PARIS. — I have come to the capital of elegant pessimism in order to address the question “When should the U.S. leave Iraq?” at the French Center on the United States’ estimable annual conference on what’s going on in America.
While it is in general true that relations between the United States and France have been undergoing a warming trend, it’s not the result of any concession on the part of the French with regard to the legitimacy, usefulness, or practical possibility of any sort of success whatsoever of our venture in Iraq. As Benoit d’Aboville, the chairman of the panel and former French ambassador to NATO, where he solidified his reputation among U.S. diplomats as a magnificent pain in the neck, sighed heavily at the close of the session, “If only we could have had this discussion in January 2003.” Meaning, then perhaps the Americans could have been dissuaded from their folly. Meaning, if only we knew then what Benoit d’Aboville knew then.
But, in truth, you can’t blame French pessimism entirely on the French. After all, the United States has just gone through a fit of its own on the subject. The fit had, in my view, four proximate causes. First, of course, the insurgency in Iraq continues. Let us not leave out the objective correlative for the gloom: The determination in some quarters to resist the establishment of a new government is fierce. Indications are that the resistance is broader among Sunnis than the previously identified “former regime elements.” Is the insurgency worsening? Opinions vary. Is it spinning out of control? Hardly. Is it bad? Yes.
Second came the fall 2005 decline in President Bush’s approval ratings, coupled with growing sentiment in public opinion that the war was not worthwhile and that the administration misled the country into it. Mr. Bush’s harshest political opponents long ago decided to blame him and his senior officials personally not for having been wrong about weapons of mass destruction, but supposedly for having been knowingly wrong. The administration, meanwhile, knowing the charges were bunk, put its trust in various commissions and congressional committees to reach that conclusion, which they did, but thereby missed the political fight.
The point is that by fall this year, Mr. Bush was weaker than he understood. And this in turn meant that he was short of defenders. Indications mounted that some from his own party were looking for distance from the administration on the war. And in such an environment, Democrats who might otherwise be inclined at least for prudential political reasons to measured judgment were more or less free to cease cutting Mr. Bush any slack whatsoever.
Which takes us to, third, the Democratic Party is now being driven by the ideological ferocity of its antiwar left wing. Some Democrats who supported the war are backpedaling ferociously and seeking exculpation within the party on grounds of the administration’s prewar duplicity. In any case, the combination of Mr. Bush’s weakness and the intraparty pressure led to an indiscriminate opposition culminating in calls for immediate U.S. withdrawal — before the beginnings of a backlash set in. Thanks to a raw partisan move bringing the question of immediate withdrawal to the floor of the House, where it attracted no support, House minority leader Nancy Pelosi is now in the position of having voted against immediate withdrawal before she came out in favor of it.
Fourth, the administration itself would obviously like to begin reducing troop levels and has recently said so. This opens up the rhetorical front between “strategic redeployment,” “declare victory and leave,” and “cut and run.” Well, I had a very short answer for Paris on the question of when the United States should leave Iraq: When the Iraqi government is strong enough to stand on its own. Whether critics have really internalized the fact or not, Mr. Bush is going to be in office for three more years. He knows perfectly well that his tenure will be judged largely on the outcome in Iraq. And he also seems to know that while he is down, he is not out: His position is not beyond recovery of some support.
Moreover, Mr. Bush already has to his credit the singular achievement of proving that people in Iraq overwhelmingly want democracy and are willing to take risks for it. The political process there, which is incomplete but proceeding, is the elephant in the room that critics choose to ignore. That’s because it just doesn’t fit the narrative of failure.
In my view, which is a distinctly lonely sentiment in Paris, there is ample reason to continue to support the political process in Iraq. More to the point, that seems to be Mr. Bush’s view.
What the withdraw-now crowd really wants is for Mr. Bush to deliver to them the vindication they seek for the proposition that the Iraq war was a total failure. To that end, they’re willing to wish away the Iraqi democrats, which in practical terms means throwing them to the wolves. Mr. Bush isn’t, so I’ll stick with him.