A monument to defeatism on the editorial page
by Victor Davis Hanson
City Journal Online
On July 8, the New York Times ran an historic editorial entitled “The Road Home,” demanding an immediate American withdrawal from Iraq. It is rare that an editorial gets almost everything wrong, but “The Road Home” pulls it off. Consider, point by point, its confused — and immoral — defeatism.
1. “It is time for the United States to leave Iraq, without any more delay than the Pentagon needs to organize an orderly exit.”
Rarely in military history has an “orderly” withdrawal followed a theater-sized defeat and the flight of several divisions. Abruptly leaving Iraq would be a logistical and humanitarian catastrophe. And when scenes of carnage begin appearing on TV screens here about latte time, will the Times then call for “humanitarian” action?
2. “Like many Americans, we have put off that conclusion, waiting for a sign that President Bush was seriously trying to dig the United States out of the disaster he created by invading Iraq without sufficient cause, in the face of global opposition, and without a plan to stabilize the country afterward.”
We’ll get to the war’s “sufficient cause,” but first let’s address the other two charges that the Times levels here against President Bush. Both houses of Congress voted for 23 writs authorizing the war with Iraq — a post-9/11 confirmation of the official policy of regime change in Iraq that President Clinton originated. Supporters of the war included 70 percent of the American public in April 2003; the majority of NATO members; a coalition with more participants than the United Nations alliance had in the Korean War; and a host of politicians and pundits as diverse as Joe Biden, William F. Buckley, Wesley Clark, Hillary Clinton, Francis Fukuyama, Kenneth Pollack, Harry Reid, Andrew Sullivan, Thomas Friedman, and George Will.
And there was a Pentagon postwar plan to stabilize the country, but it assumed a decisive defeat and elimination of enemy forces, not a three-week war in which the majority of Baathists and their terrorist allies fled into the shadows to await a more opportune time to reemerge, under quite different rules of engagement.
3. “While Mr. Bush scorns deadlines, he kept promising breakthroughs — after elections, after a constitution, after sending in thousands more troops. But those milestones came and went without any progress toward a stable, democratic Iraq or a path for withdrawal. It is frighteningly clear that Mr. Bush’s plan is to stay the course as long as he is president and dump the mess on his successor. Whatever his cause was, it is lost.”
Of course there were breakthroughs: most notably, millions of Iraqis’ risking their lives to vote. An elected government remains in power, under a constitution far more liberal than any other in the Arab Middle East. In the region at large, Libya, following the war, gave up its advanced arsenal of weapons of mass destruction; Syria fled Lebanon; A.Q. Khan’s nuclear ring was shut down. And despite the efforts of Iran, Syria, and Sunni extremists in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, a plurality of Iraqis still prefer the chaotic and dangerous present to the sure methodical slaughter of their recent Saddamite past.
The Times wonders what Bush’s cause was. Easy to explain, if not easy to achieve: to help foster a constitutional government in the place of a genocidal regime that had engaged in a de facto war with the United States since 1991, and harbored or subsidized terrorists like Abu Nidal, Abu Abbas, at least one plotter of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, al Qaeda affiliates in Kurdistan, and suicide bombers in Gaza and the West Bank. It was a bold attempt to break with the West’s previous practices, both liberal (appeasement of terrorists) and conservative (doing business with Saddam, selling arms to Iran, and overlooking the House of Saud’s funding of terrorists).
Is that cause in fact “lost”? The vast majority of 160,000 troops in harm’s way don’t think so — despite a home front where U.S. senators have publicly compared them with Nazis, Stalinists, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, and Saddam Hussein’s jailers, and where the media’s Iraqi narrative has focused obsessively on Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, and serial leaks of classified information, with little interest in the horrific nature of the Islamists in Iraq or the courageous efforts of many Iraqis to stop them.
4. “Continuing to sacrifice the lives and limbs of American soldiers is wrong. The war is sapping the strength of the nation’s alliances and its military forces. It is a dangerous diversion from the life-and-death struggle against terrorists. It is an increasing burden on American taxpayers, and it is a betrayal of a world that needs the wise application of American power and principles.”
