Cliff May

Iraq is a mess. We have come to that conclusion because virtually every day we see innocent Iraqis slaughtered by suicide - bombers. Of all the possible responses, the most perverse may be this: To propose that Americans pull out of Iraq, abandoning innocent Iraqis to the tender mercies of those dispatching the terrorists.

Yet that is what many Americans now favor, perhaps because they have been persuaded that when Sunnis and Shites kill one another, Americans must be to blame. With apologies to Carly Simon: We're so vain, we probably think this sectarian strife is about us.

An insurgency led by Saddam Hussein loyalists also inflames Iraq. If the insurgents succeed in driving Americans out of the country, Saddam will be pleased but perhaps not astonished. He has long maintained that the United States lacks the will to prevail against a determined enemy. Years ago, he told Americans: "Yours is a society that cannot accept 10,000 dead in one battle."

Many Americans see no link between the conflict in Iraq and America's war with the Militant Islamist movement. Osama bin Laden's top deputy, Ayman al -Zawahri, would beg to differ. He has called Iraq one of the "two most important battlefields" of the world war now underway.

The other key battlefield is Afghanistan. Should the U.S. accept defeat in Iraq, how many suicide - bombings in Kabul will be required before America and its allies retreat from that far less strategically vital front as well?

And after that, we would have to expect Pakistan – an ally of Militant Islamists until the Taliban was routed by American forces five years ago this week – to switch sides again. Pakistan already has nuclear weapons and during the 1990s it looked the other way while its top nuclear scientist shared nuclear technology with some of the world’s worst tyrants. What would prevent that from resuming?

Iran's rulers, now egregiously violating treaty agreements by developing their own nukes, would be confirmed in their conviction that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Lenin of the Militant Islamist Revolution, was correct when he said in 1979 that provoking the United States does not incur substantial risk because "America cannot do a damn thing."

The perception of American weakness also is inspiring Syria, Iran's junior partner, to test how far it can go. This week, Pierre Gemayel, a cabinet minister from a prominent Christian family and a critic of Hezbollah and Syria, was assassinated, hammering a long nail in the coffin of Lebanon's fledgling democracy.

Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.