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Will We Stay The Course In Iraq?

July 23  2003

After the suicide bombing of the Marine barracks, Ronald Reagan made a cold-blooded decision. Concluding America had no vital interest in Lebanon, he cut his losses and withdrew the Marines.

It was a rare failure of Reagan foreign policy.

Neoconservatives condemn him for not sending an army back into Beirut to deliver street justice and show Islamic radicals that the American Superpower could not be assaulted with impunity.

Reagan's decision, say the neocons, convinced radicals that America lacked the courage and perseverance to be master of the Middle East. Clinton's pullout after the "Blackhawk Down!" firefight in Mogadishu, Somalia, they say, confirmed the radicals' perception.

Where the Russians had fought in Afghanistan for a decade, the Americans had cut and run after the first bloodlettings. This, say the neocons, led to Osama's murderous miscalculation of 9-11.

Their argument cannot be dismissed. It is the whimpering dog that gets kicked. But there is a counter-argument. Neither in the Levant nor Somalia was there a vital U.S. interest. Whether Christians, Muslims or Syrians controlled Lebanon, whether Mohammad Aidid or some other warlord ran Somalia, did not imperil U.S. security.

Reagan's liberation of Grenada did affect vital interests. It swept a Soviet pawn off the board, exposed Moscow's impotence in the Caribbean, humiliated Castro and delivered a psychological blow to the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, who now knew that, should the Americans come, no one and nothing could save them. It was a victory in the Cold War, our war.

Which brings us to Iraq and predictions we may have to stay on and fight a guerrilla war for five or 10 years. Has anyone really thought this through? Has anyone calculated the probable price in billions and blood to bring "democracy" to Mesopotamia?

Certainly, Iraq is not Vietnam, where we lost 150 soldiers a week for seven years. Our casualties are coming at the rate of one a day. But media coverage is beginning to resemble the Vietnam of our nightmares.

The 24-hour-a-day cable TV networks are providing instant coverage of every sniper attack or ambush that kills an American. Cable TV also offers a daily forum for debate between those who want to persevere and those who say we should never have gone in.

That daily barrage of negative news and commentary about Iraq is already having the impact years of negative news and commentary from Vietnam had on the home front and troop morale. In the 10 weeks since the president made his Top Gun landing on the USS Lincoln, which was flying the streamer "Mission Accomplished," America has begun to sour on the war.

Newspapers and networks are saturated with stories of soldiers being ambushed, wounded, killed; of troops anxious to return home; of Shiites turning against the occupation; of rising costs and falling support for President Bush. A growing minority now says the war was a mistake and we should never have fought it.

Anyone who thinks Americans will stoically accept this for five or 10 years, or even two years, does not know this country. If TV coverage continues of Iraqis confronting U.S. troops, dancing around burned U.S. vehicles, demonstrating for us to get out, Americans an impatient lot will be only too happy to accommodate them.

President Bush has a grave problem. To date, no Saddam tie to al-Qaida has been established, no weapons of mass destruction, nukes, nuclear facilities or Scuds found. And Gen. Franks' planning for war appears to have been as brilliant as the planning for peace was botched.

No one seems to have prepared, or prepared us, for the kind of bloody long-term commitment we now face, and Americans will not accept that commitment unless told why. And why should we? If Saddam and his WMD were ever a threat, they surely are not now. Americans need answers to these questions.

If the Iraqis want us out, why stay? If it was necessary to go to war to disarm Iraq, why is it necessary to remain, now that Iraq is disarmed?

How is the War on Terror advanced by an occupation that inflames the Arab world and leaves 150,000 U.S. troops exposed to daily attacks? Were we misled into invading Iraq, to place our soldiers in a killing field of our Islamic enemies?

President Bush may reach another conclusion, but he had best think this through as he and his aides did not, before they went in. For even a superpower must be mindful of the card shark's counsel in Kenny Rogers' "The Gambler."

"You have to know when to hold 'em, Know when to fold 'em, Know when to walk away, Know when to run."

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