Friday, September 23, 2005



Sincere, smart, and reasonable people disagree about how quickly American troops should be withdrawn from Iraq. That's why I don't mind listening to the arguments of those who believe that immediate withdrawal is a bad idea. Reasonable people can think that; here's an example.

But that doesn't mean that all reasons for opposing immediate withdrawal are equally good. For example, the reasons that President Bush gave yesterday just don't strike me as good ones. I freely admit I'm a layman when it comes to debates about what to do in Iraq; but good citizenship demands that I say how things strike me. And from where I sit, President Bush's reasons for staying the course are terribly confused.

The president said that withdrawing now would "allow the terrorists to claim a historic victory over the United States." And he added to that assertion the claim that the failure of previous administrations to commit and maintain troops in the Middle East is what has allowed terrorism to flourish in the last twenty-five years.
''The terrorists saw our response to the hostage crisis in Iran, the bombings of the Marine barracks in Lebanon, the first World Trade Center attack, the killing of American soldiers in Somalia, the destruction of two US embassies in Africa, and the attack on the USS Cole," Bush said. ''The terrorists concluded that we lacked the courage and character to defend ourselves, and so they attacked us."
The problems with this line of reasoning seem, to me, to be twofold.

First, it seems painfully simplistic to believe, four years after September 11, that the terrorists "attacked us" because they "concluded that we lacked the courage and character to defend ourselves." Al-Qaeda did not attack the United States because it thought we would not strike back, because it had concluded that we were we were a bunch of sissy faces. On the contrary, terrorism "works" because its architects know that their victims will strike back. In invading an Arab country, I believe we acted out the precise role that terrorists had scripted for us--the role that now allows them to persuade would-be insurgents and new terrorists that our designs in the Arab world are imperialistic. I could be wrong about this construal of terrorists' strategic thinking, but that interpretation of what Bin Laden in particular is up to seems much more believable, to me, than the interpretation that the President gives: They thought we were cowards, so they attacked us. At the very least, how can anyone believe that Bin Laden or any of his associates expected us not to do anything after September 11? If Al-Qaeda really did learn anything from previous examples of terrorism like the first World Trade Center bombing and the bombing of the Cole, it was that those attacks were not spectacular enough to get us to commit troops. They didn't see it as a victory that we didn't come crashing out of the gates talking about crusades and axes of evil; they saw it as a failure, and a reason to try again.

But here's the second problem, as I see it, with President Bush's logic: that we shouldn't withdraw immediately because insurgents and terrorists could declare a "historic victory." That may be true; it probably is true. But it's not a specific reason against immediate withdrawal. Whenever we withdraw from Iraq--whether now or ten years from now--some terrorist somewhere in the world will claim an "historic victory." You can bet on it. It doesn't matter what godforsaken cave he broadcasts from: shortly after the last American soldier leaves Iraq, some terrorist will send a tape to Al-Jazeera saying the Great Satan is defeated and so on and so on. That's not going to change if we stay another year or another two years. It's going to happen; a "historic victory" is going to be claimed whether it really is a victory or not.

(If you read this blog regularly, you know I'm actually more of an idealist than that: I think we assume too quickly that we know how terrorists would react if we made some truly surprising, nonviolent change of course. Simple withdrawal, though, probably would not be that surprising, so the realist in me is reasonably sure that whenever we withdraw, some terrorists will still make use of anti-American rhetoric.)

So the real question is not, "How can we make sure no terrorist claims victory?," but rather, "How can we make sure that as few people as possible join the terrorists in throwing confetti?" When the terrorists claim victory after our withdrawal (remember: it's a given; they will), that will simply be part of their long-standing ad campaign. What we need to think about is how to minimize the number of people likely to "buy" their product. And that's where immediate withdrawal starts to make more sense, at least if the primary objective is to reduce the recruitment of terrorists in the future. Because the longer we stay, it seems, the more people there will be who are likely to put their fists in the air when we eventually do withdraw.

Unless, that is, one believes that we can (1) leave Iraq having killed or captured every terrorist in the world or (2) never leave Iraq. Since those aren't reasonable options, since we have to withdraw at some point even knowing that terrorists remain, our primary objective should be to minimize the appeal of the inevitable victory celebration that will occur when we leave. And that objective is better served, I think, by a sooner withdrawal than a later one.

(I realize in this post that I'm playing fast and loose with phrases like "the terrorists." Generalization about the motives of "the terrorists" is always dangerous. But I think these points stick even if you fill in that blank more specific referents.)

UPDATE: Matthew Yglesias shows how President Bush's logic in yesterday's speech does point towards the option I labeled as (2) above, because it defines withdrawing--ever--as by definition a "loss."
Losing, in other words, is leaving Iraq. Winning, by contrast, is staying there. So when do the troops come home? Not until we win. But if they come home, then we lose. So they can't come home. Apparently ever. But at other times Bush has said that "as Iraqis stand up, we will stand down." According to the administration, however, Iraqis are standing out, as witnessed by the Iraqi militia-turned-army's perfomance in Tal Afar. So why don't we start standing down? Because standing down would mean losing.

There's a problem here. The organizers of the al-Qaeda movement, as the president himself has had occassion to remark, aren't the sort of people who are ever going to sign a surrender document on the deck of a battleship stationed in the Persian Gulf. As a result, we more-or-less need to define our own policy objectives. Insofar as we define our objective as "not withdrawing," which is what the president seems to have done, we're dooming ourselves to pointless fighting and some kind of national crisis. If we left early next year not because "we lost, got scared, and ran away" but because "we came to topple Saddam and install an elected government and now that's done so we won" we would be able to end the war and to win it.

Collective Improvisation:

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