TCS Daily

Winning Iraq's Future Is Worth Losing in '06

By Uriah Kriegel - December 13, 2005 12:00 AM

Right after the 9-11 attacks, as the Bush administration was readying us for war in Afghanistan, the hard left remarked that the Taliban's al Qaeda haven was all America's fault anyway. Opposition to the Afghan war at that time was tamer then than the anti-war movement that was to emerge from the Iraq debate. Still, the same core group of people who busied themselves previously with anti-globalization efforts had found in the trigger-happy Bush administration a big target for criticism.

We were reminded countless times how, during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 80s, America trained and equipped the very same Afghan troublemakers who later built the terrorist camps in Afghanistan. America was faulted for not caring enough after the Soviet withdrawal to stay longer in Afghanistan in order to exercise positive influence. Such a mindset -- short-sighted and narrowly self-interested -- is at least partly to blame for why America was hit on 9/11. The Afghans of today should not pay the price for the mistakes of America's past foreign policy failures... Or so the argument went.

The same sort of argument appeared during the Iraq debate. Bush 43 cited the misery of Iraqis under Saddam's regime as part of the justification for attacking that regime. But wasn't America itself to blame for so much of that misery? After all, it was Bush 41 who stoked the fires of a Shia rebellion during the First Gulf War, only to abandon it as soon as he had struck an agreement with Saddam. The Shia, who made the mistake of cooperating with the Americans, were to pay dearly at the unforgiving hands of Saddam's henchmen. America, meanwhile, was nowhere to be found when its former allied needed help. As soon as the American interest was served, America disappeared. The US had thus squandered its moral mandate to initiate another war in Iraq.

But just as America had not abolished slavery in 1851 was never a reason for not doing so in 1861, so the fact that America had made missteps in Afghanistan in 1986 was never a reason for not doing the right thing in 2001. And the fact that it had done the wrong thing in Iraq in 1991 was never a reason for not doing the right thing in 2003. Yet the critics had a point. It was truly a major error, ethically as well as geopolitically, for America to have failed the people of Afghanistan and Iraq the way it did -- and it was a mistake that would come back to haunt us eventually.

You would think the moral of the story would be clearer, i.e. don't cut and run again. In other words -- having gone into Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003 - don't leave as soon as the American interest, narrowly defined, has been satisfied. The Taliban is out and there are no al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. Saddam is down and there are no WMDs in Iraq. By some measures, this is all that matters to the American interest. If, however, we are to learn from our recent history in the region, it is imperative that we stay in Afghanistan and Iraq and see them through to democratization, the rule of law, responsible governance, and popular empowerment. Even when our direct, short-term interests are no longer at stake, it's clear that our long term interests matter too.

Curiously, though, the very same people who had pointed to our foreign policy mistakes in Afghanistan and Iraq now insist that we ought to leave them immediately (i.e. make the same mistakes again). In a bit of intellectual wizardry as spectacular as it is shameless, the hard left is demanding today that we abandon Hamid Karzai, Ibrahim Jaafari, Jalal Talabani, and all of our new allies in the Afghan and Iraqi governments. Furthermore, they are attempting to capitalize on the fact that so much of the glory has been drained from the current military operations, as all that is left is the often plodding, grinding and costly work of nation-building. Your average voter, bored with such grinding and suffering from myopia, is starting to agree with the left.

If the antiwar elites so eager to pull out of the region have their way, our next generation will be able to cite the consequences as a foreign policy failure of the Bush Administration. And the left will again use such facts in condemnation of America when the subsequent wave of global terrorism arrives on our shores.

Thankfully, there are counterweights to those elites. There are people who do their utmost every day to keep the public's eye on the prize and its focus on the big picture. Sometimes it's tough. But there's one claim that conservative commentators have failed to make with sufficient emphasis: winning the war in Iraq is worth losing the midterm elections of 2006.

Many have attempted to evade the dilemma by insisting that Bush would actually be rewarded in next year's poll if he sticks to his guns. While this may turn out to be the case, it may not. And it is important that the conservative movement keep its priorities clear at this in critical juncture. The discussion about the greater Middle East depends on selling initiatives in the long-term. But the first priority must be to see that the job gets done in Iraq and Afghanistan. If they fail, the other conversations will be over.

Uriah Kriegel teaches philosophy at the University of Sydney.


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