Whenever I raise the idea of bringing our troops home from Iraq, I'm stunned by the consistency of the response I get: "But we can't leave now; we have to finish the job."
I even hear it repeated by Democrats who had originally been against the war, with a slight progressive spin: "I was against the war, but now that we are there, we can't leave until we've finished the job."
As if the job of building a stable Iraq (let alone a truly democratic one) could be accomplished by the use of military force. If that were the case, wouldn't we have gotten our employee of the month plaque three years ago and moved on to spreading democracy to the next county?
Yet the "we can't leave now" argument has somehow congealed into the conventional wisdom.
So, for those of you who find yourself confronted with this idiocy, here is my handy, two-part "elevator message" rebuttal to the CW:
One: withdrawing our troops from Iraq does not mean abandoning Iraq.
Two: Withdrawing our troops from Iraq does mean eliminating the insurgency's best recruitment tool.
You should be able to get that out between the lobby and the mezzanine.
If you happen to be in the Empire State building, here is what you can add to your rebuttal:
To win in Iraq, we need to leave Iraq. To win, we need to stop being the issue. To win, we need to give our money, our brains, our support in every way -- but no longer the lives of our soldiers.
Far from signaling U.S. abandonment of Iraq, removing our troops will allow us to focus on the only viable solution to the crisis in Iraq: using our power to influence diplomatic and political advancements, and using our financial might to help reconstruct the country and help build a civil society in which democracy might actually take hold.
It's not about cutting and running, it's about shifting our efforts -- and our resources -- from a reliance on hard power to soft power (check out Joe Nye for more on this).
Since his first fevered dreams of toppling Saddam and remaking the Middle East, President Bush has always tied the idea of finishing the job in Iraq to the exercise of hard power. It was a job more for Rummy than Colin or Condi. His only nod to questions of when our troops will come home: "As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down." But a positive outcome in Iraq will not be the result of our military might, even if we stop-loss our troops for the next hundred years.
If civil war in Iraq is to be averted, it will happen not because the Iraqi military is ready but because the people of Iraq have been convinced of the value of finally putting aside their ethnic and political differences.
As retired Gen. William Odom, former national security advisor to Reagan, has pointed out: the insurgents are fighting very effectively without US military training, so why aren't the Iraqi security forces? Odom also reminds us that while we trained the Vietnamese military very well, in the end South Vietnam's political leaders lost the war.
It's about winning hearts and minds, not winning body count tallies. And, in their hearts and minds, the Iraqis see us as occupiers not liberators.
This weekend's encouraging developments put a spotlight on the flaw in the CW. By most accounts, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad played a dominant role in ending the four month stalemate on forming a national unity government in Iraq (although much work still remains to be done). His efforts allowed the CW to breathe a sigh of relief and say: "See, we need to be there! We can't leave now!"
But, unless I missed something, Khalilzad wasn't on a bombing raid; he was on a diplomatic mission. A mission that will continue long after our troops have been redeployed. Indeed, our diplomatic effectiveness will be enhanced by removing an impediment to getting other governments involved in the process.
This is the ultimate irony the CW seems unable to grasp: Yes, we owe it to the people of Iraq to finish the job. But to finish the job, we first must leave. Staying there guarantees never winning and never finishing the job.