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Conservatives will occasionally accuse liberals — or more generally anyone who opposes the war in Iraq — of hating President Bush so much that they actually hope that the United States loses. But I’m skeptical of this accusation.
However, if there are citizens among us who wish for a military defeat in Iraq, let’s afford them their due rights to freedom of speech and thought, and then have as little to do with them as possible. Only the most mean-spirited, unpatriotic, semi-treasonous Bush critics would fail to shudder at the thought of an American defeat in Iraq.
But suppose that the fondest hopes of the neoconservatives had materialized, that Iraq had been a cakewalk, that we had been greeted as liberators rather than occupiers, that a constitutional liberal democracy had been established and that only a small stabilizing force of American troops now remained in Iraq. This outcome is imminently preferable to the current disaster, but even such an easy victory also would have had at least three undesirable downsides.
First, the dangerous doctrine of preemptive war, now discredited, would have received a boost from an easy victory in Iraq, and the consequences of its legitimization are unpredictable. It’s difficult to argue that a country has no right to defend itself preemptively in the face of an imminent threat. But our elective incursion into Iraq, based on bad intelligence and doubtful motivations, exceeded the mere attempt to neutralize a perceived threat, aspiring instead to re-shape an entire region to suit our conception of the world. Is this a principle that we would want every country, following our example, to feel free to employ?
Second, whatever we may say about weapons of mass destruction or democracy, everyone knows that we would have little interest in Iraq if it weren’t situated above the world’s second largest oil reserve. And if we’re truly “addicted to oil,” in going to Iraq we resemble the crackhead who wants to reform, but not after making one more big score. Establishing a “friendly democracy” in Iraq with a dependable supply of reasonably priced crude would have encouraged an ill-advised postponement of our day of reckoning with the end of oil and with global warming.
Finally, if victory had been achieved easily in Iraq, it’s hard to see how a succeeding war with Iran could have been avoided. In spite of their shared Shi’ism, Iraq and Iran are natural enemies, and a U.S.-dominated Iraq next door would inevitably feel like a threat to the Iranians.
Furthermore, it’s likely that Iran was in the back of the neoconservatives’ minds when they were developing the plan to remake the Middle East in the first place, and certainly it’s the next logical step. If Iraq had gone well, why not Iran? If anything, with its putative nuclear aspirations, Iran represents more of a threat to us than Iraq was likely to become. And it, too, sits above a great deal of oil.
Nevertheless, the only thing worse than winning in Iraq is losing. Unfortunately, we’ve maneuvered ourselves into a position with no good options. The course we’re staying in a stalemate between winning and losing, with little prospect that things will get better. Iraq has turned into a war of attrition that, for us, is identical to losing.
The only way out is in reverse. The Bush administration must admit to what has become obvious to much of the rest of the world and to most Americans: The war in Iraq was a mistake from the beginning. We got into it on our own, but we’re going to need help getting out, from the players in the region and from mediators who are not seen to be closely allied with us, like the European Union and the United Nations.
But the hardest part of getting out of somewhere we shouldn’t be is admitting that we shouldn’t have gone there in the first place. President Bush has too much at stake to be able to admit this. He’s going to need help, first from the voters, in November. And then from Congress, which has never had a greater responsibility than now to implement the constitutional checks on the power of the presidency.
(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Email: jcrisp(at)delmar.edu.)