Clear-eyed questions about Iraq


TIME’S up.

On Jan. 10, President Bush announced a troop surge in Iraq, billed as a final effort to reestablish security and “hasten the day our troops begin coming home.” But White House officials insisted that the surge wasn’t an open-ended military escalation. “In the next few months, you’re going to know whether or not this is working,” promised Condoleezza Rice. “At six months we’ll know....”

That was six months ago -- and in a report released Thursday, even the Department of Defense admitted that progress is “unsatisfactory” on many of the most crucial benchmarks established back in January.

So what next? Bush insisted Thursday that his strategy needs more time (maybe another six months, and then another and another?), but Republican defections may help congressional Democrats push through some sort of withdrawal legislation. Meanwhile, expect a renewal of heated public arguments for and against withdrawing U.S. troops.


Some of those arguments will be reasonable, but most will be bad. For the perplexed, here’s a guide to some of the worst arguments -- on both sides of the debate.

* We need to stay in Iraq to honor the sacrifices made by our troops! This is the worst of the many bad arguments for giving the administration’s approach more time. For one thing, it’s not clear how staying on with little progress and no coherent strategy “honors” the troops. (For sure, piling up more bodies doesn’t honor those who are already dead.) For another thing, the goal of military action isn’t to “honor” the troops -- sorry, troops -- it’s to protect U.S. national security interests. If our Iraq strategy is actually undermining our long-term security, it’s time for a change.

* We need to withdraw from Iraq in order to truly support our troops! No dice, antiwar activists. Sure, withdrawing from Iraq would remove troops from harm’s way, but many of our troops favor the administration’s Iraq strategy. It’s condescending to claim that withdrawal is the only true way to “support” them, if that’s not how many of them want to be supported. In any case, see above. While it’s tempting for both sides to fall back on arguments about what the troops “really” need or deserve, in the end, this isn’t about protecting the troops, or their sacrifices, or their preferences. If a war is truly necessary, we should be willing to accept the cost in U.S. lives.

* We’ve invested too many resources in Iraq to withdraw now! Yeah, and all those people in Las Vegas have invested too many resources in the slot machines to quit now.

* We’ve wasted so much money in Iraq that we have to withdraw now! Expense alone isn’t a good enough reason to call it quits. The war could be costly but worth it in the long run.

* We have a responsibility to the Iraqis -- we can’t withdraw! Having ousted Saddam Hussein only to usher in an era of even more vicious and unpredictable violence, it’s true that it’s hardly right for us to now abandon the Iraqis to their fate. But we need to distinguish between what we ought to do and what we actually have the capacity to do. If our misguided efforts to “help” are only making things worse, the Iraqi people can do without friends like us.


* We’re just baby-sitting someone else’s civil war -- we should withdraw and force the Iraqis to solve their own problems! That’s simplistic and offensive. Corruption and sectarian violence among Iraqis are unquestionably barriers to peace, but the Iraqis didn’t ask us to invade. We created this problem, and the fact that fixing it is costly and inconvenient doesn’t, by itself, justify our withdrawal. The short-term consequence of a U.S. withdrawal may well be more bloodshed. Withdrawal may be necessary for us, and may even be better for Iraq in the long run, but let’s not pretend that it won’t have real costs -- to innocent people we helped place in harm’s way.

If we’re serious about resolving the Iraq crisis, we need to get away from the rhetoric of sacrifice, cost and responsibility and instead ask clear-eyed questions about our capacities and interests.

What can we actually accomplish with the resources we have? What can we realistically expect from the Iraqi government, and what do the Iraqi people want? What’s the worst-case scenario if we withdraw in six months? Twelve? Eighteen? What’s the worst-case scenario if U.S. troops remain indefinitely? What will staying -- or leaving -- cost us in terms of allies, intelligence and regional cooperation and stability? With our military and much of the federal budget tied up in Iraq, what other crises -- or opportunities -- are we ignoring?

And maybe most important: Do we really want to find ourselves asking the same questions all over again, six months down the road?