The neocon conundrum

With the situation in Iraq darkening, hawks are saying we can't leave without unleashing a catastrophe. The problem is, that'll happen if we stay, too.


James P. Pinkerton
April 18, 2004 2:02AM (UTC)

As a sense of gloom about Iraq escalated along with the fighting the past two weeks, so did neoconservative calls to "stay the course" -- even if it's a course to nowhere.

Once, the right painted visions of cakewalks, of jubilant Iraqis welcoming their own conquest, of blossoming secular pro-Western democracy. Now that mirage has dissipated. Following President George W. Bush's press conference last Tuesday, neocon Bill Kristol told the Los Angeles Times, "I was depressed." The publisher of the Weekly Standard freely conceded that for those Americans who were "doubtful or worried," Bush failed to close the sale. "He didn't explain how we are going to win there."

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So what do the neocons do now? Their optimistic vision of Iraq as the first domino to fall in their favor may have failed, but they are never at a loss for words. So they have a new line. Instead of offering us carrots, they're threatening us with sticks. OK, they seem to be saying, there's not much upside, but look at the downside.

"The consequences of failure in Iraq would be unthinkable," the president told the nation on Tuesday night. To sum up the hawks' arguments, if we leave Iraq we will have:

1) Instability and maybe civil war.

2) Encouragement to terrorists. Bush says that our "will is being tested" in this series of "Black Hawk Down"-like horrors. And if we flunk this test, the "Somalia syndrome" awaits.

3) Loss of prestige and influence in the Arab world and beyond. As Osama bin Laden said in November 2001, the U.S. is the "weak horse" in this race, so others will be looking to the stronger horse.

4) Loss of the ability to use or threaten force elsewhere. We'll be paper-tigerized.

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5) A nourishing of future violence. "We must fight them in the Middle East," say the hawks, "so we don't have to fight them in Middle America."

Columnist Mona Charen is one of many neoconservatives urging fortitude. She quotes James Burnham: "Where there's no alternative, there's no problem." Then she explains further: "The work of transforming the Middle East is going to be messy and difficult. But there is no alternative."

Burnham, of course, holds a sainted place in the hearts of the neocons, because back in the '50s he was one of the first Trotskyites to become a "rollback of communism"-type conservative. So citing Burnham is a way of recalling the days when the Gen. Patton right wanted "regime change" in Moscow.

But what the neocons don't want you to notice is this: Those same disasters will befall us if we stay in Iraq.

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In other words, if we remain in Iraq we will have:

1) Instability and maybe even civil war.

2) Encouragement to terrorists. Actually, we're recruiting them for the other side. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt has estimated that our post-Saddam "harvest" will be "a hundred bin Ladens."

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3) Loss of prestige and influence in the Arab world and beyond. According to last month's Pew Research Center international opinion survey, "Discontent with America and its policies has intensified rather than diminished ... the war in Iraq has undermined America's credibility abroad." Here's the view from key countries: By a 46-37 margin, Moroccans think that Iraq will be worse off post-Operation Iraqi Freedom; the "worse off" margin is 45 points in Jordan and 53 points in Pakistan.

4) Loss of the ability to use or threaten force. As retired four-star Gen. Barry McCaffrey told Time magazine, "There are no more U.S. troops to send to Iraq" -- without a draft, that is. So we don't hear the White House saying much about the rest of the "axis of evil" anymore, because the North Koreans and Iranians know that the U.S. can't attack when it's mired in Mesopotamian quicksand. Meanwhile, North Korea is reported to be showing off at least three of its nuclear weapons.

5) A nourishing of future violence. Those who don't have a TV to see the gates of hell opening in Iraq might contemplate these additional numbers from the Pew Center: By a 46-36 margin, Pakistanis support suicide bombings against Americans and other Westerners in Iraq. In Morocco, suicide-bomber proponents outpolled opponents 66-to-27. And in Jordan, 70-to-24.

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So it's damned if we stay, damned if we go. And one more thing: damned if we question. If the 9/11 commissioners ask too many questions, they're accused of playing a partisan blame game. Even White House correspondents, who are paid to ask questions, are liable to get whacked, too -- in some cases, by other journalists. Pressies are piranha-ing the president in their "second-guessing eased by hindsight," snipes Joseph Curl of the Washington Times. For Curl, reportorial questions seem not only annoying, but tedious: "False premises. Errors in judgment ... Mistakes, mistakes, mistakes." So much for speaking truth to power.

Another group that shouldn't be questioning is the widows of those who were killed on 9/11. "This spectacle of the widows, awash in their sense of victims' entitlement, as they press ahead with ever more strident claims about the way the government failed them," is appalling to Dorothy Rabinowitz of the Wall Street Journal, so she wrote a takedown of them on Thursday.

The Iraq war was the neocons' baby, so it's not surprising that they still love it. But the rest of us should ask: Who got us into this lose-lose situation? James Burnham was wrong: Where there's no alternative, there is indeed a problem -- and it's a big one.


James P. Pinkerton

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