Representative John Murtha, Democrat of Pennsylvania, is a decorated veteran, a member of the House Armed Services Committee and a longtime hawk on defense matters. So Washington had a rude awakening when he declared on Nov. 17 that the time had come for the United States to withdraw its troops from Iraq. Some commentators regarded his announcement as the tipping point in the growing national debate over the war. The House promptly voted 403 to 3 against an initiative that urged quick withdrawal. Earlier the Senate had passed a measure demanding quarterly reports on progress in Iraq from the administration. Both measures, however, amount to little more than political posturing; neither initiated the serious debate the nation deserves.
Congressman Murtha’s chief concern was the impact of the war on the U.S. military itself. With more than 2,000 dead, with the maimed and wounded exceeding 15,000, with many units on their third and fourth rotations to Iraq, with ground equipment run down and with military readiness for challenges outside Iraq and Afghanistan at a minimum, there is much to worry about. Mr. Murtha, who is in contact with the families of serving personnel, with veterans and officers below the three-star level, has the pulse of those Americans with the most at stake in the conflict. Unfortunately, the congressman offered no reflection on the cost of the war to the Iraqi people, whose dead outnumber the U.S. fallen by at least ten to one. Nor did he comment, a week after the hotel bombings in Amman, Jordan, on the import of a withdrawal for the region and for the struggle against global terrorism.
The Bush administration has put the country in a lethal bind. Having deceived itself into believing that it could win a quick war and occupy a country with minimal troop involvement, it has stirred up a hornet’s nest of terrorism that the military does not seem able to suppress. Terrorism has already become the most evident symptom of an incipient Sunni-Shiite civil war, with even mosques becoming targets for suicide bombers. As intractable as an internecine conflict may seem, it should not be an occasion for the United States to order an immediate pullout. Having provoked the conflict, the United States bears responsibility to secure the peace. Peace, however, will be out of reach as long as the administration persists in waging the war with too little planning and too few resources.
One of the few U.S. politicians who understands this is Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona. Another is former President Bill Clinton. McCain believes that with an increase in troop strength and protracted involvement the fight against the insurgents can be won. Clinton agrees. We should all want this enterprise to work, he told an audience in Westchester County, N.Y., last month, and there’s a lot of evidence it can still work.
If the administration does not find new ways to counter the insurgency, rebuild the militarywith an emphasis on language and cultural sensitivity as well as peacekeeping and counterinsurgency skillsthen bringing the troops home is common sense. As it is being fought the war is a failed policy wrapped, as Mr. Murtha said, in illusion. If we continue on the current course, we are doomed to failure, and withdrawal will inevitably follow. Why should more American blood be shed for a failed policy? The only way to persist in the struggle and properly exercise U.S. responsibilities is with new policies and new personnel.
Though President Bush and Vice President Cheney will be with us another three years, several of the war-minded neoconservatives who designed this war have already left the administration. But Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld remains in office. Much of the blame for the incompetence with which the war has been waged can be laid at his feet, in particular the allocation of too few troops to win the peace. If a new policy with new resources can be mobilized, Mr. Rumsfeld will have to be replaced.
Strategic and moral reasons argue for staying the course. Strategic considerations include the possible breakup of Iraq and the risk of a large-scale regional war, the expansion of Iranian influence and the spread of militant Islam and, it must be admitted, the extension of global terrorism. Among the moral arguments are the duty of an occupying power to provide security for the population and what Colin Powell termed the Pottery Barn rule: You break it, you own it.
But these arguments obtain only if the U.S. effort can be remade. If not, the historic American instinct for short-term overseas adventures will reassert itself. If that is where we are headed, then, as Mr. Murtha contended, the troops need to be withdrawn in good order, sooner rather than later.