TCS Daily

Defeat From the Jaws of Victory?

By Pejman Yousefzadeh - December 1, 2005 12:00 AM

President Bush has come out and forcefully defended his Administration's Iraq policy in a speech at the Naval Academy. It's a defense that should perhaps bring cheer to the hearts of those who believe that the United States should commit itself to a patient, long-term mission designed to bring about the successful reconstruction of Iraq. It may be that the President's words signal truthfully that the United States will indeed invest in Iraq's well-being for the long term. But events on the ground contradict the President's courageous rhetoric, and cause people to wonder whether the Administration means what it says are its goals and commitments in Iraq.

Indeed, despite the President's speech, alarming stories have emerged indicating that the White House may be succumbing to intense political pressure and looking to exit Iraq before the work of the American reconstruction effort is complete and before the Iraqis are able to preserve and maintain their own security without significant outside assistance.

To be sure, if a duly elected Iraqi government demands withdrawal, the United States is obliged to respect the demand. But when the situation is one where American forces are still very much needed in order to help preserve security in Iraq and in order to continue to train Iraqi forces, and yet the Bush Administration begins to lay the groundwork for withdrawal simply to bolster its own political standing, then those who wish to see that reconstruction effort succeed should be quite alarmed.

An early withdrawal, undertaken before the internal situation in Iraq is stabilized and before Iraqi security forces are fully prepared to fend for themselves will have disastrous consequences. It will make the expenditure of American blood and treasure appear to have been in vain. It will help make Iraq a new breeding ground for terrorist forces. It will harm the incipient drive in the Middle East for democratization and transparency. And it will serve to make American promises and security commitments worthless in the eyes of many for years.

The collective American panic attack regarding policy in Iraq was given a great deal of publicity with the recent passage of a Senate resolution designed more to create an exit strategy no matter the consequences than to lay out a strategy for victory in Iraq. William Kristol rightly calls the Senate's quailing before the political winds of the moment "pathetic".

To be sure, there are some sane voices shouting in the wilderness against premature withdrawal from Iraq. Senator John McCain infuriates many in his own party. But on the issue of Iraq, he has been stalwart. His words in response to the panic attack disguised as a Senate resolution are wise ones and should loom heavily in the minds of policymakers:

"Reading through each version [of the Senate resolution], one gets the sense that the Senate's foremost objective is the drawdown of American troops. But America's first goal in Iraq is not to withdraw troops, it is to win the war. All other policy decisions we make should support, and be subordinate to, the successful completion of our mission. If that means we can draw down troop levels and win in Iraq in 2006, that is wonderful. But if success requires an increase in American troop levels in 2006, then we should increase our numbers there.

[. . . .]

"But that's not what these amendments suggest. They signal that withdrawal, not victory, is foremost in Congress' mind, and suggest that we are more interested in exit than victory. Mr. President, a date is not an exit strategy. This only encourages our enemies, by indicating that the end to American intervention is near, and alienates our friends, who fear an insurgent victory. Instead, both our friends and our enemies need to hear one message: America is committed to success in Iraq and we will win this war.

[. . .]

"I'd repeat that, Mr. President. This is a war we must win. The benefits of success and the consequences of failure are too profound for us to do otherwise. The road ahead is likely to be long and hard, but America must follow it through to success. While the sponsors of each version of this amendment might argue that their exact language supports this view, perceptions here and in Iraq are critical. By suggesting that withdrawal, rather than victory, is on the minds of America's legislators, we do this great cause a grave disservice."

Despite military warnings against artificial timetables designed to bring about premature withdrawals, despite the opinions of the Iraqis -- not to mention American soldiers themselves -- believing that the American military presence in Iraq is helping to bring about a successful reconstruction, the Bush Administration now appears to be open to the "declare victory and get out" solution to Iraq.

This mad rush to the exits comes paradoxically during a time in which the Bush Administration is seeking to turn up the rhetorical heat on critics of the decision to remove Saddam Hussein from power—a strategy which prompted the President's speech defending his Iraq policy. The Administration's decision to join the debate is a welcome one -- indeed, supporters of the war and the post-war reconstruction were beginning to wonder how long it would take for the Administration to finally find its voice and defend its policy with ardor and vigor. But having baffled supporters with its decision to stay on the sidelines for so long as the debate over Iraq raged and as opponents of the Administration's policy set the terms of the debate virtually uncontested, the Administration may be set to puzzle and infuriate anew by potentially preparing to withdraw from Iraq even as it blasts opponents of its policy and offers a passionate -- if late -- defense of the policy of staying in Iraq until victory is achieved and Iraqi security is firmly established. If the concerns about early withdrawal are well-founded, the Administration is in an incomprehensible political position. The Administration runs the risk of promoting opacity when clear and unequivocal statements and policies in favor of seeing the reconstruction effort through are desperately needed. And fears are rightfully raised that the Administration is simply looking for an easy way out of Iraq instead of remaining committed to a successful completion of the American mission in Iraq.

Despite the clear need for American security forces, despite the optimism of the Iraqi people and the American soldiers on the ground -- optimism that at least deserves a place on par with the hand-wringing currently going on in political circles -- and despite the bravery of the Iraqi people themselves in fighting for their own freedom, we are in danger of selling out Iraq and our own security interests. A premature pullout will do us and the Iraqi people inestimable damage and it is the duty of responsible policy practitioners and observers to stand against the flight instinct that appears to have seized so much of the American political and pundit class.

If my concerns are ill-founded, if the President's speech and not the stories hinting an early withdrawal signal the course the United States will take, then I will be happy to be proven wrong. But if the Administration's rhetoric is just that—rhetoric—then we may be on the precipice of a disaster.

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