The decisions made on Iraq over the next few months will take the measure of America's maturity and sense of responsibility. Because, whether we like it or not, our decisions -- and our decisions alone -- will determine whether the barely containable murderous pathologies of the Middle East will just be dumped into the face of humanity -- or whether rational efforts will be persisted at to contain and mitigate its civilization-threatening forces.
We have the most profound obligation to attempt to calculate the consequences of the impending American decision to wash our hands of the Iraq unpleasantness. In that regard, the words of President Kennedy come to mind: "There are risks and costs to a program of action. But they are far less than the long-range risks and costs of comfortable inaction."
If we, the most powerful force on the planet, in a fit of disappointment and anger at our bungling policies to date, decide to shrug off our responsibilities to the future -- we will soon receive, and deserve, the furious contempt of a terrified world. In fact, even those Americans who today can't wait to end our involvement in the "hopeless" war in Iraq will -- when the consequences of our irresponsibility becomes manifest -- join the chorus of outrage.
Expedient Washington politicians, take note: Your public is fickle. They may cheer your decision today to get out of Iraq but vote you out of office tomorrow when they don't like the results.
Much of the world (and a fair portion of the American public) may hate us today for our alleged arrogance. But they will spit out our name with contempt through time if we permit to be released the whirlwind that will follow our exit.
I have heard it said (by conservatives and Republicans, as well as others) that "if the Iraqis just want to murder each other, we should let them. We offered them freedom, and they didn't want it." If our decision on Iraq was only about Iraq, that argument might be persuasive.
But if, as it is hard to imagine otherwise, our departure from Iraq yields civil war, chaos, warlordism and terrorist safe havens -- it is very likely that Iran will lurch in to harvest their advantages, Turkey will send in its army to stop an independent Kurdistan, and Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the other Sunni states will be sucked in to fend off Shi'a Iran's hegemony. In that nightmare maelstrom the 20 million barrels a day of oil shipped from the Persian Gulf -- and the world economy with it -- will be in daily risk of being cut off.
Nor is that all. Al Qaeda and other terrorists are already gloating that they have whipped the "cowardly Americans" in Iraq. We will be seen (in fact, we are already beginning to be seen) as a weak reed for moderate Muslims to rely on in their hearts and mind struggle against the radical Islamists. Bin Laden was right in one regard: People fear and follow the strong horse; even more so in Middle Eastern culture, where restraint is seen as weakness and murder is seen as strength.
In the face of such a dreadful likelihood, the emerging Washington consensus is an exercise in self-delusion unworthy of a 5-year-old. The almost consensus Washington argument assumes that if only we would formally talk with them, Iran and Syria would volunteer to pull our chestnuts out of the fire while we start removing troops from Iraq. Such arguments exemplify the witticism that when ideas fail, words come in very handy.
Iran has been our persistent enemy for 27 years -- Syria longer. They may well be glad to give us cover while we retreat, but that would merely be an exercise in slightly delayed gratification, not self-denial, let alone benignity. So long as Iran is ruled by its current radical Shi'a theocracy, she will be vigorously and violently undercutting any potentially positive, peaceful forces in the region -- and is already triggering a prolonged clash with the terrified Sunni nations. Our absence from the region will only make matters far worse.
We need to start undermining by all methods available that dangerous Iranian regime -- as the Iranian people, free to express and implement their own opinions and policies, are our greatest natural allies in the Muslim Middle East.
We have only two choices: Get out and let the ensuing Middle East firestorm enflame the wider world; or, stay and with shrewder policies and growing material strength manage and contain the danger.
Those who call themselves realists are the least realistic. Their great unreality is that they can't imagine that the passions of the people -- for good or ill -- are to be reckoned with. Thus it was they who for half a century supported and exploited the Middle East dictators who caused the Islamist pathologies that threaten the world today. It is they who will do business with the corrupt dictators to the very minute that they are overthrown by the Islamist mobs. They will keep the cash register humming until it is flooded with blood. The "realists'" unjustified conceit is, today, the most dangerous pathology facing America.
As in all struggles, each side will make mistakes. We have certainly made several. But as the last century's great chess master Savielly Grigorievitch Tartakower once famously observed: "Victory goes to the player who makes the next-to-last mistake." Retreating from Iraq would be the last mistake.