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Contrary to what you’ve read in the newspapers, we are not debating whether to “change course” in Iraq. We are debating whether to accept defeat in Iraq.
Contrary to what you’ve seen on television, there is no way for us to “end the war.” If we retreat from Iraq, the war will not just continue but expand. The only difference is that a battlefield on which we are now killing our enemies will be transformed into a base from which our enemies can safely plan to kill us.
Yes, it’s disappointing that the American-backed government in Baghdad has not yet met its “benchmarks” for enacting political and economic reforms. Iraqi politicians have failed to pass laws dividing oil revenue among the country’s main population groups; excluding fewer Baathists from obtaining government jobs; and scheduling provincial elections in areas where Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds are competing for power.
But let’s get serious: Passing such laws is no longer our primary goal in Iraq. What is? Preventing al Qaeda (and/or Iran’s radical mullahs) from defeating us on what they call the “central front” of the global war being waged against America and the West. Should they beat us in Iraq, they will be seen as giant killers. Recruits will pound on their doors. What would our enemies do next?
No need to guess. Al Qaeda leaders have vowed that after they “expel the Americans from Iraq” they will launch a “jihad wave to the secular countries neighboring Iraq.” The National Intelligence Estimate — the collective judgment of the U.S. intelligence community — concurs: In the wake of too-early American withdrawals, al Qaeda would use its strongholds in Iraq “to plan increased attacks in and outside of Iraq.”
Intelligence sources already have seen evidence of a link between the recent British car-bomb plots and al Qaeda in Iraq. If Osama bin Laden’s followers can manage this now, consider what they’d be able to do were U.S. forces to pack up and leave.
The truth is that President Bush has changed course in Iraq — belatedly but significantly. We now have a new commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus — unanimously confirmed by the Senate. He is implementing a very different strategy from that of his predecessors. The first large-scale operational phase, “Phantom Thunder,” began only on June 15. Among its key components: targeting al Qaeda hideouts and bomb factories in and around Baghdad.
Petraeus also is focusing on Anbar Province in western Iraq. A year ago, that area was given up as lost, so firmly was it under al Qaeda’s control. But the more the region’s traditional tribal rulers experienced the reality of al Qaeda rule — e.g., the baking of children in ovens to teach obedience to their parents (as reported by Michael Yon) — the more they looked for a way to escape the group’s clutches.
Petraeus and his troops have given them one. If we were to now abandon these people to the tender mercies of al Qaeda, what message would it send to the world? This message: To be America’s enemy entails minimal risk; but to be America’s friend is hazardous and foolish in the extreme.
The new U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, warned in a New York Times interview that a hasty departure of American troops would lead to the deaths of many thousands in Iraq and, very likely, a broader regional conflict as well. The benchmarks that were set for the Iraqi government’s performance, he has suggested, may not be the most reliable measure of whether the American military and diplomatic missions are making progress.
More useful indicators might include (1) the level of damage being done to al Qaeda; (2) the extent to which Iraqis are assuming responsibility for their own security; (3) Iraqi government progress in delivering basic services such as electricity; and (4) whether Shia, Sunni and Kurdish leaders are working more collaboratively.
It was never anticipated that the Petraeus mission, in its early stages, would lead to settlement of the most difficult issues dividing Iraqis. The idea was, rather, that those issues could be tackled only when the military mission had brought a reasonable degree of peace and stability to the country.
At this moment, America’s enemies are doing all they can to prevent Petraeus and his troops from achieving that goal. Washington politicians have to choose whether they want to assist our enemies — or give our military men and women the resources, time and support they need to successfully implement their new strategy and achieve their new objectives. Why is this a tough call for so many of them?
(Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.)