Richard Reeves

When Should We Get Out of Iraq?

SAG HARBOR, N.Y. -- Long August afternoons at the beach just give my wife more chance to ask me why I am not writing that we should get out of Iraq. Now! I was always against going to war there, but after we blundered in I tended to say things like:

"We are immersed in a dangerous, costly mess, and there is no quick way to end our responsibilities in Iraq without creating bigger future problems in the region and, in general, in the Muslim world."

Those words are not mine. That is the last sentence of an extraordinary letter written last week by a retiring Republican congressman, Doug Bereuter of Nebraska. In four pages, Bereuter, who has served in the House of Representatives for 26 years and is a senior member of the House International Relations Committee and vice chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told constituents:

"I've reached the conclusion, retrospectively, now that the inadequate intelligence and faulty conclusions are being revealed, that all things considered it was a mistake to launch that military action, especially without a broad and engaged international coalition. ... The immediate and long-term financial costs are incredible. Our country's reputation around the world has never been lower and our alliances are weakened."

He also told the folks back home that many other members of the House Intelligence Committee have reached the same conclusions. Presumably he means both Republicans and Democrats who voted to support President Bush if he decided to go to war. Still, Bereuter, who will become president of the Asia Foundation next month, says he believes that the Middle East and the world are safer places with Saddam Hussein in jail and Americans in Baghdad.

I don't agree that we are all safer because we invaded Iraq. And I can't argue anymore, certainly not at home, that honor or duty requires us to stay and clean up the mess. We may be making the mess worse, day by day, hour by hour. I find it hard to rebut family arguments that it made no good difference to stay in Vietnam when we almost certainly could have made the same exit deal in 1969 that we settled for in 1973. I am reminded that more than half the Americans who died in Vietnam were men and women killed after Richard Nixon took office at the beginning of 1969. As someone said back then: "How do you ask a man to be the last one to die for a mistake?"

We made a mistake going into Iraq. Even if we believed everything Bush and company told us before launching shock and awe, devastation and doubt, the administration was negligent and stupid to ignore the warnings everywhere about what it would take to make and keep a peace. "Left unresolved for now," in Bereuter's words, "is whether intelligence was intentionally misconstrued to justify military action."

On the same day Bereuter's letter to constituents became public, Edward Luttwak, a scholar whose work includes an essay mocking peace-making called "Give War a Chance," wrote another one in The New York Times under the title, "Time to Quit Iraq (Sort Of)." This one was a complicated argument that public preparations for an American withdrawal might force Iraqis and their neighbors to face up to their problems and return to some sort of regional stability.

I doubt Luttwak is right about that, but I do think he makes a humbling argument that in the end it may not matter what we do; it may not matter whether we stay or go.

"The likely consequences of an American abandonment are so bleak that few Americans are even willing to contemplate it," he wrote. "This is a mistake: It is precisely because unpredictable mayhem is so predictable that the United States might be able to disengage from Iraq at little cost. ... The likely result would be the defection of the government's army, followed by a swift collapse and then civil war."

Finally, writes Luttwak: "The situation in Iraq is not improving, the United States will assuredly leave one day in any case, and it is usually wise to abandon failed ventures sooner rather than later."

And, sooner rather than later, I shall go to the beach and tell my wife she was right all along.

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