As the Democrats turn themselves into the antiwar party, as popular support for the war continues to sink, as some who initially signed on to the war now heap scorn on the entire Iraqi project, the question of immediate withdrawal must be confronted.
There are two rationales for withdrawing from let's be honest, abandoning Iraq: (a) Iraq is not worth it, and (b) worth it or not, the cause is lost.
The first rationale was articulated most recently by John Kerry: "Iraq is not the center of the war on terror. The president keeps saying it is. The president keeps trying to push that down America's throat. It's wrong, it's a mistake and it's losing us the ability to do what we need to do in the region." This is absurd. If the United States leaves, the central government in Iraq will collapse, and the beneficiaries will be Iran, Syria and al-Qaeda, the three major terrorist actors in the world today. It would not just be a psychological victory but also a territorial one. Al-Qaeda would gain a base in Mesopotamia; Syria and Iran would share spheres of influence in what's left of the Iraqi state.
We might come out of this with an independent Kurdistan that could be a base for U.S. military power, but it would be a shrunken presence in a roiling area, a tragically small consolation prize.
One can argue that we should therefore have left Saddam Hussein in place. That assumes a stable and benign status quo ante . Both assumptions are false. But assume for a moment that the critics are right. That's the argument that should have been made that Kerry should have made four years ago, before he voted yes, before he voted no, before he voted yes on the war. At this point, it is simply indisputable that the collapse of Iraq's constitutional government would represent an enormous gain for the forces of terror.
The other rationale for withdrawal is that the war is lost and therefore it is unconscionable to make one more American soldier die for a cause that cannot be salvaged.
It is a serious argument from which we have been distracted during the past several months by the increasingly absurd debate over the meaning of the term "civil war," and whether Iraq is in one.
Of course it is. It began when the Sunni minority, unwilling to accept the finality of the Baathist defeat, began making indiscriminate war on the Kurdish-Shiite majority that had inherited the country as a result of the U.S. invasion.
Iraq is not Spain in the 1930s or America in the 1860s, but whether the phrase "civil war" is to be used is irrelevant. The relevant question is, can we still win, meaning can we leave behind a functioning, self-sustaining, Western-friendly constitutional government?
And that depends on whether the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki can face up to its two potentially mortal threats: the Sunni insurgency and the challenge from Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
The vast majority of Sunnis are fighting not for ideology but for a share of power and (oil) money. A deal with them is eminently possible and could co-opt enough Sunnis to greatly shrink the insurgency. Even now, the insurgents have the capacity to massacre civilians and kill coalition soldiers with roadside bombs, but they have never demonstrated the capacity for the kind of sustained unit action that ultimately overthrows governments and wins civil wars. (See Castro, Mao, North Vietnam.) Our ambassador in Baghdad has been urging the Maliki government to make the bargain. He has also been urging it to get serious about the growing internal threat of Sadr's Mahdi Army, which is responsible for much of the recent sectarian violence and threatens to either marginalize or supplant the central government.
The only positive element in Sadr's rise has been a fracturing of the united Shiite front that can now allow some cross-sectarian (Sunni-Shiite) deals and alliances. But that requires a Maliki government decisively willing to deal with the Sunnis and take on Sadr.
Yesterday Maliki took over operational control of the Iraqi armed forces, the one national security institution that works. He needs to demonstrate the will to use it. The American people will support a cause that is noble and necessary, but not one that is unwinnable. And without a central Iraqi government willing to act in its own self-defense, this war will be unwinnable.