To say that “exit strategies” from Iraq have become the flavor of the month would be to exaggerate the situation to the point of absurdity. Exit strategies are not even the fall fashion. They are the regnant topic of conversation all across the political establishment and have been for some time. Even the Bush administration has some share in this discourse, having now abandoned the useless mantra of “staying the course” without quite defining what that “course” might be—or might have been. (A rule of thumb in politics is that any metaphor drawn from sporting activity is worse than useless, but at least one doesn’t hear people saying that in Iraq we are “at the bottom of the ninth” or some such horse manure.)
Many of those advocating withdrawal have been “war-weary” ever since the midafternoon of Sept. 11, 2001, when it was discovered that the source of jihadist violence was U.S. foreign policy—a mentality now reinforced by the recent National Intelligence Estimate circulated by our emasculated, demoralized, and incompetent intelligence services. To this way of thinking, victory is impossible by definition, because any response other than restraint is bound to inflame the militancy of the other side. Since the jihadists, by every available account, are also inflamed and encouraged by everything from passivity to Danish cartoons, this seems to shrink the arena of possible or even thinkable combat. (Nobody ever asks what would happen if the jihadists had to start worrying about the level of casualties they were enduring, or the credit they were losing by their tactics, or the number of enemies they were making among civilized people who were prepared to take up arms to stop them. Our own masochism makes this contingency an unlikely one in any case.)
I am glad that all previous demands for withdrawal or disengagement from Iraq were unheeded, because otherwise we would not be able to celebrate the arrest and trial of Saddam Hussein; the removal from the planet of his two sadistic kids and putative successors; the certified disarmament of a former WMD- and gangster-sponsoring rogue state; the recuperation of the marshes and their ecology and society; the introduction of a convertible currency; the autonomy of Iraqi Kurdistan (currently advertising for investors and tourists on American television); the killing of al-Qaida’s most dangerous and wicked leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and many of his associates; the opening of dozens of newspapers and radio and TV stations; the holding of elections for an assembly and to approve a constitution; and the introduction of the idea of federal democracy as the only solution for Iraq short of outright partition and/or civil war. If this cause is now to be considered defeated, by the sheer staggering persistence in murder and sabotage of the clerico-fascist forces and the sectarian militias, then it will always count as a noble one.
But the many disappointments and crimes and blunders (the saddest of which is the utter failure to influence Iran, and the corresponding advantage taken by Tehran-backed militias) do not relieve us of a responsibility that is either insufficiently stressed or else passed over entirely: What is to become, in the event of a withdrawal, of the many Arab and Kurdish Iraqis who do want to live in a secular and democratic and federal country? We have acquired this responsibility not since 2003, or in the sideshow debate over prewar propaganda, but over decades of intervention in Iraq’s affairs, starting with the 1968 Baathist coup endorsed by the CIA, stretching through Jimmy Carter’s unforgivable permission for Saddam Hussein to invade Iran, continuing through the decades of genocide in Kurdistan and the uneasy compromise that ended the Kuwait war, and extending through 12 years of sanctions and half-measures, including the “no-fly” zones and the Iraq Liberation Act, which passed the Senate without a dissenting vote. It is not a responsibility from which we can walk away when, or if, it seems to suit us.
Some time ago, I wrote rather offhandedly that the coalition forces in Iraq act as the defensive militia for those who have no militia. I get e-mails from civilians and soldiers in that country, as well as from its growing number of exiles, and this little remark generated more traffic than I have had in a while. Just look at the report in the Oct. 30 New York Times about the kidnapping of an Iraqi-American Army interpreter in the (still) relatively civilized Baghdad neighborhood of Karada. A few days earlier, according to the residents who tried with bare hands to stop the abduction, the same gang had been whipping teenage boys with cables for the crime of wearing shorts. (It is always useful to know what is on the minds of the pious.) A Sunday Washington Post headline referred to the “tipping point” in the erosion of congressional support for the Iraq intervention. Well, the “tipping point” between the grim status quo in Karada and its full-scale Talibanization is rather more acute. And does anyone want to argue that a Talibanized Iraq would not require our attention down the road if we left it behind us?
There are many different plans to reconfigure forces within Iraq and to accommodate, in one way or another, its increasingly tribal and sectarian politics. (Former Ambassador to Croatia Peter Galbraith’s suggestion, arising from his admirable book The End of Iraq, involves a redeployment to the successful and peaceful north, with the ability to answer requests for assistance from the central government and the right to confront al-Qaida forces without notice.) But all demands for an evacuation are based on the fantasy that there is a distinction between “over there” and “over here.” In a world-scale confrontation with jihadism, this distinction is idle and false. It also involves callously forgetting the people who would be the first victims but who would not by any means be the last ones.