Time to leave Iraq? A once-staunch war supporter, North Carolina Republican Rep. Walter Jones says so — backed, we’re reading and hearing, by an apparent majority of Americans. "Apparent," I say, because with polls you never know how long a mood will last. The present mood — shaped by daily accounts of American soldiers dying at the hands of those who don’t want their country saved, or not by us anyway — is increasingly one of growing disgust.
The armed forces can’t meet quotas for enlistment. Now comes the controversy over treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay. Are we still a shining example of democratic liberty? — as various Americans, usually of the Democratic persuasion, are asking, preparatory to answering with a demand for the coddling of those whom Vice President Cheney calls "bad people."
Two years into this thing, the job still isn’t done. The varmints keep coming — from as far away as sub-Saharan Africa. Nobody knows what they want, except to blow up things and people. Anarchism always repels, the more so when one is on the receiving end. It’s all irrational. Don’t the varmints know what we’re trying to do for them?
Either they don’t know, or they don’t believe it — another infuriating point when you’ve committed to this struggle as many lives and as much treasure as has the United States. "What’s it all for?" we cry.
To put it another way, the campaign by the Muslim world’s America-haters is working as planned. The hated Americans grow nervous and impatient, and we know what that means. We’ve seen it before.
Circumstances in Vietnam, 35 years ago, were substantially different; yet there are points of comparison. The enemy knew the value of their sometimes innocent, sometimes willing allies in the streets over here, demanding a U.S. pullout from Vietnam. Soon enough, the politicians responded. Sen. Bill Fulbright held exasperated hearings on the situation Over There and berated American foreign policy. Sens. Mark Hatfield and George McGovern demanded a timetable for American withdrawal. George D. Aiken of Vermont proposed we just declare victory and go home. Louder and louder beat the drums: Quit! Quit! Quit! Quit! We did quit. The North Vietnamese didn’t. They went on to win.
It is discouraging to dredge up the example of Vietnam. It can for one thing encourage the wrong people: those, here and abroad, who want us to think that again we’re fighting "the wrong war at the wrong place at the wrong time." But resort to the Vietnam parallel also provides encouragement.
For one thing there’s no "student movement" demanding pullout — lest more students get caught in the proceedings. Unlike Vietnam, there’s no powerful Soviet-equipped army in the field against us; our foes are the equivalent of a criminal gang. Criminals can cause plenty of harm, but in the end, criminals are all they are. If we can’t prevail over a bunch of hoods and psychos, have we any business holding ourselves out as the model nation?
Nor — thanks to Vietnam — is it as hard as it once was to understand the consequences of quitting when the going gets tough, like now. America’s premature pullout from Vietnam before the job was done finished off the United States morally and emotionally for some little time, during which our enemies advanced relentlessly — in Afghanistan, among other places.
It’s too bad this job has turned out to be tougher than expected. But "bad" isn’t "calamitous" — the condition into which everything would fall were we to say to democratic, liberty-seeking Iraq: Over to you; call us if you need anything, like advice on franchising pizza delivery service.
The president knows the consequences of copping out. We may count on him both to recognize and live up to his understanding, which is that as awful as Iraq might be, more awful still would be a stampede now for the exits. No sensible government allows itself to be governed in turn by pollsters.