The U.S., for better or worse, is responsible for what is happening in Iraq today. If the Americans withdraw and leave a bitter conflict behind them, this would be catastrophic not only for U.S. authority in the world, but for the way Americans see themselves as embodying a liberal, even moral, ideal in the world.
The point of the Iraqi enterprise, at least if we're to believe the Bush administration, was to bring to Iraq liberalism, prosperity and normalcy after decades of despotism. If that claim was hypocritical, then a U.S. departure abandoning Iraq to ever greater paroxysms of violence would merely substantiate that hypocrisy.
If Americans are willing to engage in such hypocrisy -- and remember, a majority of Americans and members of Congress supported the Iraq war at the beginning -- so be it. But then let's all agree that the U.S. should never again claim the moral high ground anywhere. With all the talk about how America must get out of Iraq, very little has been heard about the moral implications with respect to the Iraqis themselves, who have already suffered far more casualties than the Americans and their allies. It's time for that to change.
I have a lot of sympathy for his position. That's because I held a similar view until about the middle of last year. I of course read a lot of liberal blogs, and while quite a lot of them have had quite a lot to say about when and how to get out of the war (ranging from "now and quickly" to "keep some troops but limit the mission") very few of them had anything to say about our (not the Bush administration's) moral responsibility for the disaster that is Iraq. That's because we do in fact have a moral responsibility to try and fix the mess that we made, which is not a point someone who's arguing for withdrawal wants to really get into. If it meant staying and fighting for another ten years and losing another three or four or five thousand soldiers in the process, we would be obligated so long as the end result is a peaceful and stable Iraq that would otherwise not come about without our continued presence. However, if we cannot succeed in bringing stability to Iraq-as I firmly believe we cannot-then there is nothing that obligates us to have more of our own soldiers killed to no good purpose. Adding more dead soldiers to the already staggering number of dead Iraqis fulfills no moral obligation; it's not as if the soldiers chose to invade Iraq and will personally pay the consequences for it, and their deaths at best serve only to delay the day of reckoning that is the resolution of the Iraq civil war. So yes, we have a moral obligation. But it cannot fulfilled by allowing our soldiers to die for a mission that can't be completed. In fact, it cannot be fulfilled at all. We will not be relieved of the burden of guilt for having begun this war, nor are we any less of hypocrites, no matter how long we stay and how many soldiers we lose in the process.
Owen West (whose other pieces I've read on Slate.com and who I greatly respect) is also put off by those who are arguing for withdrawal:
We’re four years into a global conflict that will span generations, fighting virulent ideologues obsessed with expansion. It’s time for those who are against the war in Iraq to consider the probable military consequences of withdrawal. But it is also time for supporters of the war to step back and recognize that public opinion in great part dictates our martial options.
It’s hard for a soldier like me to reconcile a political jab like Senator Harry Reid’s “this war is lost, and this surge is not accomplishing anything” when it’s made in front of a banner that reads “Support Our Troops.” But the politician’s job is different from the soldier’s. Mr. Reid’s belief — that the best way to support the troops is by acknowledging defeat and pulling them out of Iraq — is likely shared by a large slice of the population, which gives it legitimacy.
It's tempting to respond with a sarcastic "how generous!", but West is conceding that popular opinion of the war matters, and that a soldier, unlike Sen. Reid, has a different job and thus has a different perspective. West doesn't think that immediate withdrawal is the way to go, but he's willing to split the different with war opponents:
The surge must be accompanied by a commensurate surge in Iraqi troops. To date, the Iraqis have simply been shifting soldiers from other areas into Baghdad. But these are stop-gap soldiers — as are our own — when what we seek is permanence. The Iraqi government must double the size of its army, to 300,000 combat troops from 150,000 today. The American surge will give them the breathing room to do so, and a deadline by which it must be done.
The idea is that, starting this fall, the Iraqi units would bulk up so the American units could begin to break up, moving to an advisory model in which the number of American soldiers embedded with Iraqi units triples while the overall United States force declines. Today many American patrols operate independently. In a year’s time, ideally, no American patrol would leave its base without a fully integrated Iraqi presence.
Oddly, the Congressional resolutions calling for withdrawal would allow for this continued American advisory presence, somehow not including these troops as “combat forces.” So even those members of Congress who voted for the resolutions could support bulking up the number of Americans assigned to Iraqi units without appearing as hypocrites.
It ought to be clear-to those who read between the lines at least-that the Democratic Congress is not necessarily arguing that all American troops need to be out of Iraq by the end of this year or next. So yes, American advisors working closely with Iraq troops is a possibility. Unfortunately, the history of our engagement in Iraq does not bode well for this approach. We have been training Iraqi troops since 2003, in the hopes that they would be able to provide security and battle the ever-growing insurgency. The results have been mostly a failure. Iraqi troops have demonstrated little reliability in intense combat (or even showing up for any duty), and are riddled with sectarian divisions. The problem is so bad that the military and the Bush administration have essentially abandoned the hope that they could use Iraqi forces to bolster American forces in the surge. So while I agree with West in principle that training Iraqi forces is the way to go, I simply don't see how it's possible to reverse years of failure in time to rescue this plan. Granted, I'm no experienced military officer like West. But I think reducing our mission to limiting foreign engagement in Iraq, battling Al Qaeda and providing humanitarian assistance to fleeing Iraqis, are really our only remaining options at this point.