Why Are We Still Here?
June 30 2003
"What are we getting into here?" asked the sergeant from the U.S.
Army's 4th Infantry Division, stationed north of Baghdad. "The war is supposed
to be over, but every day we hear of another soldier getting killed. Is it worth
it? Saddam isn't in power anymore. The locals want us to leave. Why are we still
The questions that sergeant put to a Washington Post reporter are ones our
commander in chief had better begin to address.
For less than three months after the fall of Baghdad, we have lost almost as
many men in Iraq as we did in three weeks of war. One U.S. soldier is now dying
there every day.
"Mission Accomplished," read the banner behind President Bush as he spoke from
the carrier deck of the Lincoln. But if the original mission – to oust Saddam
and end the mortal threat of his weapons of mass destruction – is
"accomplished," why are we still there?
What is our new mission? What are the standards by which we may measure success?
What will be the cost in blood and treasure? When can we expect to turn Iraq
back over to the Iraqis? Or is ours to be a permanent presence, as in postwar
Germany and Japan?
If that sergeant does not know what he is doing there, it is because his
commander in chief has left him, and us, in the dark. And if the president does
not begin soon to lay out the case for why we must keep 150,000 men in Iraq, the
American people will begin to demand they be brought home. Already, one poll
shows that 44 percent of the nation finds the present level of U.S. casualties
This is not 1963. Americans no longer have the same patience or trust in
government we had when JFK took us into Vietnam. We are no longer willing to
have Americans die in open-ended wars for unexplained ends. Dean Rusk's familiar
mantra, "We are there, and we are committed," is no longer enough.
When the United States lost 241 U.S. Marines in the bombing of the Beirut
barracks 20 years ago, and 18 Army Rangers in the "Blackhawk Down" incident in
Mogadishu, Americans demanded we get out. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton hastily
As has been written here many times, Americans are lousy imperialists. We are
uninterested in ruling and reforming other peoples if they appear to want us out
of their lives. Nor are we willing to shed American blood for visions of empire
dancing in the heads of Potomac pundits.
This week, six British soldiers were killed – three executed – after
surrendering to Iraqi civilians enraged over intrusive house searches that they
believe dishonored them and their women. This was in the Shia region of southern
Iraq, which had been thought to be pacified.
One is reminded of Yitzhak Rabin's remark after the invasion of southern Lebanon
had ignited the peaceful population there: "We have let the Shia genie out of
On their visit to Baghdad, Sens. Lugar and Biden warned the U.S. Army might have
to remain in Iraq five years. But Americans are not going to tolerate five
years, or even two years, of guerrilla war without a better explanation as to
exactly what vital interest of ours requires us to stay in Iraq and fight this
Moreover, there is every indication the security situation is getting worse. The
incident in the south is but one example. The heavy-handed but natural reaction
of U.S. soldiers to being ambushed and sniped at and killed every day is
another. Invading homes searching for weapons, rousting out and roughing up
Iraqi men, and patting down their women is a sure way to antagonize a fighting
Lest we forget, among the "Intolerable Acts" that led to our own revolution was
the "Quartering Act," where Bostonians had to provide shelter for British troops
sent to pacify the city after Sam Adams' tea party down at the harbor.
We are told the United States cannot walk away from Iraq now, or it would
descend into chaos. That may be true. But if chaos is one alternative, another
is a no-win war such as Israel is today fighting against the Palestinians. And
the chances of that are daily rising.
A recent U.S. strike in the west turned up the bodies of Saudis and Syrians who
had come to fight Americans, as their fathers went to Afghanistan to fight
Russians. Moreover, U.S. pressure on Iran to permit inspections of its nuclear
facilities – or U.S. pre-emptive strikes – would surely be answered by the kind
of Iranian aid to and instigation of the Shias in Iraq that Teheran gave to
Hezbollah in Lebanon. And Hezbollah, after years of guerrilla war, drove the
Israelis out of their country.
President Bush had best begin devising an exit strategy for U.S. troops, before
our enemies succeed with theirs.
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