Much has been said about the potential consequences of failure in Iraq–how it would provide a new haven for terrorists, deal a blow to reformers and modernizers throughout the region, and encourage radicals in Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. But perhaps failure’s most pernicious legacy will be a further hardening of the Democratic Party’s Vietnam syndrome–its distrust of government and the use of American power.
That syndrome is one reason why, from day one, many of us in Congress pressed the president to level with the American people about what would be required to prevail in Iraq. But he didn’t. He didn’t tell them that well over 100,000 troops would be needed for well over two years. He didn’t tell them the cost would surpass $200 billion–and far exceed Iraq’s oil revenue. He didn’t tell them that our children and grandchildren would pay the bill because of his refusal to rescind even a small portion of the tax cut he gave to the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans. He didn’t tell them that, even after paying such a heavy price, success was not assured, because no one had ever succeeded at forcibly democratizing a nation in the Middle East, let alone an entire region.
As a result, today those who recognize that we must persevere in Iraq risk losing public support.
Americans sense that our policy is adrift and that we do not have a plan for success. Worse, they may conclude that this is what happens when we venture abroad. Someday, probably sooner rather than later, there will be another Slobodan Milosevic or another Saddam, and the profound mistakes in Iraq will make it harder to generate domestic and international political support for the use of force. That is a legacy we can ill afford.
Maybe, as some argue, so many mistakes have been made in Iraq that it is impossible to turn the corner. Anti-American attitudes and a nascent warlordism may already be so deeply entrenched that there is little we can do to succeed. It would be foolhardy to deny that possibility. But it would be even more foolhardy, and dangerous, to accept failure as inevitable and move to cut our losses. Despite the naysayers, it is not too late. But only the president can alter our course in Iraq. As he did when Congress first authorized him to use force, the president has the choice of using his power effectively or squandering it to satisfy ideological predilections. Let us hope he has grown wiser in the past year.