Staying the Course: 2006

At one point, we needed to stay in Iraq to establish a beachhead of liberal democracy in the Arab world. Today, if you listen to some of the war’s strongest supporters, our goals are considerably less inspiring. Here’s Frederick Kagan from today’s Washington Post:

The presence of American troops is vital to restraining Iraqi soldiers – the Iraqis know not to participate in death squad activities when Americans are around. The fact that large numbers of U.S. troops are not embedded with the Iraqi police is a main reason for the participation of those forces in the killings. When the U.S. troops go, the Iraqi army will probably go the same way.

And here’s Reuel Marc Gerecht writing in the Weekly Standard:

staying in Iraq ought to be a compelling choice…. We–not the Iraqis–need to lead a major effort to break the Sunni insurgency. We–not the Iraqis–must police the Shiite-dominated security services to ensure they don’t slaughter the Sunnis, especially as we and a Shiite-dominated army with an important Kurdish contingent make a more serious effort to control Baghdad, Ramadi, and the centers of Sunni resistance. We need to keep building up a Shiite-dominated Iraqi army and slowly deploying it in ways that it can handle–with integral American involvement, as at Tal Afar. We should expect a few Iraqi governments to collapse before we start seeing real progress. Yet our presence in Iraq is the key to ensuring that Shiite-led governments don’t collapse into a radical hard core.

This may be too much for the United States now. It certainly appears to be too much for the Democrats. We would have all been better off if President Bush and his team had done what Senator John McCain advised back in 2004, when the insurgency started to rip: Tell everyone that the war would be long and hard, and pour in more troops. If we no longer have the stomach for this fight–and it’s going to be ugly, with few sterling VIP Iraqis who will make us proud–then we should at least be honest with ourselves. Leaving Iraq will not make our world better. We will be a defeated nation. Our holy-warrior and our more mundane enemies will know it. And we can rest assured that they will make us pay. Over and over and over again. (Emphasis added).

We’re no longer fighting to create a democratic Iraq that will be an example to the Muslim world. Now we’re supposed to fight to put down the Sunnis while using the other hand to hold back the Shiites from doing it an overly zealous and gory fashion. In the best-case scenario, what rickety government we keep standing will not be one to make us proud, as Gerecht puts it. These are the war’s supporters. This is the case for staying. Not something I’d want my kid or yours to die for.

But any other course, Frederick Kagan declares, would be “morally contemptible”: “Both honor and our vital national interest require establishing conditions in Iraq that will allow the government to consolidate and maintain civil peace and good governance.” Which is a bit cheeky. One might wish for a little less moral bombast and a little more humility when being lectured on matters of honor and vital national interest from one of the people who helped lead us into the biggest foreign policy disaster in three decades.

But put that aside. We need to stay, Kagan says, to help the nascent Iraqi government “consolidate and maintain civil peace and good governance,” a phrase that comes just three paragraphs after Kagan tells us we need to stay because the Iraqi police forces are carrying out sectarian murders and the Iraqi army would quickly turn to “death-squad activities” but for our supervision.

“Civil peace.” “Good governance.” Through what method of social alchemy are our soldiers going to transform the army and the police force into institutions that even aim at providing those goods, let alone institutions capable of providing them? How long will that transformation take, and can that goal possibly be achieved? If it can’t, how moral is it to ask more Americans to die for it?