Rattling the Cage: A quagmire no more

Why I changed my mind about Iraq.

larry derfner 88 (photo credit: )
larry derfner 88
(photo credit: )
Since the US war in Iraq began five years ago, I've changed my mind about it a few times. Now I've changed my mind again. I was against the invasion, but after the Americans got rid of Saddam Hussein so quickly and with so little bloodshed, and with the Iraqis cheering ecstatically, I thought the Bush administration had earned the benefit of the doubt to go on fighting. But when the country started exploding and getting worse from year to year, it was obvious the war was a horrific blunder and something had to change radically. At first I favored a US military draft to send hundreds of thousands of more troops to try to contain the bloodshed, even though I knew it would never happen. Realistically, the choice was between "staying the course" and getting out, and of these two I definitely preferred America getting out, even with the terrible consequences for Iraq, the Middle East, the US and everyone else that were sure to follow. My reasoning was that since the US couldn't sustain a hopeless battle for long, it was just a matter of time before the troops would be brought home and the terrible consequences would make themselves felt; the only question was whether or not to waste more American soldiers' lives on the way. This is the reason I opposed the "surge" - the deployment of 30,000 more troops in Baghdad and the central Anbar Province where al-Qaida and the Sunni insurgents were operating. I figured that at best, the surge would have a marginal effect on the free-for-all killing, not nearly enough of an effect to create any kind of stability, not enough to transform the American effort into something other than a hopeless battle, not enough to stave off the inevitability of withdrawal and the deluge that would follow. So why get more American soldiers killed and maimed for no lasting purpose? But it turns out I was wrong. Since the surge began a year ago, hundreds of more American soldiers have been killed, but they haven't died in vain because Iraq, it appears, has risen from the ashes. Iraq is still not a safe or stable country by any means, but neither is it the anarchic killing ground it was a year ago. "Suicide bombing kills 40 in Baghdad" is no longer a daily, or twice-daily, story. In the capital's notorious Dora neighborhood, for instance, 563 Iraqis were murdered in January 2007. In December 2007, the number was 35. That's not a marginal reduction in violence, that's a miracle. The Sunni villages in Anbar Province have turned against al-Qaida. The Sunnis and Shi'ites have taken at least a breather from killing each other. Tens of thousands of Iraqi refugees are returning home. If a year ago Iraq's 25 million people didn't want the Americans to stay but were afraid to see them leave, today I would bet they're no longer so conflicted on the subject: They want the Americans to stay, period. I'd bet that 90-whatever percent of them are thinking: "The Americans have finally brought us some security, some hope. They're keeping the killers away, they're all that's holding the country together. If the Americans leave, God help us - there will be a bloodbath here like we've never seen." THE CONSEQUENCES of an American withdrawal haven't changed - they're still likely to be disastrous for everyone except al-Qaeda, Iran and whichever Iraqi warring factions are left standing. What's new is that "staying the course" is no longer a disaster because the course has changed dramatically, the surge has been a phenomenal improvement. The war no longer seems a futile spillage of American blood for a lost cause. I don't know if the situation's going to keep getting better, remain fragile like it is now, or start deteriorating again. I don't know if even the minimal goal of turning Iraq into what's known as a "moderate Arab state" - one whose enemies are America's enemies, one whose leaders don't model themselves on Stalin, and one that's stable enough to survive with only a modest American military presence - is possible. But what I do know is that because of the success of the surge, it is not necessary for America to bite the bullet now and withdraw, or even to start to withdraw. If, before the surge, the choice was between the massive heart attack of withdrawal and the spreading cancer of staying the course, today the choice is between a massive heart attack and a cancer that's in remission. Better the second option, much better. IN RETROSPECT, I still think it was a huge, reckless mistake to invade Iraq; so far the costs have been many times greater than the benefits, and I doubt the ending will be so happy as to reverse that. But the question today is not what should have been done before, but what should be done now, and what should be done now is to stay the new, vastly improved course. And of all the candidates for US president - in fact, of all politicians on earth - John McCain understands this the best. He was pushing for the surge before anybody. I disagree with him on a lot of issues, mainly economics, but he definitely has the best handle of any candidate on the war in Iraq, which is still the overriding issue facing America. By contrast, the Democrats, the leaders of my party, seem to be quibbling over the most painless way to withdraw. I don't think there's such a thing as a painless way to withdraw from Iraq, not now anyway. So I guess that means McCain is my man. Bush never should have started the war, he's been the worst possible war president, but what America needs now is the best possible one.