Memo to Jack Murtha

Before I say anything else, Congressman Murtha, let me thank you — for your long public service in Washington and, before that, in Vietnam.

And let me commend you, too, for sparking an honest debate. Until now, what has passed for debate on Iraq has been mostly slander — for example, calling President Bush a liar and questioning his patriotism. Yes, questioning his patriotism, because anyone who would lie to get America into a war for reasons unrelated to national security would not be a patriot. He’d be a traitor.

I ask you, sir: Has such a vicious charge ever before been leveled at an American president in a time of war — or even a time of peace?

But you have not taken this low road. Instead, you have said you believe the war in Iraq “cannot be won” and that “it’s time to bring the troops home.” This is a discussion worth having.

You also say that “80 percent of Iraqis want us out.” I’m not sure where you got that figure, but it’s probably low. I’d guess that close to 100 percent of Iraqis — as well as 100 percent of Americans — would love to see U.S. troops heading home for the holidays. But some of us think it matters whether we leave Iraq after we’ve defeated our enemies — or whether we leave Iraq after having surrendered to our enemies.

When you suggest that planning for the war in Iraq was flawed, I think you have a point. American leaders, in the Pentagon and elsewhere, crafted an effective strategy for toppling Saddam Hussein. Once that mission was accomplished, however, they had only a vague idea about how to transform Iraq into a free, independent and self-reliant nation within a short period of time. Maybe that’s because no one had ever attempted such a feat before.

Clearly, we should not fail again to plan adequately. So I would ask you about your plans for the aftermath of the defeat you say we must now accept.

For example, it’s obvious that if the U.S. military can’t stand up to al Qaeda in Iraq, the fledgling post-liberation Iraqi military won’t have a prayer. That means we must plan for the possibility that al Qaeda will come to power in part or all of Iraq. What, if anything would you propose to do in response to that?

Even if al Qaeda only manages to shore up its positions in the Sunni areas of western Iraq, we must expect it will use that base to continue attacking Jordan and other countries in the region. Maybe we’d send advisers to help the Jordanian king? But help him do what exactly? Decide when the fight has become hopeless?

Also possible: The “Party of Return,” Baathists loyal to Saddam Hussein, could take over (maybe in some kind of de-facto coalition with al Qaeda). They might even release Saddam from the jail where he has been awaiting trial (odd, isn’t it, how trials, like wars, aren’t as speedy as they used to be?) and restore him to power. What would we do in that case _ ask the U.N. to re-start sanctions and the Oil-for-Food program?

The Shia of Iraq would turn to Iran’s mullahs for protection against both al Qaeda and the Baathists. To whom else could they turn? If what followed was an Iranian anschluss _ annexation _ of southern Iraq, will you have a plan to deal with that contingency?

Iraqis who “collaborated” with us would undoubtedly face execution _ perhaps tens of thousands of would be killed for revenge or just to send a message. I guess Congress could offer a resolution condemning such behavior.

Thousands, perhaps millions of Iraqis would no doubt flee the country. Should the United States accept them as refugees? Or turn them away?

In many other countries where al Qaeda has been applying pressure _ Bangladesh, Indonesia and Thailand, to name just a few _ three things would now be clear:

_ It is dangerous to be allied with the United States.

_ It is futile to resist al Qaeda.

_ Bin Laden and Saddam were correct in predicting that if you bloody Americans, they will always turn tail and run.

As evidence they’d cite not only Iraq but Mogadishu and Beirut and, of course, Vietnam, where you served honorably. In truth, after that defeat _ while millions of Southeast Asians suffered and died _ Americans got on with their lives and we even went on to win the Cold War.

Is that the idea, congressman? To cross our fingers and hope that our defeat in Iraq will follow the Vietnam pattern? Because if so, I have to say candidly, sir, that isn’t much of a plan.

(Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.)