Thursday, March 15, 2007

… 3,200 … When Does It End?

By Christopher Truscott

At some point in the near future the Department of Defense will announce the 3,200th U.S. troop has been killed in Iraq. Sadly, however, we can’t give a good reason for his sacrifice.

We went to Iraq to topple a dictator, eliminate a weapons of mass destruction threat and establish democracy. Saddam Hussein is now dead, his weapons of mass destruction didn’t exist and Iraqis have ratified a constitution and elected themselves a permanent government.

We’ve done our part. At what point do we say America’s mission is really accomplished? At what point do we stop justifying continued entanglement in a fight with no foreseeable end?

Since Saddam was overthrown, a new horror has replaced the grisly Baathist regime. The American military is now caught in the middle of a bloody civil war between Sunni extremists and Shiite death squads looking to fill the void once occupied by a murderous dictator.

How many more Americans have to die for a fatally flawed policy? How much longer do U.S. troops have to chase the mirage of establishing western-style democracy in the Middle East? How much longer will President Bush insist that we keep our heads buried in the sand?

The president has said our commitment to Iraq is not open-ended, yet he doesn’t clearly define victory, nor will he say what constitutes a suitable finishing point for our military involvement in Iraq. In place of strong policy, or even a “Plan B,” this administration has instead given us hollow talking points. For instance:

  • In February 2005, the president told a group in Omaha: “Our strategy is clear. We’re going to help the Iraqis defend themselves.”

  • Speaking at Fort Bragg, N.C., four months later, the president declared that as “Iraqis stand up, we will stand down.”

  • Two years later we’re still stuck in the middle of a civil war. The Iraqis the president has ordered the U.S. to defend are killing each other. The Baghdad government we hoped would stand up has merely stood by. Meanwhile, we’re left holding the bag.

    How much longer do we stay?

    Do we stick around for another couple years and hope the situation gets better? Do we stay a decade? A generation? Saying our commitment is not open-ended isn’t good enough. When does it end?

    Do 4,000 troops have to die? 5,000? More? At what point do we say enough? When do we hold Iraqis accountable for their actions? When do we reign in a president who, however well-intentioned, can’t admit a serious change in course is necessary?

    Congress is considering proposals to attach a withdrawal deadline to war spending bills. It shouldn’t have come to this, but in the absence of serious executive leadership, it is absolutely incumbent on senators and representatives to stand up and do what’s right. Somebody has to. If they don’t, who will?

    Many of the president’s supporters say deadlines embolden our enemies. They’ve resorted to fear-mongering because they don’t have any answers. The truth: the terrorists like us right where we are. They’re already emboldened.

    Since we’ve been bogged down in Iraq, the killers have attacked our allies in places like London and Madrid. Osama bin Laden and his top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are running free. Western Pakistan and the Baluchistan region remain terrorist safe havens. The Taliban continues its war against the Afghan government we helped create in the wake of the horrific 9/11 attacks.

    If that’s not an emboldened enemy, what is?

    It’s time to change the course. Setting a deadline to leave Iraq sometime next year is the last good option we have. Absent a deadline, the Iraqi government has little incentive to stand up. The Iraqi people have no need to turn to their elected leaders. And the terrorists – and those tempted to support them – have every reason to believe we’re just plain crazy, or worse.

    It doesn’t have to be this way.

    While we can’t go back in time and fix past mistakes, we still control our destiny. We can still change directions. We can still compel a democratically elected Iraqi government to take action. We can still do right by the American people.

    First, however, we need a new plan. More of the same isn’t a policy; it’s a recipe for disaster. What do those who oppose a deadline – and apparently support an open-ended commitment – want? They can’t like what they’re seeing. They know hoping against the evidence for an improvement hasn’t worked in four years. Why won’t they act?

    History will ultimately judge us by what we do or don’t do in the coming weeks and months. Do we want to be placed in the same group as those who brought us the Vietnam War but no end to it? Do we really want to go down as the generation that was afraid to act? Do we want to have this same debate a year from now?

    Certainly we don’t. Certainly we can do better. Certainly we can turn the corner. But we have to take the first step.

    Christopher Truscott can be reached at He just finished reading Bob Woodward’s latest, “State of Denial.” The title really says it all.

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