Time to Rethink Iraq

Negotiations with the Maliki government for an agreement on the status of US forces in Iraq have apparently been abandoned because the Iraqis demanded a time table for us to withdraw.  Iraq’s insistence on a withdrawal schedule must trigger a re-assessment not only of our support for the Iraqi government but – much more importantly – our goals in this war.

Maliki’s insistence on a date for withdrawal of US troops, publicized earlier this month, caused President Bush to order our negotiators to be “more flexible.”   But the flexibility had limits.  The President and our military commanders have always insisted that the facts on the ground – Iraq’s ability to defend itself principal among them – would dictate when and how US forces would leave.

Last week, the President announced that our withdrawal could be accelerated.  But that was not enough.  According to a Washington Post report, Iraqi National Security Advisor Mowaffak al-Rubaie said, “There should not be any permanent bases in Iraq unless these bases are under Iraqi control," adding, "We would not accept any memorandum of understanding with [the U.S.] side that has no obvious and specific dates for the foreign troops’ withdrawal from Iraq.”

So be it.  If we are to leave Iraq, we should do so but only in the manner that will strengthen our position in the continuing war.

In December 2005, while visiting Iraq, I was briefed by the principal ground commanders, including the then-commander of the Multinational Force – Iraq Gen. George Casey, on the situation our troops faced.  Iran’s direct involvement – sending Iranian Revolutionary Guard “Qods Force” operatives in to foment and conduct terrorism and supply the insurgents with “explosively-formed penetrators”, the most deadly weapon our troops face in Iraq – was horribly clear.  So was the sponsorship by Syria of insurgents entering Iraq and the utter refusal of the Syrian government to take steps to stop the flow of terrorists into Iraq.

Since then our troops (and the Iraqis) have captured hundreds of these terrorists including high-ranking members of the Qods Force and Iranian-sponsored Hizballah terrorists.  Thousands of explosively-formed penetrators have been seized.  But the influx continues.  And we have taken no decisive action against Iran or Syria to stop the flow of terrorists and the weapons they use against our troops.

In recent months, the security of Iraq has improved measurably.  Violence is down significantly in even the most hotly-contested areas.  And that is apparently serving to create a false sense of security in the Maliki government.  They want us to leave.

Since the 2003 invasion, the President has said our goal in Iraq is for that nation to be capable of self-defense, self-government, self-sustainment and to be an ally in the war against terrorism.  This goal – to build a democracy in Iraq – is a false one, and it has become unattainable.

We went to war against Saddam Hussein’s regime because we believed – in good faith – that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and was sponsoring terrorism.  The first casus belli was wrong. The second was manifestly correct.  We didn’t go to war because Iraq wasn’t a democracy: we went to war because we believed that Saddam’s regime was a threat to America and its interests in the Middle East.

But the President defined our goal in Iraq incorrectly.  He said that our goal in Iraq was a nation that could defend, sustain and govern itself, and be an ally in the larger war against terrorism.  He adopted the neocon democracy-building nostrum as America’s goal in the war and Iraq became a self-imposed quagmire.

Time and again, when I asked senior administration officials about our tolerance of Syrian and Iranian interference, the only answer I got was that we weren’t prepared to go to war against those nations, as if that were the only option.  And so we sit in Iraq, taking actions that are self-defeating because they are self-limited.

In the 2004 election, we mocked John Kerry’s idea that terrorism was a matter for law enforcement, not an existential threat to America.  We did so because Islamic terrorism – so long as it is state-sponsored, enabled by enemy nations to threaten our way of life here and our legitimate interests abroad – was a threat to our way of life.  We were right then and — in insisting on this view — we are right today. But it turned out that George Bush was wrong, just in a different way than Kerry.  Bush’ preoccupation with democracy-building has deprived us of five years’ precious time that should have been spent on ending state sponsorship of terrorism in Iran, Syria and, yes, Saudi Arabia and defeating the enemy’s ideology.

By demanding withdrawal of American forces, Iraq has made it clear that it will not be an ally in the war against the terror-sponsoring nations.  Concomitantly, who rules Iraq is not our business, unless it again chooses to join the terror-sponsors.  If Iraq falls to Iranian, Syrian or other incursions, we may not be able to defend it if our forces do not remain until their threat is ended.

Before we withdraw from Iraq – and withdraw we shall, whether it happen next year or the year after – we have to realize that the war is not over when the last Americans leave.  Democrats will trumpet the end of “pre-emptive war” because they are incapable of understanding the war we are engaged in and how it must be fought.  And when – not if – Iraq falls apart they will insist we have been defeated there.

If there is defeat, it is self-defeat because we have been pursuing democracy instead of victory.  Our re-assessment of our involvement in Iraq has to begin with the abandonment of nation-building and whatever repositioning of forces will make us stronger against Iran, Syria and the other terror sponsors.  If that means we move our troops out of Iraq to another, equally strategic, location we should do so.  But whatever we do, we cannot believe that the war is over, because it will not be regardless of whatever fate may befall Iraq.

Iran is the most dedicated and active sponsor of Islamic terrorism.  Last month Mohammed el-Baradei, head of the UN’s feckless International Atomic Energy Agency, said Iran could produce a nuclear weapon in six months.  Our next president will have to either accept a nuclear-armed terrorist state or act decisively to deny Iran nuclear arms and end Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism.

Our next president will have to realize what George Bush never has: that this war must be fought decisively, or it will be lost inevitably.  We are not now on a path to winning this war.  Churchill once said, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.” It’s time to end the “everything else” stage. 

As I’ve written before, victory can only be defined as the end of state sponsorship of Islamic terrorism, which means forcing Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and others out of that business. It also means defeating the ideology that comprises radical Islam. Nothing more is needed, and nothing less will defeat this existential threat to America. 

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