What to Talk About When You Talk About Iraq

Progressives and liberals are flummoxed when it comes to what to say about Iraq. Rather than reflecting weakness, indecision or political cowardice, the dilemma is genuine and not of their own making.

Virtually every piece of good advice propounded by analysts in recent years - holding together the pre-invasion Iraqi army, internationalizing the war when it still might have been possible, treating the Iraqi people with utmost respect for human rights, manning the reconstruction effort adequately during the early, opinion-shaping days - was ignored. The results have been so disastrous that many once valid proposals and approaches would now no longer work. Yet with every step on the route toward utter intractability, progressives feel forced to answer the inevitable "that's what you said then, but what would you do in Iraq now."

The dilemmas of how to reply obvious: if you speak about the geopolitical importance of preventing Iraq from becoming even more of a failed state amid a volatile region, you are coming out in favor of staying a course that's a manifest disaster. After so many wise recommended mid-stream corrections have been rejected, words spent on how the Iraq operation should be more effectively deployed or managed, or how its goals should be refined, seem wasted. With Rumsfeld at the helm, this is the war we have, not the war we want. And that won't change anytime before the Administration does.

Yet talk of withdrawal - or even strategic redeployment to outlying parts of the region - is portrayed as turning our back against the most important and costly military intervention of a generation. Echoing Vietnam, if we do withdraw we will always wonder whether, with a different strategy and different leadership, success might have been in reach.

Under the circumstances, the right position on the war is that . . .

. . . if it were possible, even at this late date, to put in new leadership (both civilian and, in some cases, military), to break from some of the mistakes of the past and reconsider fundamentals of strategy and troop levels, given the stakes that would be well worth trying. But since its clear that President Bush will never contemplate such a turnaround effort, favoring the continued prosecution of the war gives a blank check to a team that had led us into disaster, and promises only more of the same.

Its like a family business that has the potential to turn a profit, but is being run into the ground by a stubborn patriarch. If you could get him to step inside in favor of a competent manager, a worthy enterprise and heavy past investments might be salvaged. But if he's intransigent, rather than sinking more of the family's fortune, the best course may be to simply close the company down.

So what's the message: "I cannot support the continuation of this war led by President Bush and Secretary Rumsfeld. The past 3 years have convinced me that under their stewardship, the manner in which the war has been prosecuted has led to excessive losses for American soldiers, without resulting in a more stable Iraq or securing American national security interests in the region. I cannot in good conscience keep writing blank checks for the continuation of a approach that is manifestly failing, by an Administration that stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the facts or to strive for a better strategy.

Am I concerned about the consequences for the region if the United States were to pull out? Do I worry that having laid the groundwork for Iraq to become a terrorist haven, we will leave behind a region more dangerous to American security than the one we entered?

Absolutely. I believe that stabilizing Iraq is the central national security challenge of our time, but what I've lost is any confidence that this Administration is prepared to face up to it. They say they are, yet have for more than three years failed to get it right. Rather than taking a hard look at the challenge and how to more effectively meet it, they've put their heads in the sand and insisted only on staying the course.

Let me make one thing clear: this is not cut and run. I'd prefer to stay in Iraq, take a hard, unfiltered look at our political and military challenges, and put in a team capable of taking a fresh look at the errors made and how to correct them at this late date. If we could come to grips with what's gone wrong and make a solemn pledge to the American people that rather than being wedded to the failed approaches of the past we're prepared to reexamine everything from troop levels to deployment patterns to counter-insurgency strategy, then I'd press that we stay.

But this Administration has been urged to do that time and time again, yet refuses. It's stuck and rather than trying to pry itself loose it prefers to bog down the American military and people with it. That's not the kind of leadership I'm prepared to follow into battle, and I don't think U.S. servicemembers should have to either.

This is not the only point that ought to be made: progressives should keep right on reminding the public how and why we were backed into this Hobson's choice. They should insist that whatever happens in the near-term, the US state unequivocally that it does not intend to maintain permanent bases in Iraq. (The hows, whens and timetables for a redeployment that the Administration says won't happen on their watch are mostly moot).

But when none of that's good enough and Kofi Annan's bullseye assessment of last week: that the US "cannot stay and it cannot leave," will not due, the refusal to stay in under present leadership is the right position.

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