The media has missed the real story in former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s new book, Duty. While coverage stresses his criticisms of President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and the White House staff, his main target is the Pentagon, about which he writes, “no one knew what anyone else was doing.” The Pentagon’s byzantine administration ignored many of Gates’s commands and largely defeated or delayed his proposals. This is a common concern amongst those serving in top government positions, but the Pentagon is the most stubbornly labyrinthine.

Concerning the Afghanistan and Iraq interventions, Gates writes, “We entered both countries oblivious to how little we knew.” He generally concludes we should be more cautious in getting involved anywhere in the world and that we should plan our exit from the very beginning. Duty imparts much good sense. When NPR asked for his reaction to the media’s handling of his book, Gates’s greatest regret was that quipped sound bites from ideological partisans had displaced discussion of its deeper issues. Foreign policy should be serious business.

Unlike much of the media, the Wall Street Journal is indeed interested in such a debate, and argues that today’s greatest foreign-policy peril is an American “retreat” from “Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and beyond.” Its editors criticize President Obama and “Rand Paul Republicans” for wanting to “avoid the world’s conflicts with good intentions and strategic retreat.” Indeed, most Americans “want to forget about” the U.S.’s strategic obligations, despite threats from Sunni extremists igniting car bombs in Lebanon and capturing cities in Iraq, Shi’ite Hezbollah moving anti-ship missiles into Lebanon to threaten Israel, and Shi’ite Iran advancing toward nuclear arms.

“The dangers are that the violence in Lebanon devolves into another civil war or that Hezbollah provokes Israel into a response like the 2006 war,” while Syria’s civil war spreads to Iraq and the entire Middle East. Much of the blame, the editors concede, goes to “the heavy-handed sectarian rule of Shiite Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki,” but they believe major responsibility rests with U.S. refusal to help the “moderate Syrian opposition,” and Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq without leaving sufficient forces to act “as a bulwark against al-Qaeda’s revival and Iran’s regional domination.”

The editors represent an important voice in the debate and deserve a serious reply. First, withdrawal from Iraq was not a partisan decision. George W. Bush set the troop removal schedule, and neither his administration nor Obama’s could successfully negotiate for a residual force against the wishes of Iraq’s new leaders (whom both administrations spent American lives and money to place in power). More importantly, in the thousand-year war between Sunnis and Shi’ites, who are we retreating from? Even moderates on both sides of Islam view their opposites as heretics. The U.S. began by supporting Shi’ites in Iraq against a Sunni regime, but in Syria supported Sunni rebels against a Shi’ite/Alawite ruler. Whose side are we on?

Both administrations and the Journal view democracy and moderate leadership as their goals. But what does “moderate” mean? When this author was in Iraq in 2003, the moderate Shi’ite leadership was all for “democracy,” but freely admitted it was because their majority could institute their version of Sharia. A Washington Times article published in 2002 predicted that supporting democracy in Iraq would increase Shi’ite power to Iran’s advantage and that the different sects would fight long after the U.S. departed, no matter how long we might stay. These conclusions should have been obvious, considering the realities at the time.

Another predicted result of American involvement in Iraq back in 2002 was that it would weaken Israeli élan by making it too dependent on the U.S. Why is an Israeli response objectionable to the editors, if Israel believes its vital interests are at stake? Should the U.S.’s opinion about Israeli interests bind Israel’s own? Israel is now courting the Sunni Saudi Arabians (neither moderate nor democratic) over transit rights for an air raid to destroy Iranian nuclear facilities.

Back in 2003, the Journal claimed that “no one outside the Council of Foreign Relations ever imagined the plan was for even a semi-permanent occupation” of Iraq. Ten years later, it now wants 5,000 to 10,000 more U.S. troops and air and intelligence resources. It also wants to support “moderate opposition” in Syria and Iraq. But isn’t Maliki a moderate, who we allied with against Moqtada al-Sadr? Of course, he oppressed his Sunni moderates too, but who in the region does not oppress moderates? Do we support moderates generally in Iraq, only Sunni moderates, or only non-ruling Shi’ite moderates? In Syria, we support the Sunni moderates, but extremist rebels have defeated them at every turn, chasing the moderate military leader out of the country and turning back a recent moderate surge. The only one protecting Christian, Druze, and Turkmen minorities is the Shi’ite/Alawite dictator. There are no good choices in the Middle East.

Strategy requires knowing whom one supports or opposes. The U.S. supports the democratic moderates: but where are they? Do they have any prospect of victory? Egypt suggests they come in poor third, after Islamist extremists and the army. If one is going in the wrong direction, strategic retreat is the proper strategy. Getting in the middle of a thousand-year fight without knowing whose side one is on does not seem very strategic.

Who, in fact, is acting on unrealistic “good intentions” in this debate? It took a while, but George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Robert Gates, Rand Paul, and most Americans have figured this out by now. It is time everyone else faced reality too.