will not lessen as long as Islamic societies remain complete failures compared to their neighbors. It is impossible to win their love, but crucial that we disabuse them of the belief that they can defeat the West through terrorism. In that light, retreat from Iraq would convey the worst possible message.
Finally, if a president as stubborn and determined as George W. Bush were successfully pressured into a hasty withdrawal, it is unlikely that another American president would risk the use of the American military anytime in the foreseeable future. Given the dangers currently confronting the West, beginning with a nuclear Iran, the world can ill afford the withdrawal from world affairs of the dominant superpower and the nation with the widest global vision. The costs of American passivity in the face of repeated attacks in the ‘80s and ‘90s – in large part an outgrowth of the Vietnam syndrome – are already too clear. We cannot afford an Iraq syndrome as well.
Originally published in Hamodia, December 18, 2005