Max Boot has an interesting, if depressing, column on the Iraq situation in the Los Angeles Times. It opens with the statement:
FIRST, LET’S GET one thing straight. Contrary to the suggestions sometimes heard on conservative talk radio, the terrible headlines out of Iraq aren’t an invention of liberal news media. They all too accurately reflect the grim reality.
I don’t listen to talk radio, but I can think of a few pundits in print, on TV and on the Internet who should be required to write this on the blackboard (maybe a virtual blackboard) 500 times as penance. Only two months ago, I attended a Manhattan Institute lecture by James Q. Wilson (a print version is available here) on the war and the media, in which Wilson examined at length the causes of negative media coverage of the war in Iraq without ever pausing to ask whether the negativity was justified by the facts.
But I digress.
Boot then goes on to examine a variety of possible solutions and finds them all wanting. Kevin Drum takes him to task:
It sounds grim, but I hardly need to tell you how this ends, do I? Maybe we can’t win, but that doesn’t mean we should withdraw. That would be disastrous. So we should just stay forever with no prospect of success in sight. This is, apparently, called “being honest with ourselves.”
Well, here’s what Boot actually says:
Bad as the situation is today, it could get a lot worse if we simply pull out. The probable result might be labeled “civil war,” but it would bear scant resemblance to our own Civil War. It wouldn’t be two sides fighting one another; it would be a war of all against all. Iraq would probably degenerate into the kind of anarchy seen in Somalia and Afghanistan in the 1990s. As in those countries, the resulting backlash could produce an Islamist dictatorship that would threaten American interests. We would also be hurt by the perception that we are a “weak horse” (to quote Osama bin Laden) that can be driven out of a country by a few suicide bombers — a perception sure to embolden terrorists.
Not a pleasant scenario. But we need to be honest with ourselves about what is involved in an unseemly dash for the exits. By all means, try to apply a political Band-Aid to Iraq’s gaping wounds. Just don’t be under any illusion that it will hold.
Only the presence of American troops keeps the patient alive — just barely.
Clearly, what Boot is saying, and what I think everyone understands, is that there are no good choices in Iraq today, only lesser degrees of bad choices. I don’t think we can “win the war” in the sense of U.S. forces dealing a crushing and final military defeat to the insurgency (something that, at this stage, would require mass reprisals against the population and other things that are off the table). But we can try to minimize the damage — to the Iraqi population, to our military, to our national security — and there still remains the question of how best to do that. Boot cites some good counterarguments against a rushed withdrawal, and I think those points are worth considering.