Exiting Iraq isn't fraught with danger
Wednesday, December 3, 2008 3:22 AM
By ANDREW OLDENQUIST
The problem of how to exit Iraq recalls for me a scene from the movie Gandhi where, at a table with high-ranking British officers in 1947, Mohandas Gandhi is asked how in the world the huge British military and colonial establishment can leave India. Gandhi replies, "Put them on boats."
We are constantly told that if we leave Iraq precipitously, Sunnis and Shiites might fight forever or Iran occupy Iraq's Shiite south.
What of it? How about a little more national self interest? I'm not one who waves the flag at every opportunity, but I recommend waving it now. We have been spending about $3 billion a week on Iraq. The tab is nearly $1 trillion since we invaded that country in March of 2003.
If we must choose between exacerbating the recession in the U.S. and Iraq falling into chaos, let it be chaos in Iraq. Our government's commitment to Iraqi democracy cannot compete with its obligation to our own people's homes and jobs. Even if the United States didn't confront its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, the case for leaving Iraq quickly would still be strong. Invading Iraq never had anything to do with fighting terrorism, nor are we obliged to continue a war simply because we started it.
Neither must we fight until we "win," whatever that means, lest our fallen soldiers have died in vain. They performed their duty and are properly honored, whatever the future course of the war, which is also why those Support Our Troops bumper stickers offend logic. The troops follow their orders; they do not make war policy. Supporting them requires respecting them, equipping them with properly armored vehicles and ensuring they receive first-class medical care back home. It does not require supporting our government's war policies.
Let us get our priorities right. What happens to Iraq is less important to America than the state of our health-care system, our education system and our economy. Gambling at $3 billion a week plus future casualties that a stable democracy will form is well below the threshold of sanity: Even if we win, we lose because it is not worth those costs. The odds are poor that Iraqi democracy, such as it is and assuming it lasts awhile, will influence Iran, Syria, Jordan or Lebanon to become more democratic than they already are.
Iraq deserves no more from us than any other country in the Middle East, or in the world for that matter. And in the long run what happens in the Middle East will have little to do with our military action in Iraq.
It is said that if we leave Iraq without establishing a stable democracy we will be seen as foolish and irresolute, which will shame us and embolden our enemies. So the conclusion is that abandoning Iraq would jeopardize our national interest by embarrassing our country.
A little thought shows that this argument is self-serving sophistry. It is less about what benefits Iraq or America than it is about the reputation and honor of American office-holders.
One's country could be hit by a plague, invaded or financially ruined; these harm one's country. But blame, shame, dishonor and mistakes apply to individuals, not to countries.
Thus when our leaders say leaving Iraq without victory would be a concession of failure and irresoluteness, this shows that their fear of personal blame has more of their attention than does the good of their country. They are not trying to spare their country criticism, they are trying to spare themselves criticism. At most, blame or disdain can be toward a country only by temporary proxy via its leaders and it is washed clean when they leave.
Blame and shame for failed policies lie only with individuals; pretending that the country itself is at moral risk is just a device to justify large, long-term military action. Our country is not stuck with the problem, the officials who are to blame for it just need to leave. As for material harm to our country, it is continuing and only quitting Iraq will end it.
There is no such thing as a nation's honor or dishonor, there is only the honor or lack thereof of individuals, who take it with them when they leave. It is time to wish Iraq well and come home. It is far away, their problems are different from ours and we have expensive, more pressing business here.
Andrew Oldenquist is professor emeritus of philosophy at Ohio State University.