Sharing the Sacrifice, or Ending It

By BOB HERBERT

New York Times

December 8, 2005

If it is true, as President Bush and many others have argued, that horrific consequences will result if American forces are pulled from Iraq in the near future, then how is it that we are even considering a significant drawdown of troops in advance of next fall's Congressional elections?

Opponents of a swift withdrawal speak of potential consequences that are dire in the extreme: the eruption of a wider civil war with ever more horrendous Iraqi casualties; the transformation of Iraq into a safe haven and even more of a training ground for anti-American terrorists; the involvement of neighboring countries like Iran, Syria and Turkey in a spreading conflict that could destabilize the entire Middle East.

Vice President Dick Cheney told troops at Fort Drum, N.Y., on Tuesday that in the event of a swift withdrawal of American troops, Iraq "would return to the rule of tyrants, become a massive source of instability in the Middle East and be a staging area for ever greater attacks against America and other civilized nations."

Senator John McCain, who defines "complete victory" in Iraq as the establishment of a "flawed but functioning democracy," told Tim Russert of NBC that achieving even that modest goal would be "long and hard and tough."

If the hawks are right, if all of this is so - and if this war is, indeed, still winnable - then the Bush administration has an obligation to level with the American people, explaining clearly what will be required in terms of casualties, financial costs and other sacrifices, and telling the truth about the shabby, amateurish state of the Iraqi security forces.

As it stands now, the United States is incapable of defeating the insurgency with the forces it has in Iraq. So it is beyond preposterous to think that Iraq can be pacified in a year or 18 months or two years by a fledgling, underequipped Iraqi Army and a hapless police force riddled with brutal, partisan militias.

What's more, the U.S. military itself is in danger of cracking under the strain of this endless Iraq ordeal. Troops are being sent into the war zone for their third and fourth tours, which is hideously unfair. The more times you roll the dice, the more likely snake eyes will pop up.

Even with lowered standards, the Army can't meet its recruitment goals. And the National Guard and Reserves have been all but exhausted by the war effort.

The combination of troop shortages, declining public support for the war and the Republicans' anxiety over next year's elections all but ensures some substantial reduction in U.S. forces in Iraq over the next eight to 12 months.

And yet the hawks say we must continue the fight. Well, wars fought with one eye on the polls and one eye on the political calendar get lots of people killed for nothing.

If this war is worth fighting, it's worth fighting right. And that means mobilizing not just the handful of troops who have borne the burden of this wretched conflict, but the entire nation. Taxes would have to be raised, the military expanded, the forces in Iraq bolstered and a counterinsurgency strategy developed that would have some chance of actually defeating the enemy.

To do that would require implementing a draft. It's easy to make the case for war when the fighting will be done by other people's children.

If this war is as important as the hawks insist it is, the burden should be shared by all of us. The youngsters sacrificed on the altar of Iraq should be drawn from the widest possible swath of the general population.

If most Americans are unwilling to send their children to fight in Iraq, it must mean that most Americans do not feel that winning the war is absolutely essential.

The truth is that no one knows for sure what will happen if we pull our troops out of Iraq. Many of those who insist that the sky will fall were insisting three years ago that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and that invading U.S. troops would be greeted as liberators.

The public initially supported this war because the administration was very effective at promoting the canard that Iraq was somehow linked to Al Qaeda and involved in the Sept. 11 attacks.

Now the hawks must once again bear the burden of persuasion. They must persuade the public that the U.S. should continue indefinitely fighting this war, which has embedded us in such a hellish predicament and taken such a horrendous toll.

If it's not worth fighting, then we should be preparing an orderly exit now.