Thursday, January 20, 2005

A test of progressive values

This is not going to be a long post or even one that offers an opinion. Inspired by Condoleeza Rice’s appearance for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday, this post posits a simple question: do ACS’ values counsel for a swift departure from Iraq? Many Senators on both sides of the aisle pressed Rice for an exit strategy, and, more relevantly for this post, for a timeline. But does the apparent focus on an imminent withdrawal comport with progressive, and, dare I say it, American values?

Certainly, progressive sentiment ran staunchly against the initial military engagement. The arguments against war were so oft-repeated by its opponents that they’ve become cliché. They range from the dangers associated with preemptive war to the inevitability of a humanitarian catastrophe. Beyond ideology, the paucity of evidence that Saddam Hussein posed a credible latent threat, the danger of destabilizing the region, and the threat to international organizations all led reasonable voices to advise extreme caution.

But over a swell of protest, President Bush was afforded a sweeping war resolution by Congress. He swiftly used that authority – opening Pandora’s Box – and engendering a mixed reaction from the Iraqi populace. At least as far as can be gleaned from media accounts, it seems impossible to characterize the reaction of “average” Iraqis as monolithic. Some appear truly grateful to the United States as liberators, while others condemn the United States for meddling in their domestic affairs and failing to guarantee security, prosperity, or basic services. It’s particularly difficult for me to believe that the various militants are linked by a common theme. To be sure, many resent the introduction of Western troops onto sovereign Iraqi soil. For these elements, the continued presence of US forces is persistently antagonistic, fueling the flames of resentment and further encouraging domestic elements opposed to the United States to align themselves with foreign fighters.

Other militant factions, however, seem to be using the presence of the United States opportunistically to mask parochial agendas. These elements would seek the overthrow of any democratically elected successor government (or really any government indisposed to their particular ideology), and are targeting their attacks not against US military personnel, but against Iraqi security forces. Moreover, these sentiments all but guarantee that in the vacuum created by a US withdrawal, the situation would devolve further and a sovereign government would have tremendous difficulty maintaining its sovereignty over the whole of Iraq, regardless of how rapidly national security forces are trained.

This leads to several haunting questions: Would a democratically elected government stand a chance without American servicemen and women acting as guarantors for the foreseeable future? Once engaging in the conflict, does the United States have a moral responsibility to ensure peace and prosperity, even if it means a prolonged presence of American troops in the country, continued intervention, and reinforced anti-American attitudes?

With tremendous turmoil and civil strife in the country, I am forced to reflect on Colin Powell’s earlier warning to President Bush: if we break it, we buy it. Dubbed the Pottery Barn rule, this seems to be a central progressive value. If the United States mucks something up, it ought to seek to fix it, no matter how long it takes.

It was a much different time and a much different war, but the United States administered Japan for some six years following World War II.

Anyway, just some fodder for discussion…

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