U.S. in Iraq: These Colors Must Not Run

No one has a greater respect for Bill Buckley than I. The admiration goes back 51 years when he launched National Review at the same time Tom Winter and I and a few other college pals launched the Harvard Times-Republican (although three years short-lived, the first university alternative newspaper). And my respect and admiration continue to this day.

All that said, Buckley is woefully wrong about Iraq in his February 28 column recommending immediate withdrawal. Who can but deplore the terrible tragedy — the stiff setback — of the bombing of the Shi’a mosque at Samarra? However, to proceed from there, as he does, to conclude the cause is lost is, well, simplistic. Consider:

  • The bombing was not a "Sunni" act; it was the cynical act of hard core Baathists, who are Sunni in name only. These are the die-hard Saddam followers who have absolutely nothing to lose. In fact, they have everything to gain from creating chaos, in the twisted hope they can somehow either regain the upper hand in Iraq or at the least destroy the nation and rule a new Sunnis-only satrap.
  • Virtually every Shi’a and Sunni leader has not only spoken in genuine outrage at the Samarra mosque attack, but also called on their flocks to remain calm and not fall for the Baathist sucker game, which is finally to drive the Shi’a majority to launch a civil war. These are not the lame statements of imams being politically correct. They are the genuine pleadings of Muslim holy men who know that the other side is not behind the outrage. Religious leaders who understand that the only sensible course is to resist vengeance and continue down the rock-strewn road to peace and nation-building. When Sh’ia firebrand leader Muqtada al-Sadr speaks feelingly about reaching out to Sunnis, including worshipping together with them, something significant has happened: realization that the end days of any hope for peace are close and disastrous civil war will be the result.
  • These sentiments have been echoed by every Iraqi politician of significance.
  • The United States was clearly not the reason for the bombing of the Samarra mosque, but that does not absolve Washington from having made a host of mistakes since the end of the invasion and the beginning of the occupation of Iraq. Without running down the lugubrious list, let us focus on just one: insistence that a new Iraqi government should be strongly centralized. Experienced observers knew [and my Iraqi colleague Dr. Hussain Hindawi and I wrote] that a decentralized government was the correct solution to maintaining Iraq as a nation. Never a recognizable "nation state" in the first place, there was — and perhaps remains — a good chance that the three main communities would remain loosely unified, provided each had an abundant amount of regional authority.
  • The advantage in creating a decentralized state is that each of the three communities is, largely, geographically distinct. To handle the scarcely spoken disadvantage, how to apportion Iraq’s oil wealth equably, Dr. Hindawi and I recommended, as did others long experienced in the country and region, that what we termed a modified Norwegian model should be adopted, essentially giving every citizen — regardless of ethnic or geographic origin — an equal stake in the country’s greatest asset.
  • Iraq is not Vietnam, where a no-win, essentially defensive strategy created a hopelessly losing outcome from the moment we allowed the Vietnamese people and the world to think that the North Vietnamese 1967 Tet offensive was a victory, when in fact American and South Vietnamese forces thrashed the attackers. We have won the main military campaign; we have trained up a solid core Iraqi military; we have guided Iraqis through an unbelievably successful series of interim governments, constitution writing and elections, which at this point are resulting in final talks to forming a permanent government.

In short, this is precisely not the time for the United States to accept defeat, to cut and run. However bloody, however costly, however frustrating: the Iraqi nation is bidding fair to being re-built. To leave now — or at any time until we have fully supported the rebuilding of Iraq’s government, infrastructure and security forces — would not be just craven: it would leave the United States in the worst international position it has known since its founding as a nation more than 200 years ago.

Not only would America be seen in the Middle East as defeated by the terrorists we pledged to eliminate, but the nation’s respect from London to Berlin to Moscow to Beijing to Tokyo would be decimated. We would in a word have completely lost credibility with friend and foe alike.

Staying the course is not necessarily pleasant. It is, however, far better than what would flow from the alternative course of defeat and retreat. There is no way a positive face can be put on a U.S. withdrawal; no matter how mightily the Bush Administration’s inept managers pitch it, retreat will be construed for defeat by one and all.

The battle is not lost in Iraq. If we leave, however, the country and the region will be. Afghanistan will be next, followed very likely by moderate states such as the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar.

The terrorists will have gained a massive victory, most importantly including holding sway and dominion over virtually the 1.2 billion-strong Muslim world. And then it will be hard to envision any turning back — not from civil war in Iraq — from the bloodiest cultural/ religious war the world has seen.