Whether we should have invaded Iraq is no longer the issue. We won the military conflict that raged for the first 21 days, but it is difficult to persuasively argue that we are winning the battle now. Circumstances on the ground have changed. My first visit to Iraq, in August 2003, was the safest. But, it was clear, even then, that we had not secured the peace. On each of my subsequent visits in 2005 and 2006, I have witnessed greater instability. You cannot hope to win the hearts and minds of people who can’t even go about their daily lives. We continue to fail to adapt to the reality of the circumstances – a determined insurgency ruthlessly dedicated to our failure at whatever cost and regardless of how many Iraqis must die to ensure our failure. This struggle is truly less about them “winning” than about the U.S. losing.
Some would contend that it is already too late. Leaders as respected as Henry Kissinger have declared that we cannot now win in Iraq. But - if they’re right, it is vitally important that we understand the consequences and prepare now to deal with them.
In at least one critically important way Iraq is not Vietnam. No Viet Cong or North Vietnamese leader declared war on the United States. No one asserted that that war was one step in a global effort to destroy the United States and drive it from the face of the Earth. Our defeat did not inspire and strengthen a worldwide movement to attack the U.S. And, Vietnam did not provide a base of operation and a stream of income to fanatics seeking weapons for our destruction.
And make no mistake, if we fail in Iraq, if we leave there defeated, this struggle will not end. Don’t take my word for it. Simply take the statements of the terrorist leaders at face value:
“The most serious issue today for the whole world is this third world war that is raging in Iraq…The whole world is watching this war…It is either victory and glory or misery and humiliation.”
Osama bin Laden, December 2004
“It is a Jihad for the sake of God and will last until (our) religion prevails…The entire world is an open battlefield for us. We will attack everywhere until Islam reigns…”
Ayman al-Zawahiri, July 2006
The Democrats will soon assume the reins of power on both sides of the United States Capitol. Consequently, they will be held accountable for this decision along with the President. This monumental decision will be made on their watch and so will the consequences. It would be a serious mistake to interpret the election of 2006 as an expression by the voters that they want out of Iraq -- regardless of the consequences. Voters were expressing their disapproval of the current deteriorating and demoralizing mishandling of the war.
If congressional Democrats misread the election, all Americans will pay a serious price in terms of national security. And - there will be a political price for Democrats in 2008. My Arizona colleague, John McCain - the leading candidate for the Republican nomination for President and arguably the most respected voice in America on national defense, among both Democrats and Republicans - has already put them on notice. At no small risk to his presidential ambitions, he has laid all his chips on the table, declaring unequivocally once again that there is far more at stake in Iraq than there ever was in Vietnam (and he is uniquely qualified to know) and that our only option is to commit the force necessary to ensure victory and stability. McCain said last Sunday that “without additional troops to ensure victory in Iraq, the U.S. could find itself more vulnerable to terrorist attacks at home… I believe the consequences of failure are catastrophic… Because it’s not the end when American troops leave. The battleground shifts, and we’ll be fighting them again… you read Zarqawi, and you read bin Laden… it’s not just Iraq that they’re interested in. It’s the region and then us.”
Beyond bin Laden, al-Zawahiri, and al-Qaeda, the weakness we have shown in failing to secure Iraq has emboldened fanatical organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah along with our other enemies around the globe, including Iran and North Korea. If we show more weakness, if we prove once again that America is an unreliable ally, we will pay a price in lives lost and money spent far higher than the cost of increasing our current forces in Iraq and winning the battle.
First Lt. Pete Hegseth, who had just returned from serving a one-year tour in Baghdad and Samarra with the Army 101st Airborne Division, wrote in October on these pages that “we simply do not have enough troops in Iraq, and we need them now.” He said “we did not have enough troops… to fully secure a city of 120,000 people or maintain the rule of law” and “because of a lack of troops, American military leaders are forced to make a choice between mission objectives and self-preservation. Many of our leaders are opting to guard supply routes and coagulate on sprawling military bases, rather than consistently moving into dangerous areas and fighting the insurgency.”
To those who argue that more troops would only further inflame anti-American sentiment and incite more violence, Lt. Hegseth noted that his actual, on the ground “experience suggests otherwise. American troops are tolerated, even welcomed when they effectively provide security; but their presence is cursed when it does not accompany progress. Violence persists not because American troops are present, but because our presence is futile.”
Henry Kissinger may have given up on Iraq, and the Baker-Hamilton Commission may do so, but Lt. Hegseth has not. And, before we decide which of them to follow, we need to consider the consequences of the decision we make.
The Baker-Hamilton Commission will not offer an easy way to success and victory. There isn’t one. Withdrawing may temporarily appear to resolve our dilemma but our enemies aren’t going away.
If, as it now appears, we lack the strength or the will to defeat our enemies in Iraq, we need to start thinking about where we can find both the forces and, even more importantly, the will to deal with them, because some day soon we will have to. We can run, but as Neville Chamberlain ultimately learned before World War II decimated Europe, we cannot hide.
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