“War is a series of catastrophes that results in victory.” –Georges Clemenceau
A few conservative strategists–from the Financial Times to Edward Luttwak–have recently floated the idea of a strategic withdrawal from Iraq. “Exit strategy” is suddenly the realist buzz. In addition, Clintonites–for a time staying low as scrutiny turned to their past appeasement of terrorists in the 1990s–now boldly proclaim that Iraq is another Vietnam (notwithstanding 49,000 fewer American dead, no nuclear Soviet Union or China in the neighborhood, and no army of three million insurrectionists under the banner of worldwide socialist revolution).
Nevertheless, given our successful removal of Saddam Hussein and the subsequent increasing chaos in the country, the idea may grow popular to re-declare “Mission Accomplished”–and then quietly leave. We have fulfilled our goals of ensuring that a Baathist Iraq no longer threatens its neighbors or the strategic Gulf states, and can now let Najaf fight Fallujah rather than both of them us. Or so the new wisdom goes.
Furthermore, should another Saddam-like tyrant arise from the ashes, we can always GPS him back into oblivion. That is much easier than losing another 1,000 Americans in an attempt to craft consensual government at the price of some $87 billion in aid.
Because such ideas are sometimes offered by the strategic establishment, and are couched in terms of our self-interest, many Americans may find them appealing–especially since the daily televised fare from Iraq is little more than fist-shaking militants full of ingratitude, if not hatred, toward the United States, mixed with RPGs and suicide bombings.
Yet leaving unilaterally from Iraq would be a tragic mistake. We have already done something like that before–many times. What rippled out afterwards was not pretty. American helicopters flying off the embassy roof in Saigon in 1975 gave us the climate for the Soviets in Afghanistan, Communists in Central America, and embassy hostage-taking in Tehran. Ignoring murders in Lebanon, New York, East Africa, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen, or lobbing an occasional cruise missile as tit-for-tat payback when terrorists harvested one too many expendable Americans abroad, ensured us September 11. In our loony world, losing credible deterrence (and we would) is an invitation for disaster–as bin Laden himself illustrated when he logically thought that the toppling of the World Trade Center would be followed by another Black Hawk Down American pullback.
Leaving Afghanistan to its own misery after the Soviet retreat, not going to Baghdad in 1991, turning boats around from Haiti, or quietly ducking out of Mogadishu all were less messy in the short term, but in the long term left even greater chaos. The ultimate wages were the Taliban, 350,000 sorties for over a decade above Iraq, the current mess in the Caribbean, and terrorist havens and worse in Africa. We forget how often in history a perceived stumble or the half-measure only emboldens enemies to try what they otherwise would not.
In contrast, on those occasions when we have shown the patience to stay engaged after victory–in Germany, Japan, South Korea, Panama, or the Balkans–there was less chance that Americans would be left with either perpetual autocratic enemies or terrorist sanctuaries.
We also have a moral stake in Iraq, whose people have suffered from 30 years of Baathist state terror and terrible fatalities in three losing wars. Our defeat of Iraq in 1991, our subsequent abandonment of the Kurds and Shiites to a wounded Saddam Hussein, twelve years of occupying Iraqi airspace, the corrupt U.N. embargo, and the recent final defeat of the Baathists brought untold misery to the Iraqi people.
In contrast, for the last year and a half, the United States has paid a high price to ensure the Iraqis a chance for the first humane and civilized government in the entire Arab Middle East. If it was callous to abandon the Shiites and Kurds in 1991, it is certainly right now to ensure that Saddam’s gulag is not superseded by either a Taliban theocracy or a Lebanon-like cesspool.
Finally, for all the media-inspired pessimism, progress continues in Iraq. Despite all the killing, a logic of freedom persists, one that is slowly becoming a way of life for millions and that cannot be derailed by media-savvy murderers. Scheduled elections are on track. A culture of personal liberty is sprouting up, from Internet cafes to secular schools. Kurdistan is emerging as a federated republic. Indeed, Kurdish good will is proof that America wants no one’s oil, promotes democracy, and is becoming once again a dependable friend. When the United States has chosen to confront the militias, it has won handily. It can do so again in Fallujah and Najaf should the interim government wish a final victory–and our political leadership at last allows the Marines to eradicate terrorist killers who have turned the city of Fallujah into a murderous sewer.
It is always difficult for those involved to determine the pulse of any ongoing war. The last 90 days in the Pacific theater were among the most costly of World War II, as we incurred 50,000 casualties on Okinawa just weeks before the Japanese collapse. December 1944 and January 1945 were the worst months for the American army in Europe, bled white repelling Hitler’s last gasp in the Battle of the Bulge. Contemporaries shuddered, after observing those killing fields, that the war would go on for years more. The summer of 1864 convinced many that Grant and Lincoln were losers, and that McClellan alone could end the conflict by what would amount to a negotiated surrender of Northern war aims.
It is true that parts of Iraq are unsafe and that terrorists are flowing into the country; but there is no doubt that the removal of Saddam Hussein is bringing matters to a head. Islamic fascists are now fighting openly and losing battles, and are increasingly desperate as they realize the democratization process slowly grinds ahead leaving them and what they have to offer by the wayside. Iran, Syria, Lebanon, and others must send aid to the terrorists and stealthy warriors into Iraq, for the battle is not just for Baghdad but for their futures as well. The world’s attention is turning to Syria’s occupation of Lebanon and Iran’s nukes, a new scrutiny predicated on American initiatives and persistence, and easily evaporated by a withdrawal from Iraq. So by taking the fight to the heart of darkness in Saddam’s realm, we have opened the climactic phase of the war, and thereupon can either win or lose far more than Iraq.
The world grasps this, and thus slowly is waking up and starting to see that if it walks and sounds like an Islamic fascist–whether in Russia, Spain, Istanbul, Israel, Iraq, or India–it really is an Islamic fascist, with the now-familiar odious signature of car bombings, suicide belts, and incoherent communiqués mixed with self-pity and passive-aggressive bluster.
For all these reasons and more, something like “See ya, wouldn’t want to be ya” is the absolute worst prescription for Iraq–both for America and those Iraqis who are counting on us in their historic efforts to reclaim their country from barbarism. Amid the daily car bombings in Iraq, murder in Russia, and slaughter in the Middle East, we cannot see much hope–but it is there, and we are winning on a variety of fronts as the world continues to shrink for the Islamic fascist and those who would abet him.
–Victor Davis Hanson is a visiting professor for the month of September and a fellow of Hillsdale College.