A War We Must End

By John Podesta, Ray Takeyh and Lawrence J. Korb
Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Despite the Democratic presidential candidates' expressed commitment to ending the war in Iraq, there is unease among the party's base. Some ardent activists have suggested that upon election, a new Democratic president will come under inordinate pressure to sustain the U.S. military commitment to Iraq, albeit with some modifications. This concern demonstrates both the difficulty of ending a controversial war and the necessity of doing so.

Even a cursory examination of American history reveals the complexity of concluding a war that has taken on such a stark partisan tint. The shadow of Vietnam looms, as it has become standard Republican narrative that back then it was the Democrats in Congress who stabbed America in the back by cutting off funding for a winning cause. The fact that the war was lost in Southeast Asia, as opposed to the halls of Congress, is no matter. The Republican machine will press this same theme should it lose the White House in November. A Democratic administration would be accused of surrendering to evildoers, as once more the dovish successors of George McGovern are wrongly said to have pulled defeat out of the jaws of victory.

Such self-serving claims do not diminish the need and justification for ending one of America's longest and most misguided wars. Republicans will claim that after four years of disastrous mistakes, the Bush administration finally got it right with its troop "surge." Yet even despite the loss of nearly 1,000 American lives and the expenditure of $150 billion, the surge has failed in its stated purpose: providing the Iraqi government with the breathing space to pass the 18 legislative benchmarks the Bush administration called vital to political reconciliation. To date it has passed only four. Moreover, as part of the surge, the administration has further undermined Iraq's government by providing arms and money to Sunni insurgent groups even though they have not pledged loyalty to Baghdad.

Beyond the impracticalities of the surge, it is important to realistically measure the costs and consequences of a categorical U.S. withdrawal. The prevailing doomsday scenario suggests that an American departure would lead to genocide and mayhem. But is that true? Iraq today belongs to Iraqis; it is an ancient civilization with its own norms and tendencies. It is entirely possible that in the absence of a cumbersome and clumsy American occupation, Iraqis will make their own bargains and compacts, heading off the genocide that many seem to anticipate. Opponents of the war seem to have far more confidence in Iraqis' abilities to manage their affairs than do war advocates. Moreover, a U.S. withdrawal would finally compel the region to claim Iraq, forcing the Saudis, Iranians, Jordanians and others to decide whether a civil war is in their interests. Faced with that stark reality, they may seek to mediate rather than inflame Iraq's squabbles.

The strategic necessities of ending the war have never been more compelling. In today's Middle East, America is neither liked nor respected. Iran flaunts its nuclear ambitions, confident that a bogged-down Washington has limited options but to concede to its mounting infractions. Afghanistan is rapidly descending into a Taliban-dominated state as the Bush administration responds only with plaintive complaints about NATO's lack of resolution. And the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is nowhere near resolution. America's occupation of Iraq is estranging an entire generation of Arab youths, creating a reservoir of antagonism that will take decades to overcome. A Democratic president who may enjoy a modest honeymoon in the Middle East simply by virtue of not being George W. Bush can take a giant step toward reclaiming America's practical interests and moral standing by leaving Iraq.

A Democratic president would also be wise to realize that perpetuating the war conflicts with a robust domestic agenda. At a time of mounting deficits, when we are spending about $10 billion a month in Iraq, issues such as reforming the health-care system and repairing the national infrastructure are likely to remain neglected. The United States has too many national priorities that cannot be realized if yet another beleaguered administration prolongs this costly and unpopular war.

The plight of the Bush presidency should be a lesson on what not to do. An administration without any consequential domestic achievements and a divisive foreign policy, hostage to an endless conflict, is what awaits anyone seeking to perpetuate the war. Remarkably, Sen. John McCain stakes his claim to the presidency on continuing down this path. This is a legacy that Democratic presidential aspirants would be wise to avoid.

John Podesta, president of the Center for American Progress, was White House chief of staff from 1998 to 2001. Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Lawrence J. Korb is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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