The military is stretched, but hardly broken, despite having tens of thousands of troops stationed in Japan, Korea, the Balkans, Germany, and Italy, years — and decades — after we removed dictatorships by force and began efforts to establish democracies in those once-frightening places. As for whether Iraq is a diversion from the war on terror: al Qaeda bigwig Ayman al Zawahiri, like George W. Bush, has said that Iraq is the primary front in his efforts to attack the United States and its interests — and he often despairs about the progress of jihad there. Our enemies, like al Qaeda, Iran, and Syria, as well as opportunistic neutrals like China and Russia, are watching closely to see whether America will betray its principles in Iraq.
5. “Americans must be clear that Iraq, and the region around it, could be even bloodier and more chaotic after Americans leave. There could be reprisals against those who worked with American forces, further ethnic cleansing, even genocide. Potentially destabilizing refugee flows could hit Jordan and Syria. Iran and Turkey could be tempted to make power grabs.”
The Times should abandon the subjunctive mood. The catastrophes that it matter-of-factly suggests have ample precedents in Vietnam. Apparently, we should abandon millions of Iraqis to the jihadists (whether Wahhabis or Khomeinites), expect mass murders in the wake of our flight — “even genocide” — and then chalk up the slaughter to Bush’s folly. And if that seems crazy, consider what follows, an Orwellian account of the mechanics of our flight:
6. “The main road south to Kuwait is notoriously vulnerable to roadside bomb attacks. Soldiers, weapons and vehicles will need to be deployed to secure bases while airlift and sealift operations are organized. Withdrawal routes will have to be guarded. The exit must be everything the invasion was not: based on reality and backed by adequate resources.”
“The United States should explore using Kurdish territory in the north of Iraq as a secure staging area. Being able to use bases and ports in Turkey would also make withdrawal faster and safer. Turkey has been an inconsistent ally in this war, but like other nations, it should realize that shouldering part of the burden of the aftermath is in its own interest.”
This insistence on planned defeat, following incessant criticism of potential victory, is lunatic. The Times’s frustration with Turkey and other “inconsistent” allies won’t end with our withdrawal and defeat. Like everyone in the region, the Turks want to ally with winners and distance themselves from losers — and care little about sermons from the likes of the Times editors. The ideas about Kurdish territory and Turkey are simply cover for the likely consequences of defeat: once we are gone and a federated Iraq is finished, Kurdistan’s democratic success is fair game for Turkey, which — with the assent of opportunistic allies — will move to end it by crushing our Kurdish friends.
7. “Despite President Bush’s repeated claims, al Qaeda had no significant foothold in Iraq before the invasion, which gave it new base camps, new recruits and new prestige.”
“This war diverted Pentagon resources from Afghanistan, where the military had a real chance to hunt down al Qaeda’s leaders. It alienated essential allies in the war against terrorism. It drained the strength and readiness of American troops.”
The Times raises the old charge that if we weren’t in Iraq, neither would be al Qaeda —more of whose members we have killed in Iraq than anywhere else. In 1944, Japan had relatively few soldiers in Okinawa; when the Japanese learned that we planned to invade in 1945, they increased their forces there. Did the subsequent carnage — four times the number of U.S. dead as in Iraq, by the way, in one-sixteenth the time — prove our actions ill considered? Likewise, no Soviets were in Eastern Europe until we moved to attack and destroy Hitler, who had kept communists out. Did the resulting Iron Curtain mean that it was a mistake to deter German aggression?
And if the Times sees the war in Afghanistan as so important, why didn’t it support an all-out war against the Taliban and al Qaeda, as it apparently does now, when we were solely in Afghanistan?
8. “Iraq may fragment into separate Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite republics, and American troops are not going to stop that from happening. . . . To start, Washington must turn to the United Nations, which Mr. Bush spurned and ridiculed as a preface to war.”
