Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Leaving Iraq

A man who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.

—John Stuart Mill

     A week ago Sunday, five days after the official “end of combat operations” in Iraq, insurgent gunmen and suicide bombers attacked the Iraqi Army’s headquarters in Eastern Baghdad. Eighteen Iraqis died, and thirty-nine were injured in the midday fighting, in which, the Los Angeles Times reported, elements of the 50,000 U.S. “non-combat” troops remaining in Iraq, took part. No Americans died in the urban battle, but the idea that the U.S. has finished with Iraq perished, along with rational hope for a resolution that will not squander the success bought with lives already given. The astonishment of some on the Left at this development, which was an easy prediction for most of us, is itself astonishing. There is apparently no limit to the power of wishful thinking.


     Who could really have thought the departure of the bulk of American troops, which have been the only guarantors of security in Iraq, would not unleash new conflict? Such a view bespeaks an ignorance of history that is shameful in any who would make policy. Either that, or a criminal indifference to the people of Iraq, whose fate now seems confirmed. Setting aside the propriety of the original invasion, which CONSVLTVS thought was unjustified at the time, we must now take the facts as they are. In the most volatile region of the world, America has toppled a tyrant, freed a people, and planted a slim sapling of democracy. If all the countries of the world were democracies, warfare would become blessedly rare. But democracy is difficult to nurture in the dry sand of nations that have never known any government apart from tyranny.

     Such nations lack experience with the rule of law. Under tyranny, people submit to the power of the dictator out of fear. At every level the government is rich with corruption. Nothing gets done except by graft, influence, or intimidation. Once the dictator is overthrown, the lid is off, and all the subordinate thugs battle to succeed the dead strongman. The ensuing period of violence can only end when a new dictator finally overcomes his rivals and renews the tyranny. In Iraq, however, the American army interrupted this natural process. The presence of overwhelming force, after the 2007 surge, suppressed the internal power struggle. Now, with the American drawdown and the promise of total withdrawal next year, the violence will inevitably return until the power vacuum is filled. Who could have seriously thought that democracy could take root in such a place?

     Had our troops remained, year after year, there was a chance that a generation of stability would have fostered a viable democracy. We only needed to remain, as we did in Germany and Japan, to give the Iraqi people the chance to learn the rule of law and the habits of representative government. Now, they will never get that chance. Even with 50,000 Americans left in country, the violence has re-ignited a mere five days after the departure of the main body of our army. The attack last Sunday confirmed that Iraq is not sufficiently different from other countries to escape the precedents of history. Likewise, our Republic follows its own precedents, to the ruin of Iraq. For we depart with the job undone because public opinion requires it.

     Modern democratic states yearn for quick success in war. In Vietnam, the U.S. began a record of irresolution. Whatever the wisdom of our entering that conflict, our exit left our allies, the people of South Vietnam, victims of the Communists. After the fall of Saigon, the North Vietnamese murdered them by thousands. Thousands more died as refugees on the sea. With our departure, the Communists in Vietnam were free to march into Laos and Cambodia, where eventually Pol Pot accomplished the death of millions. Had we not gone to Vietnam in the first place, some of these atrocities might have happened anyway—but we would not have been involved. Instead, our involvement blurs the moral picture, leaving our complicity at issue. When the deluge comes in Iraq, however, we will bear more dishonor as the ones who started the fight.

     As always, history puts us in perspective. We are certainly not the first democratic state to falter in the face of military challenge. We are not the first to wish away trouble. The appeasement of Germany in the 1930s by England and France is part of the same syndrome of democratic irresolution and wishful thinking. In fact, apart from Vietnam, we have had a better record than many democratic nations in this regard. But if we abandon both Iraq and Afghanistan, we will confirm the record of shameful irresolution begun in Vietnam.

     The hallmark of naïveté in foreign policy is the belief that peace will come from pacifism. Only strength and resolve can possibly confront the manifest challenges of the world with success. When a nation possesses strength without resolve, it will make a poor ally—as the Iraqis have begun to see. And knowing this about ourselves, we would have done better to stay home.

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