Of the ill-fated U.S. intervention in Vietnam a generation ago, at least one positive thing may be said: when it came time to depart, little of strategic value was left behind other than America’s credibility. Indochina had few of the resources or other features that might distinguish it as an area of great global importance. The same was true in Lebanon a decade later, and Somalia a decade after that. Lack of strategic importance made retreat an acceptable option.
Not so in Iraq. That snakepit of ethnic and sectarian factions holds within its arbitrarily-drawn boundaries the world’s second-largest reserves of oil, and shares a long border with the fragile kingdom controlling the largest such reserves. Iraq also lies in the heartland of Islamic fundamentalism, the movement most likely to succeed communism, fascism and imperialism as a major threat to democracy. You don’t have to believe that Saddam’s Iraq was a hotbed of terrorist activity to see that one day, after he had gone to his reward, it was very likely to become such a place.
Those two realities — oil and terrorism — mean that if America leaves Iraq on any terms other than a rough approximation of what the Bush Administration might call victory, it will be the greatest military defeat in American history. The President’s critics say he misjudged the situation in Iraq and launched the nation on an unnecessary military campaign. It doesn’t matter, because our very presence now makes military success essential. If the country cannot be stabilized and reconstructed, the fate of the global economy will rest for the foreseeable future on whatever beliefs inform the latest group of bandits holding sway in Baghdad.
Because it is considered offensive to even utter the word “oil” in any discussion of U.S. overseas objectives, most voters have only the vaguest awareness of how intimately their future prosperity depends on who runs Iraq. When you combine that ignorance with waning memories of 9-11, the result is widespread sentiment for simply giving up and getting out. Senator Kerry is trying to tap into that rising tide of frustration with his recent campaign-trail comments about costs and miscalculations in Iraq.
The truth of the matter is that the $200 billion that the Bush Administration has spent in Iraq is a small fraction of the price that high oil prices or renewed terrorism could exact from the national economy. Americans have expended more money (and lives) on recreational drugs than they have on Iraq during the Bush years. The burden is bearable — America’s economy produces $200 billion in new wealth every week — as long as it plausibly leads to the desired outcome.
What would not be bearable would be to see a few thousand insurgents drive America’s military out of the most important oil-producing region in the world, signaling that the sole remaining superpower has no solution for the dominant security challenge of our times. President Bush got it exactly right on September 7 when he said that the best way to honor the memories of U.S. soldiers who have fallen in Iraq is by completing the mission — no matter how long it takes.
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