Realism, not what-ifs, key to handling Iraq

In The New York Times Magazine’s profile of former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner (“The Fallback,” 3/12), writer Matt Bai conveyed Warner’s political ignorance by describing his January interview with George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s “This Week.” Asked whether he had supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Warner answered — to Stephanopoulos’s disbelief — that it was pointless for Democrats to continue that argument. Of course, as Bai notes, the choice of whether or not to go to war had already been made, and Warner wasn’t privy to any classified intelligence. Still, it was shocking (shocking!) that Warner would refuse to take a bold, principled stance on an issue resolved three years ago. How dare you, former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner. Meanwhile, while the pundits were sniffing at Warner’s blunt response, I just thought, “Huh. Makes sense to me.”

There’s a tendency in today’s political discourse to endlessly rehash the same arguments about the justification for the Iraq war, from the existence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction to links between Iraq and al Qaida. These are no longer open topics. According to chief weapons searcher Charles Duelfer’s report, Iraq did not have WMDs, nor did it possess the means of manufacturing them — although it planned to pursue those ends after sanctions were lifted. The Sept. 11 commission reported that there was no “collaborative relationship” between Iraq and al Qaida. There had been contact between the two, but it hadn’t resulted in any meaningful cooperation toward anything, much less the attacks of Sept. 11. So, to the critics of the case for war, I say: Nice work. You’ve won the argument, three years too late, and I’m sure it feels like a hundred Christmases. Christmases full of candy and multifarious delights!

Of course, it’s difficult to derive any practicable strategy from this dead-end debate — barring the invention of a machine that can miraculously travel through time. (I call it a “machine that can miraculously travel through time.”) It’d let us take the only course of action suggested by this argument and travel back to convince the primitives of 2003 that invading Iraq is probably a bad idea, although it does entail some hopeful long-term prospects for a freer Middle East. Confronted with this terrifying vision of half-doom, the American people would have no choice but to pass on invading Iraq and create a fabulous utopia with universal health care. Then we could do all sorts of other fun things, like introduce Marty McFly’s parents and shoot pre-Fuhrer Hitler in the neck.

Otherwise, it’s tough to figure out how a feel-good apportionment of blame is going to help us construct any winning strategy. An airtight argument from 2003 is no longer necessarily appropriate, as — brace yourself — it is no longer 2003. Not invading Iraq is no longer an option, nor is its convenient proxy, the immediate withdrawal of our troops. Over the intervening three years, the situation has changed. Pre-war Iraq was not the terrorist nexus it appeared to be, but this war has become inextricably linked to the War on Terror — not by President Bush, but by al Qaida itself, whose leaders have framed the conflict as a sequel to 1980s Afghanistan and flooded the country with foreign terrorists. Withdrawal prior to the establishment of a capable Iraqi military would not only destabilize Iraq and the region, it would have dangerous implications for U.S. presence abroad.

Osama bin Laden and his Arab Afghans did not win the fight against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. They were so comically inept and bizarrely eager for martyrdom that the actual Afghans discouraged their participation in the guerrilla struggle against the Soviet invader. This didn’t stop bin Laden, a shameless self-promoter, from adopting the victory as his own. He did the same with the U.S. withdrawal from Somalia, where his men had already left before the downing of a U.S. Black Hawk helicopter due to Somali impatience with the Arabs’ incompetence. Bin Laden’s strategy for defeating the “faraway enemy” has been predicated on the idea that, in the face of spectacular attacks against it, the American people’s will to fight will be sapped. Withdrawing from Iraq (in 2006) would discourage U.S. allies, alarmed by our willingness to renege on our commitments, and represent an actual al Qaida victory, validating the same strategic mindset that produced Sept. 11.

Realistically, was invading Iraq a mistake? Yes. And were it three years ago, we could opt not to. Today, however, requires a different course of action. The participants in America’s political discourse need to stop indulging their self-aggrandizing rhetoric and wishful thinking and actually contribute realistic solutions for the situation at hand. It might not feel like a hundred Christmases, but it’s the only responsible, clear-headed choice.

Sam Heller is a junior in Pierson College.

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