Cut-and-Run Conservatives

The Iraq war threatens to split the conservative movement. Isolationist conservative commentators, such as Pat Buchanan and Robert Novak, have opposed the war from the beginning. This is not surprising since they have fiercely objected to almost every American military intervention since the end of the Cold War. It is more troubling, however, that conservatives such as William F. Buckley and George Will are now turning against our continued presence in Iraq.

Since the 1950s, conservatives have been defined by their muscular approach to foreign affairs; especially, their willingness to project U.S. military power to advance American interests and ideals. Most conservatives still support the Iraq war, but the voice of dissent is growing. “One can’t doubt that the American objective in Iraq has failed,” Mr. Buckley wrote earlier this year.

Another key conservative, Mr. Will, believes that President Bush’s democracy project is a form of quixotic neo-Wilsonianism: republican institutions, he maintains, are unable to take root in the blistering sands of the Middle East. These views are echoed by former neoconservative Francis Fukuyama, author of “The End of History.” These “realist” conservatives argue the U.S. mission in Iraq is doomed to fail because the country does not possess the pre-existing legal culture and political institutions necessary to build a stable, functioning democracy.

Yet these conservative realists are making a fatal mistake. They are accepting the media’s half-truths and misinformation campaign. Cable TV news, the New York Times and the Washington Post are presenting a bleak picture of constant car bombs and suicide attacks. The reality is more complicated—and more heartening.

Since the liberation of Iraq, the country’s economy has been steadily improving. In fact, its growth rates are better than any other Arab nation in the region. There has been a boom in the construction and farming sectors. Small- and medium-sized businesses are proliferating. The country’s oil infrastructure has been almost completely rebuilt and is expected to operate at full capacity by the end of 2006. More than 1.2 million refugees have returned from exile. Iraq’s currency, the dinar, has become solid and stable. During the last year alone, it has gained nearly 20% in value against the U.S. dollar.

In addition, Iraq has the freest and most robust press in the entire Arab and Muslim world. It has more than 100 privately owned newspapers. There are approximately two dozen radio and TV stations. The country has also had two successful general elections: citizens can boast of a voter turnout higher than in many Western countries (including the U.S.). In a referendum held last year, an overwhelming majority of Iraqis approved a new constitution—a constitution that is the most progressive and liberal in the entire Arab Middle East.

The jihadists and Saddam Hussein’s Baathist remnants seek to derail Iraqi self-government by the only means they know: mass murder and mayhem. But Iraq’s fledgling democracy continues to survive.

It is a terrible mistake for conservatives to abandon our Iraqi allies now. A U.S. victory will establish a vibrant, modern democracy in the heart of the Arab world that will serve as an infectious model for the oppressed peoples in the region. A prosperous, democratic Iraq will become a catalyst for reform percolating within the ossified, conservative dictatorships of its neighbors. This change may be messy. In the long-run, however, Arab nations will be modernized. This will create a more stable and secure Middle East and thereby, a more stable and secure world for the United States.

If conservatives abandon the Iraqi people, they will also be rejecting much of the conservative foreign-policy legacy of the past 40 years. They will be returning to the irresponsible isolationism of Herbert Hoover and Robert Taft, who advocated continental realism and U.S. strategic retreat from foreign wars. They will be rejecting the global interventionism of Ronald Reagan which crushed Soviet communism. And if applied properly and diligently again, this kind of interventionism will crush Islamic fascism as well. Conservatives must avoid defeatism and pessimism. Gen. Douglas MacArthur said it best: “There is no substitute for victory.”