Pulling out of Iraq war not hard choice

By Steve Chapman: Syndicated Columnist

“I think about Iraq every day — every single day.”

No, those were not the words of peace activist Cindy Sheehan, who is camped out by the Bush ranch in Crawford, Texas, hoping for a meeting with the president so she can ask what her soldier son died for. Those were the words of the commander in chief back in June.

It’s nice to know that President Bush can make time in his schedule to notice the war on a daily basis. But maybe the time to think was before he invaded. Then the nation wouldn’t find itself in the awful predicament posed by a war we can’t afford to lose and can’t afford to win.

Nothing is harder than admitting error, as Bush demonstrates, but a lot of Americans have done exactly that. Two years ago, 72 percent of Americans thought the invasion was a good idea. Today, 54 percent say it was a mistake. Fifty-six percent say the United States should withdraw all or some of its troops. The emerging consensus is that this war may not be won, but it ought to be over.

The administration is trying to mollify the doubters while waiting for a miracle. Last month, the chief U.S. commander in Iraq said there could be “fairly substantial reductions” in our troop strength by next summer, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld echoed that forecast. But Bush then poured a bucket of ice water on the optimists, insisting, “We will stay the course. We will complete the job in Iraq.”

Not without public support, we won’t, and public support is wilting like a cornfield in a drought. This comes as a bit of a surprise, since Americans can indulge the war at no cost to themselves. But it’s hard to ignore the loss of 1,850 American lives in a war that was supposed to be brief and easy. And it’s hard to ignore the evidence that we are making little if any progress subduing the insurgency or inducing Iraqis to unite in a new democratic order.

A story last week in The Washington Post recited the bleak facts: “Killings of members of the Iraqi security force have tripled since January … (B)ombings and other attacks have killed 4,000 civilians in Baghdad since Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari’s interim government took office April 28. Last week was the fourth-worst week of the whole war for U.S. military deaths in combat, and August is already the worst month for deaths of the National Guard and Reserve.”

The administration’s hope is that Iraqis will bridge their divisions and come up with a constitution that will satisfy everyone and stabilize the country. In fact, they aren’t building bridges but digging deeper gorges. The longer they negotiate, the more irreconcilable their disagreements appear.

No wonder Americans are raising the sort of doubts expressed by Rosemary Palmer, whose marine son died in Iraq earlier this month. “We feel you either have to fight this war right or get out,” she said.

But it’s clear that neither the Bush administration nor the public was prepared to do everything necessary to win in Iraq. From the start, there was a mismatch between the alleged stakes and the resources the president was willing to commit.

He sent in an undersized force that would suffice only in the best-case scenario — only to encounter the worst-case scenario. Our plight brings to mind the problem with romancing a gorilla: You don’t stop when you want to stop — you stop when the gorilla wants to stop.

What we should have learned from the post-Vietnam experience is that we shouldn’t take the risk of a sustained and bloody involvement except to protect some vital national interest. There was no vital interest in Panama or Kosovo, but they were quick and low-casualty affairs. There was, however, a vital interest in Afghanistan, which steeled Americans to accept whatever sacrifice would be needed.

In Iraq, though, it is dawning on the citizenry that victory is neither likely nor essential, which raises the question: Why are we there?

The president says we have to see the war through to a successful outcome rather than pull out and leave Iraq to chaos. But Iraq is already in chaos, which presents the real dilemma: Should we accept failure now, with 1,850 dead, or later, after even more lives have been squandered?

It’s a bitter choice, but not a hard one.

Steve Chapman writes for Creators Syndicate. Contact him at: schapman@tribune.com