Who will speak for America?
Nobody in the Republican or Democratic parties when we contemplate the disheartening result of the recent congressional appearances by Gen. David Petraeus. Both parties responded as if Iraq were nothing more than an item in a political debate instead of an issue of supreme national importance. Both pandered to their political base. Both were hostage to special interest groups that did their best to discourage bridging the partisan gulf, threatening primary challenges against anyone who opposed their shrill views.
The result was incendiary rhetoric. Republicans attacked Democrats for advocating a "cut and run" policy. Democrats attacked the president, his policies, and even the integrity and honesty of General Petraeus ("General Betray Us," the newspaper ad described him) as if he required "a willing suspension of disbelief," in Sen. Hillary Clinton's words. No one can imagine this performance changing as we draw closer to the primaries for both parties in January and later.
The major blame for this sad collapse of American political discourse lies with the president. He has lost his moral authority. He has lost the public's trust on this issue, partly because of the erroneous intelligence about weapons of mass destruction, the incompetent management of the war, and the intense partisanship of his administration. It is no surprise that a poll finds only 5 percent of the public trusts the president to wrap up the war. The equally partisan Democratic-controlled Congress does not do much better—only 21 percent trust lawmakers to do it. These support levels are tantamount to a vote of no confidence. Only the military is trusted—by some 68 percent.
Public vs. political. Tragically, there is more common ground for the grand political compromise America needs and deserves. The public might well support a longer-term effort in Iraq if it had some sense of the boundaries. The leading Democrats are coming to understand that even when the direct U.S. combat role is diminished, a mission remains: to train Iraqi forces, guard the borders, and hunt down terrorists. More and more Republicans know that the United States cannot indefinitely spend blood and treasure to install "democracy." They recognize that our ambitions have to be readjusted, our mission gradually changed. The fact that for the first time in four years the president and our senior military officials in Iraq have proposed a reduction in forces should have provided the basis for a dialogue.
How then do we find a sustainable position? By that, I mean one that reduces our exposure but minimizes the damage to the United States, its allies, and Iraq itself. And one that has to form while the political clock in Washington is ticking faster than the pace of our counterinsurgency strategy. Surely how we diminish our role can't become another humiliating withdrawal, perceived as reflecting a weak America. That would unnerve those allies who rely on us for security in the face of a growing Islamist threat. As former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger aptly wrote, "An abrupt withdrawal from Iraq would not end the war, it would only re-direct it," and might well cause the United States "to lose the ability to shape events, either within Iraq, on the anti-jihadist battlefield, or in the world at large." Many experts share this view, including both General Petraeus and Gen. James Jones, head of the special congressional Iraq commission.
The risks of a reduced American presence are multiple. Iraqis who supported us might be targeted; we have a moral obligation to those people. Outside Iraq, Hezbollah might well be inspired by a surging Iran to attempt a Lebanese takeover. The Taliban would gain new energy in Afghanistan. A crucial but fragile political ally, Pakistan, a possessor of nuclear weapons, would face increased radical pressures at home. Instability would shake the oil markets. At home, any move seen as failure would undermine American domestic support for an activist international role.
So leaving has huge risks and costs. And so does staying. The Iraqi government is becoming more precarious, the Sunnis want far more than the Shiite government is willing to grant, and the Shiites seem more concerned with their coreligionists than with the nation. No one knows for sure whether absent a commanding American presence, Iraq will divide along sectarian lines or whether Iran and al Qaeda will take over different parts. There is certainly a clear risk that we might have to return at some later day to confront an even more dangerous enemy.