The most naive sentence in the English language is: It couldn't get any worse. That's an argument many who have protested the war give for getting out of Iraq -- that nothing could be worse than 3,000 U.S. troops killed as the Iraq insurgency has grown stronger.
There is something worse: Some 3,000 U.S. troops dead, followed by the collapse of the Iraqi government, thousands of Sunni Arabs dead, Iraqis who worked with the coalition forces assassinated and their families butchered, and thousands more refugees swarming across the Middle East. Something worse would be 3,000-plus troops dead after a defeat that has emboldened jihadists, who want to kill Americans, and have become convinced that if they do, the United States won't fight back -- not for long, anyway.
The worst of it is: Defeat in Iraq is assured, if that's what Americans choose. Yes, the Bush administration has made horrible mistakes -- start with too few troops -- that have cost American lives. It also can be said, however, that the antiwar movement has stoked the insurgency by showing that civilian and military casualties could lead to troop withdrawal -- and that has increased the coalition's death toll and made it harder for the coalition to succeed.
When Canon Andrew White, now the Anglican vicar of Baghdad, wrote his book "Iraq: Searching for Hope" (Continuum) in 2005, he looked at the six criteria for a just war as defined by Christian doctrine and concluded that the war was justified. One criterion, "reasonable hope of success," he wrote, was "by far the easiest of six criteria to satisfy. There was never any serious doubt that the coalition would be victorious." It is heartbreaking to read those words today.
I asked White about that statement over the phone Wednesday. He responded, "We have to face up to the fact that we won the war," but the coalition didn't follow-up "correctly."
White was anxious. We spoke before President Bush gave his speech Wednesday and he told me, "I'm waiting for your president to say something, to try to save the day."
To those who want U.S. and British troops to pull out of Iraq, White had this to say: "We can't just pull out. If we pulled out, there would be even more bloodshed and total civil war."
White is no gung-ho supporter of the U.S.-led coalition. He faults the coalition's failure to secure Iraq's borders early on, believes de-Baathification turned Sunnis into insurgents and berates the coalition's failure to work with Sunni and Shiite religious leaders. He has seen Iraq spiral downward and friends die because of those mistakes.
White thinks Bush should do what many Bush critics have suggested: that is, Bush should put "huge pressure on the Iraqis" to change -- which means threatening to pull out U.S. troops if Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki fails to shape up his government.
There's a contradiction in that argument, especially because White also said that al-Maliki doesn't care if American troops leave. The phone connection was tenuous and the timber of White's voice was affected by multiple sclerosis. Most of all, he is troubled by "the hell" brought upon the majority of Iraqis -- "and we cannot just walk away from it."
White is skeptical that "the surge" of U.S. troops necessarily will help. Me, too. More troops can only make a difference if the military brass allows U.S. troops to hold areas they have cleared, a change Bush signaled last night. Also, Bush's proposed spending increases on Iraq reconstruction could give Iraqis a stake in this regime's success.
In September 2004, White began to ask every Iraqi he met, "Given how dangerous and anarchic Iraq is now, don't you wish the war had never happened?" While he had posed the question then to invite a "yes," no Iraqi gave that answer.
"Now they tell me it's worse than under Saddam," White told me. That doesn't mean it can't get worse. You can call the whole war a giant mistake and still appreciate why the United States needs to stick around.
If you think the world hated America for going into Iraq, imagine how the world will look at an America that flees an imploding nation. The world won't see an America -- as war opponents like to see themselves -- that is virtuous and realistic. They will see wholesale bloodshed, an ally that cannot be trusted and an army that doesn't know how to win.
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