Politics & Policy

Thinking Out Iraq

To withdraw, or not?

A wise young thing writes provocatively. He wants to know when the serious right wing in America — National Review, and critical legislators and commentators — is going to come out and say what he thinks, that we were wrong to go into Iraq.

At a dinner meeting in New York last week of fourteen urbane and weighty conservatives, the host asked the question, How many of you would have voted to go into Iraq if circumstances were as advertised? The vote in favor of intervention was unanimous. The next question was, “Given what we now know, are you glad that we intervened?” The vote here was pretty well split, in the neighborhood of 50-50. My young correspondent puts it this way, “I rue my earlier support for the invasion.” And goes on to ask, “When will we hear on the question from you — from senior U.S. analysts on the conservative side of the fence?”

He is pretty withering in his language. He writes about National Review: “To the extent that one can discern NR’s position, it is something like ‘Bush should keep doing whatever it is that he’s been doing so far and hope for the best.’ But for how long? At what point can we call the Iraq venture a success (or a failure) and leave, NR doesn’t say. The editors seem to be saying, ‘Get back to us in a month; maybe by then we’ll have made up our minds.’”

His demands are quite direct. “It is amazing that NR cannot establish any criteria for when it would be appropriate to leave Iraq.” It is understandable that he should end, “My gloom gathers daily.”

Professor Harvey Mansfield was at the dinner meeting, and that learned powerhouse, in his characteristically soft-spoken way, wondered that so little attention was being paid, by restive conservatives, “to the matter of honor.” Honor is an obligation enforced by integrity. Question: Was the retreat from Vietnam dishonorable?

Answer: Yes.

Would a retreat from Iraq be dishonorable?

Implied answer:Yes.

But attenuation sets in. At a point in 1961, President Charles de Gaulle reasoned that the French government had done as much as could reasonably be expected of it to enforce the sovereignty of the French state and guarantee the safe survival of its citizens in Algeria. If one acknowledges that, in human action, prudence can sometimes trump honor, and go even further to say that it should do so, then the question before the house is: When? And is it possible to explicate what are the relevant criteria? Is it true, as my correspondent writes, that “no modern state has ever succeeded in suppressing a guerrilla movement when there is some degree of popular support? The French in Algeria, the Israelis in the West Bank and Gaza, the Russians in Chechnya, the Japanese in China, the British in Ireland, and the U.S. in Vietnam have all tried it and failed.”

Of course it is a responsibility of conservatives, associated with the ascendancy of President Bush, to weigh the consequences of tergiversation. What concerns a proud nation is not only moral obligations, but the consequences of a failure to stand by them. In another perspective, to bargain with the criminal is not only to temporize with dishonor, but also to embolden the criminal in his powers to threaten and to intimidate and to extort.

Such considerations argue in the abstract for seeing it through in Iraq. But they do not advise us when the moment should come to say that honor has to give way to a recognition that success is not in sight and not at any point in the future predictable.

Only Bush, not his critics, can coalesce these considerations. This isn’t merely because he has up-to-date information. It is that the force of the leader is required in order to escape the conundrum with confidence. What my correspondent torments himself with in his sleep — How can we keep it up? The Iraqis have made it impossible to succeed. We accomplish nothing more than a directer display, day by day, of the bootlessness of our venture — only Bush can bestride, as De Gaulle did his own impasse. The force of any argument for disconnection requires the prestige and dominance of the leader. There is no point in arguing for withdrawal, unless Mr. Bush beckons us to do so.

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