Iraq is a mess. We have come to that conclusion because virtually every day we see innocent Iraqis slaughtered by suicide-bombers. Of all the possible responses, the most perverse may be this: To propose that Americans pull out of Iraq, abandoning innocent Iraqis to the tender mercies of those dispatching the terrorists.
Yet that is what many Americans now favor, perhaps because they have been persuaded that when Sunnis and Shites kill one another, Americans must be to blame. With apologies to Carly Simon: We’re so vain, we probably think this sectarian strife is about us.
An insurgency led by Saddam Hussein loyalists also inflames Iraq. If the insurgents succeed in driving Americans out of the country, Saddam will be pleased but perhaps not astonished. He has long maintained that the United States lacks the will to prevail against a determined enemy. Years ago, he told Americans: “Yours is a society that cannot accept 10,000 dead in one battle.”
Many Americans see no link between the conflict in Iraq and America’s war with the militant Islamist movement. Osama bin Laden’s top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, would beg to differ. He has called Iraq one of the “two most important battlefields” of the world war now underway.
The other key battlefield is Afghanistan. Should the U.S. accept defeat in Iraq, how many suicide-bombings in Kabul will be required before America and its allies retreat from that far less strategically vital front as well?
And after that, we would have to expect Pakistan — an ally of militant Islamists until the Taliban was routed by American forces five years ago this week — to switch sides again. Pakistan already has nuclear weapons and during the 1990s it looked the other way while its top nuclear scientist shared nuclear technology with some of the world’s worst tyrants. What would prevent that from resuming?
Iran’s rulers, now egregiously violating treaty agreements by developing their own nukes, would be confirmed in their conviction that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Lenin of the militant Islamist revolution, was correct when he said in 1979 that provoking the United States does not incur substantial risk because “America cannot do a damn thing.”
The perception of American weakness also is inspiring Syria, Iran’s junior partner, to test how far it can go. This week, Pierre Gemayel, a cabinet minister from a prominent Christian family and a critic of Hezbollah and Syria, was assassinated, hammering a long nail in the coffin of Lebanon’s fledgling democracy.
Gemayel’s murder tells the world that Hezbollah, Syria and Iran will not be bound by even the most basic international laws. Who in the so-called international community will contradict them? The Pope has criticized the assassination, but how many divisions does he have?
Before long, expect such relatively moderate Muslim nations as Jordan and Bangladesh to make accommodations with those successfully projecting power. And expect them to distance themselves from those who are not.
Iraq is a mess. It has not become, as President hoped it would, “a country that can sustain itself; a country that can govern itself; a country that can defend itself, and a country that will be an ally in the war against these extremists.”
Suicide bombers and explosive devices triggered by garage door openers have turned out to be surprisingly effective weapons: though not decisive in any battle, they have eroded America’s will to fight.
But because “victory” as Bush once defined it now seems out of reach, it does not follow that the solution is to cut and run — or even to cut and stroll away, the policy euphemistically called “phased redeployment.” More modest but still significant goals can be achieved.
We can continue to fight Saddamist insurgents and al-Qaeda terrorists wherever we find them — and we find them in Iraq. We can accelerate the training of Iraqi forces. We can do what is necessary to stabilize Baghdad — as we have pledged to do and tried to do but so far have failed to do because sufficient resources have not been devoted to the task.
As for the sectarian violence, our presence is not the cause and our absence would not be the cure. By continuing to play the role of honest broker between the Shia and Sunni communities, we may be able to prevent the conflict from spiraling into all-out civil war.
There are no good options in Iraq. There are only bad options and worse options. Let’s hope President Bush and the new Democratic leaders in Congress are wise enough to distinguish between the two.
(Cliff May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is the president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.)