Paul Greenberg

But such successes have been fleeting in Iraq, and this president's emphasis on withdrawing from that war -- indeed, his obsession with withdrawing from it rather than winning it -- has proven all too tempting. The result has been a sad procession of headlines ("Fatal blasts/sap hope for/ a stable Iraq") that chronicle Iraq's deterioration into civil war. When there is no constancy of purpose, especially in war and maybe foreign policy in general, the fight for a stable world founders.

It's an all too familiar pattern in American history: Win every war, lose every peace. Those who still follow events in Iraq, however sad, can recognize that same old pattern emerging again.

But haven't we already spent a decade fighting there? Not to mention all the lives and treasure that war has cost. Why not leave at last?

It's a tempting prospect, but the one thing worse than fighting there, or at least backing up our Iraqi allies who still are, would be to abandon them at a crucial time. As our premature withdrawal from that country has come all too close to doing.

Why stay even longer? For the same reason American troops remain in Korea more than half a century after the war there ended. For the same reason American peacekeepers patrol around the globe from Kosovo to Sinai. This country may have no imperial ambitions, but that doesn't mean we have been spared the burdens of empire, which need to be shouldered if only for reasons of self-defense.

Since its hasty and artificial conception after the First World Calamity to meet the needs of the British Empire (for oil) and its Arab clients, Iraq has been less a nation than an amalgam of various tribes, creeds, and assorted ethnicities in tension, if not war, with one another.

The one part of this mix that works, Iraqi Kurdistan, is constantly at odds (over oil, mainly) with the central government, such as it is. Caught between Arabs on one side and Persians (now Iranians) on the other, Iraq doesn't need occupiers so much as a referee, an armed referee. One with no interest in the place except its stability, which is where we came in. And still are, if not as effectively or in such numbers as we should be and still could be.

The always relevant Tocqueville said it, as he said so many far-seeing things: However unwelcome to democratic societies war may be, it is "nevertheless an occurrence to which all nations are subject, democratic nations as well as others. Whatever taste they may have for peace, they must hold themselves in readiness to repel aggression...." Much as all of us might prefer it otherwise.

Better to accept a harsh reality and respond wisely to it than go chasing after some dream world that has never been and cannot be. The isolationist dream is a persistent theme of our history; so is the need to see through it.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.