Aside from the laughable attempts to tar Congressman Jack Murtha as a coward or Michael Moore, the more serious conservative response to Murtha's proposal to leave Iraq is well stated by neocons Bob Kagan and Bill Kristol in this Weekly Standard article. Murtha gave no consideration to the consequences of our leaving Iraq, they complain. The Iraqi military lacks the capacity to stand on its own, they argue (sidenote: but haven't we been constantly hearing about the many thousands of Iraqi troops who have been trained for a couple years now? I guess that was all BS. But then we already knew that..). There could be civil war, and in any case it will be a huge victory for Al Qaeda, they worry.
I think these are good considerations and important points, but they miss a fundamental preliminary question: can we still win in Iraq? Because if we can't, every point raised by Kagan and Kristol is utterly irrelevant. Murtha argues that it is a lost cause. Unless that point is rebutted, his position must prevail over Kagan and Kristol's. They answer this charge with the flat statement that "victory is in fact possible, though it will require a longer war than anyone would like." That is not at all clear to me.
I have been (and remain) reluctant to abandon the mission in Iraq owing simply to the magnitude of our current obligation to the Iraqi people and the high stakes that Kagan and Kristol detail. However, I am becoming increasingly doubtful about our long term prospects for success in Iraq. I see no signs of the insurgency slowing or Iraqi government gaining control. As Murtha noted, the Iraqis don't want us there, and, in fact, at least some Iraqi leaders view the insurgency as legitimate resistance to occupation. There was a column by Helena Cobban (a CSM foreign affairs columnist) that I thought I had blogged (although it appears I never did) from the summer that presents a credible argument that our presence in Iraq is no longer helping matters. At this point I think we have to look very seriously at whether it is worth staying. I am on the threshold. The prospect of a civil war in Iraq worries me greatly. But if all we are doing is delaying it until our eventual and inevitable withdrawal, we are performing no great service. No matter the stakes, if we can no longer win this war, or if we are making matters worse by staying, we must withdraw.
In this case, Kagan and Kristol's points only go to underscore the general stupidity of the Iraq war in the first place. It was always a gamble of the highest stakes with dubious prospects of success. We have paid a high price for it already in many regards (casualties, money, reputation). Now whether we choose to remain or withdraw, the price will only escalate. I wonder if it is only now that the magnitude of this blunder is beginning to settle in for the neocons.
In the end, I believe this to be a more costly mistake than Vietnam. Where in Vietnam our policy was driven mostly by paranoia of communist dominoes falling (which never actually occurred), here I agree with Kagan and Kristol that this would be a victory for Al Qaeda of real importance. Al Qaeda has operated under the belief, drawn from U.S. interventions in Vietnam, Lebanon, and Somalia, and the Soviet experience in Afghanistan, that the West is weak and has no stomach for fighting. This is a fundamental element of their strategic approach and philosophy. And here, in the most high profile arena possible, we may prove them right. Nonetheless, we cannot allow this to obscure reality in making our choice. If truly this is a lost cause we must not throw more good lives and money after bad. Our military has been courageous and true, and we owe it to them. To quote John Kerry (from when he used to be cool): "How can you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"