Are you intellectually honest? Test yourself with a few thought experiments. Democrats: Imagine if John Kerry had won, and a half-dozen retired generals had publicly objected to his management of the war—wouldn’t you be screaming coup d’état? And Republicans, what if a Democratic White House had waged war this badly—wouldn’t you now be calling that president criminally incompetent, impeachable? This is why people find politics loathsome. And while I know democratic politics is an inherently simplifying process, a way to make complicated issues understandable to everyone, American political discourse seems to have a special intolerance for nuance and complexity. Which is especially unfortunate now, because the Middle East is so not simple.
It was our weakness for childlike, black-and-white explanation that got us into the Iraq debacle. To the neocons and Bush, the task at hand was simple, like a fairy tale: Saddam was a monster, and destroying his government would be easy, after which the liberated Iraqis could build a friendly democracy. No real thought was given to all that might go wrong. What counted was the beautiful big idea.
The antiwar left’s conviction now that everything will be fine if we simply ship home all our troops is born of a similar impulse, a wishful naïveté so convinced of its own righteousness that it refuses to imagine vast unintended consequences, let alone to anguish over them. Little thought is given to what might happen after we leave. What if, instead of 100 murdered Iraqi civilians a day, the number is in the thousands? What happens if ethnic cleansing becomes state policy? And the Saudis intervene to protect their Sunni brothers from slaughter? And Turkey invades the Kurdish provinces? What counts is the beautiful, big idea.
The neocons and the lefties have in common a shrugging callousness to the horrors their simple plans unintentionally enable in Iraq: eliminating the Baathist dictatorship uncorked a civil war, and eliminating U.S. troops may well turn it into a much bigger one—but it’s the Iraqis to blame for the chaos and murder, not us.
The Democratic presidential candidates talk blithely of “ending” the war in Iraq, as if our departure will lead directly to an orderly peace. “The Democrats have the power,” says Dennis Kucinich, baldly misstating the facts, “to end the war right now.” John Edwards: “Congress has a responsibility to force George Bush to end this war.” And Barack Obama: “It’s time to end this war.” But our problem is not that Bush won’t order an end to this war, it’s that he can’t. Nor can Congress.
Presidential politics privilege optimism above all, so any glimmers of honesty from the candidates on Iraq are to be welcomed. So good for Fred Thompson when he says that “we are left with nothing but bad choices,” and for Rudy Giuliani when he says, contra Bush, that “we have to be ready” to deal with a final failure. Hillary Clinton grants that “we may need a vastly reduced residual force,” but I think that all of the Democrats with any hope of getting elected know that our final expenditure on Iraq—in lives and dollars and years—is probably not much more than half-paid. Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn rule—“You break it, you own it”—will not expire in January 2009.
Those of us who voted against Bush might like to think that Iraq is all “his” bungle, that we’re therefore free to walk away from the horror show. But we’re a nation, and we’re all responsible for all of our national liabilities. This is not Vietnam, where we hadn’t started the civil war, and where we really did have the power to end the killing by leaving. A more apt analogy, I worry, is the Soviet war in Afghanistan. After the 1979 invasion, the Soviets maintained a force of between 80,000 and 100,000 troops in a Muslim country of some 20 million people divided along ethnic, tribal, and sectarian lines. As General Petraeus said the other day, “I think historically, counterinsurgency operations have gone at least nine or ten years.” The Red Army left Afghanistan after nine years and 14,000 killed in a counterinsurgency war against a mix of indigenous fighters and the foreign jihadi who became the core of Al Qaeda. And six months later, the Soviet empire began to dissolve.
In other words, they were damned if they stayed and damned if they left, and so are we. Which should be the starting point of the real debate we need to begin.