Will Iraq Be the Next Rwanda?
Remember Rwanda? The history books have not treated kindly America's inaction while more than 800,000 Tutsis were slaughtered by their Hutu compatriots in the spring of 1994 after a plane crash killed the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi.
Now consider a scenario in which the decisions and actions of the United States were the primary reasons for a country's descent into chaos and sectarian violence, yet instead of doing everything possible to avert a humanitarian catastrophe, America chose to walk away. What would the history books say about that?
Should the Democratic leadership in Congress succeed in forcing the hasty withdrawal of American forces from Iraq, we may well find out.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid point to escalating sectarian violence between Iraqi Shiites and Sunnis as the primary justification for pulling out U.S. troops. In a joint letter to President Bush last month urging him not to veto legislation that includes timelines for withdrawal, Pelosi and Reid said that they have come to the "inescapable conclusion that U.S. forces should not be trying to contain an Iraqi civil war" and that "a phased redeployment of U.S. forces should commence."
Democrats try to soften this message by arguing that a date certain for withdrawal will force Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to, as Pelosi and Reid put it in a January statement, "find the political resolution required to stabilize Iraq."
But these arguments are as falsely optimistic as the White House's claim four years ago that our troops would be greeted as liberators. According to the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, "A premature American departure from Iraq would almost certainly produce greater sectarian violence and further deterioration of conditions." And the National Intelligence Estimate released in January warned that rapid U.S. withdrawal would probably lead to the collapse of Iraqi security forces, along with "massive civilian casualties and forced population displacement."
Americans are understandably frustrated with the administration's mismanagement of this war. And stabilizing Iraq has proved to be a tremendous challenge. But Democrats elected in November on promises to end the war need to be careful.
History will note that the same Democrats who supported America's interventions to help end civil wars in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s now favor a withdrawal policy in Iraq that is likely to cause even greater human suffering. While the toll in Iraq has been tremendous -- at least 75,000 civilians have been killed since the war began in March 2003, the Brookings Institution estimates -- this number could increase tenfold or more should all-out civil war emerge. Such a development would signal the death knell of the main Democratic foreign policy legacy of the 1990s: the principle of "no more Rwandas."
History will also note that while primary blame lies with the White House, in October 2002 overwhelming, bipartisan majorities in the House and Senate voted to authorize this war. That there is a growing consensus in both parties that the war was a mistake does not free the United States from its responsibility for creating the power vacuum in Iraq. Withdrawal in the face of a nearly certain humanitarian catastrophe would leave a black mark on America's reputation and diminish its role in the world for generations.
Those calling for swift withdrawal say that the war has lasted too long and taken too great a toll in American blood and treasure. But these considerations must be weighed against all our interests in the region.
Beyond the humanitarian reasons to find a viable exit strategy, vital strategic concerns include preventing a failed state in the heart of the Middle East, an al-Qaeda safe haven in western Iraq and oil prices that top $100 per barrel.
Does this mean the United States should endure endless sacrifice for what may be a lost cause? Of course not. But Democrats should not oversimplify the prospects of painless withdrawal the way the White House once exaggerated the prospects of easy victory. The stakes, both moral and strategic, are simply too high.
This moment calls for congressional leadership that is united toward bringing stability to Iraq. At a minimum, the president's new counterinsurgency strategy needs to be given every opportunity to succeed, if only to permit a more deliberative discussion of all withdrawal options.
In 1998, President Bill Clinton apologized to the people of Rwanda for America's failure to help stem the killing that occurred on his watch.
Should Iraq descend into all-out civil war, there will be far more to apologize for in the decades to come.
The writer, a Democratic foreign policy adviser and speechwriter in the Senate from 1999 to 2003, directs the policy studies program at Yale University.