Too Soon to Leave
Now we know that the light at the end of the tunnel in Iraq is just another express train heading our way. When we went in-as liberators, not invaders or occupiers-we thought we would create the conditions for a viable state, even a democratic one. In a troubled region, it would be a state that would not be a threat to us or our friends. What we have instead is a failed state. It cannot protect its people or apply the rule of law. Its lamentable leadership is powerless to govern. We now face the possibility of an even greater danger from Iraq than existed when Saddam Hussein was its ruler. We have removed a terrible dictator but replaced him with the tyranny of the Shiites.
The military and the police, organized by the Shiite government, are seen not as disinterested national forces but as a uniformed Shiite militia serving only the interests of its own community. The elections didn't bring democracy; we now know that they merely sharpened ethnic division. Perhaps it should have been obvious: After hundreds of years of suppression, the Shiite majority had little appetite for reconciliation with the Sunnis, who were now mostly without power. Witness the government's reluctance to fund projects in Sunni areas, or to investigate Shiite death squads. Indeed, we must ask if the Shiites have any intention of sharing power with the Sunnis-and the Kurds, as well-in a way that might help drain the poisons of this vicious sectarian war. Or is their real purpose to string America along while using our firepower to destroy their Sunni rivals? The political compromises that bring about national unification are exactly those that the government of Nouri al-Maliki has balked at for the whole of the past year.
Forcing their hand. Hope is a good breakfast but a poor supper, and there is not enough here for a midnight snack. The Iraqi politicians have not used the opportunity of our extra presence in Baghdad to reach agreement on such imperatives as dividing up a fair share of oil revenues or working out an amnesty for the deposed Baathist bureaucrats. The leading Democrats and some Republicans are now convinced the only way to get the Iraqis to budge is to set our departure in motion. The exasperation this represents is justified.
Unfortunately, making good on the threat carries grave risks that seem not to have been calculated. The most likely outcome would be an escalation of the civil war, consigning millions to the mercy of corrupt and sectarian leaders. It would be a death sentence for the tens of thousands who have worked closely with Americans, defying warnings that collaborating with the occupiers is punishable by execution. It would be a gift to Iran. With control of the oil fields and the Shiite spiritual capital of Najaf, Iran would become a Shiite superpower and emboldened in its pursuit of nuclear weapons. With Iraq abutting the Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia, the effect on the region and our interests would be devastating.
Millions would follow the 2 million refugees who have already spilled out of Iraq. Kurdistan could declare independence, provoking Turkey-a NATO ally-to intervene. Oil prices would rocket. Extremists like the anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr would have enhanced capacity for mischief. In such a failed state, still riven by sectarian violence, Iraq would serve as a launching pad for al Qaeda terrorist operations throughout the region. Such a famous victory for America's two biggest enemies, Iran and al Qaeda, would render America's broader war on terrorism very much more difficult, if not unwinnable. This is an enemy who will strive to follow America home.
It might be argued that my sketch is overdrawn, that Iraqis will learn to live together and deal in their own way with alien terrorists. But if they can't do that when supported by the world's most powerful military, what chances are there when they are left on their own? And even if there is a smaller probability of the horrific consequences I have suggested, it still remains a chance that can't be taken. The concern to bring the troops home and reduce our casualties is wholly understandable, but the risks make it impossible right now.
What is missing from the public dialogue here at home is an honest recognition of these abiding American interests in Iraq. The Democrats believe that public dismay over the war will bring political gain; the Republicans think they win if they can paint the Democrats as doing anything to thwart our soldiers' efforts. Both parties are playing an all-or-nothing political game, sacrificing the opportunity to develop the necessary bipartisan support for the long war against Islamist extremists. Every day around the world there is fresh evidence of their evil designs. It is not a struggle that will be won on the quick or on the cheap, or on the basis of domestic politics.
Until we understand this, who can feel secure?
This story appears in the May 21, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.