All Writings
November 21, 2005

We Are All Patriots

No one has a lock on patriotism. This, however, has not stopped the administration from using it as a whip to lash out at the integrity of those who disagree with its disastrous and, by now, senseless war in Iraq. Yet the truth is that those who are against or in favor of a troop withdrawal within a short timeframe can all be seen as patriotic Americans who evaluate the war and its prospects differently. Thus, to debate an exit strategy from the military quagmire in Iraq is both the duty and the right of every citizen. If patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, as historian Ralph Barton Perry observed, “it is not because evil deeds may be performed in the name of patriotism . . . but because patriotic fervor can obliterate moral distinction altogether.”

As the public debate over Iraq intensifies, a solution will not be found either through precipitous withdrawal or by keeping American forces there until the so-called mission is “accomplished.” To withdraw them within six months, as the respected and notably patriotic Representative John Murtha advocated this week, could have major adverse consequences in Iraq, the rest of the Middle East, and also further erode U.S. global standing. Still, Mr. Bush’s repeated argument that American forces should remain until victory is achieved is illusionary, dangerous, and tragically misleading.

Iraq has become as bad as it can get, and there is no clean and fully positive solution in sight, no matter what course the United States follows. While many administration officials, including the President, attack advocates of an immediate timetable for withdrawal, no official has advanced any realistic alternative for ending this hugely costly war in resources and especially in casualties. The core problem is that nobody in this administration has any plan of action that if executed could lead to a specific outcome. Instead, the administration and its supporters remain caught up in wishful thinking–envisioning a democracy in Iraq that spreads its wings all across the region–when it is the insurgency that continues to gain momentum and is spreading its black clouds of destruction over the Middle East. The attacks in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and more recently in Jordan, may be the prelude for even worse to come.

The problem with those advocating withdrawal within six months, including Rep. Murtha and many others, is they base their proposal on a number of assumptions that can be tested only after the fact when it is too late to reverse events flowing from such a decision. A specific timetable would put pressure on the Iraqi government to be more serious about assuming real authority, but the Iraqi police and military forces are neither sufficiently trained to take over, nor is there any assurance of their remaining loyal to the government. And while it is true that American occupation ignites increasing resistance, there is no way of gagging the insurgents once they are given a freer hand. Will they escalate their attacks to seize advantage of the vacuum created, or de-escalate as the occupation fades away? There is also the question of whether withdrawal will improve the moral of American troops in Iraq who will feel relieved to see light at the end of the tunnel, or if they will feel let down because they have been commanded to leave before completing their mission. And while the mid-December Iraqi elections for a new parliament, leading to the formation of a new government, offers a natural departure point, there is no telling how long that government will last, given the increasingly sectarian bloody conflict. Finally, once the withdrawal is completed, it is assumed that Syria and Iran will no longer have any interest in supporting the insurgents because their motives of frustrating U.S. efforts and dooming them to failure will have been removed. However cogent this argument may seem, Syria and even more, Iran, have their respective agendas in Iraq that transcend the American presence, and they will exploit a weak and fragmented Iraq to their advantage.

In contrast, those inside and outside the administration who argue for a troop withdrawal only after the Iraqi military and security forces are well trained to take over and the insurgency is well contained, if not defeated, seem to ignore the bitter reality in Iraq. If they had in place a specific and credible plan that could demonstrate that U.S. forces, by remaining three or four more years, would accomplish the intended goal of a peaceful and stable Iraqi democracy, then everybody should support it. But there is no such plan and absolutely no evidence that delaying withdrawal for this period will accomplish this lofty goal, however desirable it may be. The arguments against the so-called precipitous withdrawal run the gambit, but they all lack merit because they are based on assumptions and generalizations. For example, when Colonel James Brown, commander of the 65th Brigade says, “We have to finish the job that we began here, it’s important to the security of this nation,” we may well ask: what is that job and how can it be finished? Should U.S. forces stay in Iraq until the last insurgent is captured or killed or until Iraq becomes a functioning democracy? Or is Representative Sam Johnson, R-Texas right when he says, “we have got to support our troops to the hilt and see this mission through”? Yes, we have an obligation to support our troops, but we also have an even greater obligation to tell them the truth and not make up pipe dreams at their expense. That would be the patriotic thing to do. How can this administration ask these brave men and women to die for the continuing mismanagement and miscalculation of a war that should never have been started in the first place? It is not good enough to argue that Americans should “stay the course” only to avoid the impression that they are leaving under the gun or as the Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert puts it: “Adopt a policy of cut and run.” The insurgency in Iraq will outlast the U.S. occupation, however long it goes on. The Bush administration itself made Iraq the new haven for terrorists and the continued American presence will fuel rather than inhibit resistance. Finally, some warn that a “premature” withdrawal could precipitate civil war. Perhaps they should wake from their slumber: Iraq is in a civil war which has been consuming its social fabric, and the carnage, horrible as it now is, may have just begun.

The answer to turmoil in Iraq cannot be found either by folding and leaving immediately or by continuing to play catch with the insurgents. The American public is sick of an incompetent administration that has made lying into a virtue while still refusing to admit to its costly mistakes and the incredible mess it has created, and that is hardly patriotic. The recent virtual no-confidence vote by the U.S. Senate is a wake-up call to the administration: the year 2006 must be the decisive year for a momentous political and military transformation which could pave the way for some face-saving exit.

To that end, the administration must get off its high horse and marshal international support, specifically from the UN, the European community, and several influential Arab states, notably Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. The idea is to develop a realistic exit strategy with a timetable, maximum within two years, that largely depends on American capabilities and is not contingent on how the insurgency or democracy in Iraq may evolve.