But Bush did go to the United Nations, which, had it enforced its own resolutions, might have prevented the war. In fact, the Bush administration’s engagement with the U.N. contrasts sharply with President Clinton’s snub of that organization during the U.S.-led bombing of the Balkans — unleashed, unlike Iraq, without Congressional approval. The Times also neglects to mention that the U.N. was knee-deep in the mess of its cash cow Iraq, from its appeasement of the genocidal Hussein regime to its graft-ridden, $50 billion oil-for-food scandal, reaching the highest echelons of Kofi Annan’s U.N. administration.
9. “Washington also has to mend fences with allies. There are new governments in Britain, France and Germany that did not participate in the fight over starting this war and are eager to get beyond it. But that will still require a measure of humility and a commitment to multilateral action that this administration has never shown. And, however angry they were with President Bush for creating this mess, those nations should see that they cannot walk away from the consequences.”
New governments in France and Germany are more pro-American than those of the past that tried to thwart us in Iraq. The Times surely knows of the Chirac administration’s lucrative relationships with Saddam Hussein, and of the German contracts to supply sophisticated tools and expertise that enabled the Baathist nightmare. Tony Blair will enjoy a far more principled and reputable retirement than will Jacques Chirac or Gerhard Schroeder, who did their best to destroy the Atlantic Alliance for cheap partisan advantage at home and global benefit abroad.
Nations like France and Germany won’t “walk away” from Iraq, since they were never there in the first place. They never involve themselves in such dangerous situations — just look at the rules of engagement of French and German troops in Afghanistan. Their foreign policy centers instead on commerce, suitably dressed up with fashionable elite outrage against the United States.
10. “For this effort to have any remote chance, Mr. Bush must drop his resistance to talking with both Iran and Syria. Britain, France, Russia, China and other nations with influence have a responsibility to help. Civil war in Iraq is a threat to everyone, especially if it spills across Iraq’s borders.”
China and Russia, seeing only oil and petrodollars, will take no responsibility to help. Both will welcome a U.S. retreat. Yes, “civil war” will spill over the borders, but not until the U.S. precipitously withdraws. Iran and Syria — serial assassins of democrats from Lebanon to Iraq — are hoping for realization of the Times’s scenario, and would be willing to talk with us only to facilitate our flight, with the expectation that Iraq would become wide open for their ambitions. In their view, a U.S. that fails in Iraq surely cannot thwart an Iranian bomb, the Syrian reabsorption of Lebanese democracy, attacks on Israel, or increased funding and sanctuary for global terrorism.
11. “President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have used demagoguery and fear to quell Americans’ demands for an end to this war. They say withdrawing will create bloodshed and chaos and encourage terrorists. Actually, all of that has already happened — the result of this unnecessary invasion and the incompetent management of this war.”
But as the Times itself acknowledges, what has happened in the past only previews what is in store if we precipitously withdraw. And this will prove the case not only in Iraq, but elsewhere in the Persian Gulf, the Middle East, Taiwan, and Korea. Once the U.S. demonstrates that it cannot honor its commitments, those dependent upon it must make the necessary adjustments. Ironically, while the Times urges acceptance of defeat, Sunni tribesmen at last are coming forward to fight terrorists, and regional neighbors are gradually accepting the truth that their opportunistic assistance to jihadists is only threatening their own regimes.
We promised General Petraeus a hearing in September; it would be the height of folly to preempt that agreement by giving in to our summer of panic and despair. Critics called for the resignation of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, a change in command in Iraq and at Centcom, new strategies, and more troops. But now that we have a new secretary, a new command in Iraq and at Centcom, new strategies, and more troops, suddenly we have a renewed demand for withdrawal before the agreed-upon September accounting — suggesting that the only constant in such harping was the assumption that Iraq was either hopeless or not worth the effort.
The truth is that Iraq has upped the ante in the war against terrorists. Our enemies’ worst nightmare is a constitutional government in the heart of the ancient caliphate, surrounded by consensual rule in Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Turkey; ours is a new terror heaven, but with oil, a strategic location, and the zeal born of a humiliating defeat of the United States on a theater scale. The Islamists believe we can’t win; so does the New York Times. But it falls to the American people to decide the issue.
©2007 Victor Davis Hanson