- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 4, 2006

What is happening in Iraq is the messy business of a people seeking its national legs. Twenty-eight million Iraqis, freed from a crushing, 35-year dictatorship, are struggling to find their way in a country cobbled together to satisfy passing, big-power geopolitical concerns following World War I.

The process which Iraqis have been enduring is really quite understandable, albeit painful, disjointed and costly. All the mistakes the U.S. has made since liberating Iraq aside, nation-building is an extremely arduous process, made all the more difficult by those mistakes and the embarrassing inability of the Bush administration to involve the American people and our allies in understanding and supporting the painful process.

The White House has been so inept at consensus-building, former supporters of the Iraq undertaking are defecting. Solid patriots, including William Buckley, Francis Fukuyama and George Will, essentially argue we should retreat to fortress America, oddly joining inaugural isolationist Pat Buchanan.

It took 100 years after independence — well after the Civil War — before the United States became a stable nation. How sadly selfish, impatient and non-humane, after just three years, to weary of another people’s search for the right national path and advocate picking up our marbles and returning home.

Indeed, how very non-American. Take Europe and Japan, post World War II. Visiting Britain and France as a naval cadet, I saw countries struggling 10 years after war’s end. Britain was strangled by a hastily assembled, oppressive socialist economy while France changed prime ministers and political direction every few months. Unemployment lines stretched for blocks, with many city streets still lined with broken buildings.

Consider Israel where the post-independence struggle extended 30 years, and arguably continues to this day. Or Korea, where 15 years after recovery from a war that shuffled to armistice in 1954, the democratic half of the peninsula finally began to grow into one of Asia’s outstanding economic tigers.

We stood fast with Europe, Israel, Japan and Korea and strongly supported building democratic states, in every case practically from scratch.

How sordidly simple for the U.S. to say, “Sorry, folks. Liberating Iraq was a bad idea, poorly executed. We’re tired of playing freedom fighter and going home.”

Things just do not work that way. The negative ramifications of dropping the Iraq enterprise — and with it the Bush initiative to encourage free market democracy throughout the Middle East — would be enormous.

Imagine the terrorist recruiting bonanza and their reinvigorated efforts to topple other regional regimes; envision Saudi oil and Pakistani nuclear arms in extremist hands. Then, think of the United States, with its porous borders and millions of illegal aliens, thousands among them Muslims.

U.S. withdrawal from Iraq — and, thence, the region — would put 35-45 percent of the world’s oil supply (Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, plus Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, United Arab Emirates) at the whim of West-hating fanatics and leave the region exposed to Pakistani nuclear attack. Goaded by maniacal Iranian mullahs, attacks in the U.S. would follow.

Whatever one’s pre-invasion view of the liberation of Iraq, the cost to freedom worldwide is simply too great to envision. This is especially true, as the Iraqis are on the cusp of creating a functioning government.

Iraq is close to civil war, but not there yet. Virtually every Shia and Sunni leader has spoken in genuine outrage at the unrest since the Samarra mosque attack in February, calling on their flocks to resist the Ba’athist sucker game, which seeks finally to drive the Shia majority to full-fledged war. When Shia firebrand leader Muqtada al-Sadr speaks feelingly about reaching out to Sunnis, including worshipping together with them, it is clear even he understands hopes for peace are on the brink of disappearing, with civil war the disastrous result.

Iraq is not Vietnam, but withdrawal can make it worse. America’s no-win, defensive Vietnam strategy foreordained the humiliating outcome. In Iraq, we won the main Iraq military campaign, trained a core military, guided a series of interim governments, constitution-writing and elections, and are encouraging final talks to form a permanent government.

However, if we leave Iraq now, our efforts will collapse, rendering the Vietnam debacle a minor negative moment.

In short, this is precisely not the time for the United States to accept defeat, to cut and run. Bloody, costly and frustrating as it has been, Iraq is successfully rebuilding. To leave now — or at any time before we have fully supported reconstruction of the government, infrastructure and security forces — would be more than craven.

Throughout the Middle East, America would be seen as defeated by the terrorists we pledged to eliminate; U.S. respect from London, Berlin and Moscow to Beijing, Tokyo and Sydney would be decimated. Besides completely losing credibility with foe and friend alike, the United States and the entire world would be at grave risk.

The battle in Iraq is not lost. However, if we depart, the country, the region and very probably the world will be. Afghanistan will be next, then Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, UAE and — the biggest prizes — Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

What then? The terrorist enemy will have emotional and nearly total political dominion over 1.2 billion Muslims, at which point, it will be extraordinarily difficult to avoid — not just civil war in Iraq — the bloodiest cultural-religious conflict the world has seen.

John R. Thomson is a frequent commentator on geopolitical and security matters.

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