Now that the situation in Iraq has reached a critical point, it's time for President Bush to talk straight to the American public if he wants continued support for the war. The public acknowledges a few simple facts: 1) Saddam Hussein was an awful, evil dictator; 2) the U.S.'s original rationale for the war was false; 3) the war has not made this country demonstrably safer. Bush can't just keep invoking the memory of September 11, 2001 and instructing us to "stay the course". The course has gone from a run-of-the-mill invasion to a really bad episode of Punk'd.
The long line of failures that got us into this mess in the first place have already been recognized by everybody outside of the White House. In Iraq, that pesky insurgency is wreaking havoc. Jeffersonian democracy hasn't flourished, but civil war and the creation of an Iran-allied theocracy could be forthcoming. A Republican senator (Chuck Hagel) has used the dreaded V-word (Vietnam). Members of the president's own party are speaking out about the need to alter our strategy, or at the very least, define our goals. What do we still hope to accomplish?
The focus at home remains on bringing our troops back, and understandably so considering the strain on our overextended military. However, I don't think it's time to throw in the towel just yet. Yes, Iraq has become and likely will remain a hotbed of terrorism for years to come, regardless of how long we stay. But I am considering the larger picture of anti-Americanism in the Middle East. If we cut and run and then Iraq dissolves into chaos, we will set the chances of progress in that entire region back.
Unfortunately, thanks to the blunders by this administration, Iraq is an unpopular war that we just might be stuck with while blindly hoping that everything turns out ok. In that case, we should at least give ourselves a better chance of winning. The president thinks current troop levels are ok, but the strength of the insurgency tells you need we need to put more of our guys on the ground. We need to pour money and manpower into developing Iraq's infrastructure so that they can hold their own once we're gone. We also need to revive a practically non-existent diplomatic campaign to engage the various factions in Iraq as well as Iraq's neighbors who have a stake in the outcome. Gen. Wesley Clark recently offered the clearest, most straightforward vision yet for what the U.S. must do to succeed in Iraq--his column "Before It's Too Late" in last Friday's Washington Post is a must-read.
I do hope that the United States continues to promote liberalization and economic reform in the Muslim world, where both are sorely needed. In going about it in the future though, I hope we'll remember a valuable lesson learned the hard way from our mistakes in Iraq. The best of intentions and the best of armies aren't always enough to get the job done--and a little understanding of the people we're dealing with can go a long way.