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Dreher on Iraq II

Rod Dreher sent me a follow-up message to make a clarification about his view of the Iraq war:

I am genuinely torn over what to do now that our troops are there. I don’t have much hope that things will improve in Iraq in the short term, but at the same time I am impressed by the argument that as a matter of honor, we can’t withdraw now, as well as by the certainty that Iraq would fall into civil war absent the American troop presence. What I’m trying to work out for myself now is at what point we decide that nothing our soldiers can do will prevent civil war there, so we had better cut our losses and leave.

Rod made it clear in his message that he does not favour withdrawal, and the reasons he gives above are the reasons frequently offered for opposing immediate or near-term withdrawal (or even Rep. Murtha’s “redeployment,” which, as has been noted before, is not really the same thing). The concern about civil war is a legitimate one, of course, and the appeal to honour here is meaningful, but I do think both are missing something. I’d like to offer a few thoughts on what they are missing.

When I was growing up it was part of the received political wisdom in our household that the way the U.S. abandoned the South Vietnamese was an ugly thing to have done and that it was the Democratic Congress that did it, and it is still something used to score points on how “wrong” post-1968 Democrats were about Vietnam. But to believe this would mean that you had to believe that we should have kept supporting South Vietnam forever. In this case, eventually the need to put Americans back in the field would have become unavoidable.

Of course, the alternative to abandoning South Vietnam was to have kept South Vietnam as a protectorate indefinitely and to make every attempt at Vietnamese unification an occasion for American military involvement as a matter of honouring our obligations to Saigon. By making something that was not our proper business into our business, we would have been committed to an intense involvement without end.

In effect, that is what the civil war and honour arguments are forcing Americans to accept for the foreseeable future and perhaps in perpetuity, and the longer we remain the more compelling that argument will seem (“We haven’t been in Iraq for 80 years just to let it fall into the hands of some dictator or religious nut!”). I also think the honour argument is misplaced. At most what Americans promised to do for the Iraqis was to depose Hussein and establish for them an elected government, both of which are essentially done now. We have fulfilled our promise, and we have kept our word. If Mr. Bush chooses to “move the goal posts” and seek “complete victory” over an enemy his invasion created, Americans cannot be held responsible for seeing his new commitments through to the bitter end.

On the question of civil war, there is the mistake of supposing that an Iraqi civil war will not take place if we remain or that our remaining decreases the chances of civil war. I am not at all sure that either of these is correct. Our presence simply complicates the picture, and makes it more likely that any civil war would end in a Bosnia-like stalemate, as our forces would play the thankless job of equaliser, checking the superiority of one side or another to prevent full-scale massacres and displacement of populations. The alternative of openly siding with one side and forcing the others to submit to exacting political concessions also lies that way. Should open civil war erupt while our troops are still there, the imperative to remain will seem even greater. Yet at each step the right course of action is one known to every horror film buff: do not stay in creepy house, no matter what compelling reason you think you have to remain inside.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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