Opinion

Iraq forever

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Last Friday morning, I found myself cornered by a Republican Iraq war vet from the National Guard who sincerely wanted me to understand that when the news media or congressional Democrats talk about drawing down troops, or withdrawing altogether, they are, explicitly, siding with the enemy. "It's either victory or defeat," he said, and if U.S. troops leave Iraq, that means unequivocal defeat.


FOR THE RECORD:
An earlier version of this article quoted the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette as saying Hillary Clinton "has proposed a congressional vote to reauthorize the war effective next month," when in fact the word should have been "deauthorize."


I pointed out that by that definition of abetting the enemy, noted non-treasonite John McCain, to name the one of many qualifying Republicans I happen to know best, could be culpable, based on his statements and actions regarding Beirut, Somalia and Haiti. The vet let the blow glance off and got back on message: Wartime is not the time to debate the conduct of war. Once we're there, we're in it together, and we need to fight united until we win.

Set aside for the moment whether he's right. The important thing, for the future conduct of U.S. foreign policy, is that his sentiment remains widely held, in numbers large enough to help ensure that no matter what you may hear on the campaign trail between now and November 2008, the U.S. troop deployment in Iraq will likely be an issue in the 2012 election and beyond. To paraphrase that old country song, we ain't going nowhere.

Consider that in a galaxy far, far away (otherwise known as the 1990s), President Clinton felt that he had to assure an isolationist Republican Congress -- repeat after me, an isolationist Republican Congress -- that the 20,000 U.S. peacekeeping troops he promised Bosnia as part of the Dayton Accords would only stay deployed for a single calendar year. They ended up staying nine times as long, and that ranks among the shortest of unpromised U.S. deployments since the country became a global power.

At the time, Clinton was able to persuade enough Republicans not necessarily on the merits of backing Balkan peace with potential U.S. blood but rather on the argument that, well, the commander in chief had made a promise. McCain, who had said just two years earlier that "the aspect of the future of this nation that bothers me more than anything else is the prospect of sending American troops on the groundinto Bosnia," grudgingly rallied his party mates to the president's side. "As I have already stated," he said on the Senate floor, "I would not have committed American ground forces to this mission, had that decision been mine to make. But the decision has been made by the only American elected to make such decisions."

The logic and momentum of intervention is so powerful that few Americans, even in Year 4 of a howlingly unpopular war, seem to note how far the goalposts have been moved in such a short time. Eighteen years ago, war was considered a grudging last resort, conditional on a maximally multi-lateral "new world order" in which Bahrain would fight shoulder-to-shoulder with Denmark and Bangladesh, financed (for some reason) with billions from the Japanese and Germans. Back then, Op-Ed pages nearly printed themselves with thumbsuckers about who, if anyone, should play "global cop," and no one deemed "serious" even considered going all the way to Baghdad.

Every presidential nominee of the major party not currently occupying the White House runs on a scaled-back, more "humble" foreign policy; every new president quickly becomes a robust interventionist. People commonly misportrayed as wild-eyed pacifists -- Howard Dean, George Soros -- in fact supported just about every war before Iraq and will almost certainly support future Democratic wars. As the woman said, what's the point of having this superb military if we can't use it?

As for this year's candidates, according to this useful and depressing rundown from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Hillary Clinton "has proposed a congressional vote to deauthorize the war effective next month, the fifth anniversary of the original authorization measure's passage, although there appears to be little prospect that it will be taken up." Barack Obama wants a "phased withdrawal," a negotiated settlement, perhaps a residual force. Joe Biden imagines a standing presence of 20,000 troops. Everyone wants to double down in Afghanistan.

So Gen. Petraeus will get his six more months of surge, even though Democrats claim it's failing and the public has long since given up hope. We'll all reconvene next spring, by which time the goalposts should be moved sufficiently enough that I can plan on writing the exact same column on the seventh anniversary of Sept. 11 as well.

Matt Welch is assistant editorial page edito; Click here to read more of his Opinion Daily columns. Tell us what you think at opinionla@latimes.com.

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