Critics of President Bush have been saying since his June 28 speech at Fort Bragg, N.C., that they wanted to hear more about an exit strategy for Iraq, rather than a victory strategy. Something more time-specific than: "As Iraqis stand up, we will stand down."
But the president is right to rule out a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. A quick pullout would be a costly mistake that would abort Iraq's embryonic democracy. It would signal weakness and fecklessness to our enemies and allies alike. It would demoralize Iraqi government forces, perhaps leading them to make bad deals with -- or even defect to -- the insurgency. It would encourage insurgent groups to redouble their efforts against Americans to strengthen their claims to a military victory.
A premature pullout before Iraq is fully capable of standing on its own would only embolden the insurgents. And a successful "jihad" would be a recruiting bonanza for al Qaeda, which has done most of the recent killing, and would increase the risk of future terrorism, just as the victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan emboldened and empowered al Qaeda and other extremist groups.
Worse, if any of these groups gained control of Iraq's oil wealth, they would have the resources needed to finance expanded terrorism around the world. Even if Kurdish and Shiite forces managed to maintain control of oil reserves in the north and south, an Iraq plunged into chaos would be unable to freely export its oil, which would push prices beyond their current record-high levels -- perhaps enough to trigger a global recession.
The long-term costs and risks of a quick withdrawal from Iraq outweigh the costs of staying the course to give the Iraqi government a better chance of winning the war. Yes, the security situation remains precarious in central and western Iraq, where Saddam's hold was strongest and foreign Islamic radicals find some support. But the rest of the country is far more secure and strongly supportive of the elected government.
Iraq is not Vietnam. The Vietnamese Communists enjoyed massive military support from two of the world's great powers, widespread popular support, a charismatic leader, political unity and a coherent ideology. In Iraq, all that unites the disparate insurgent groups are common enemies -- the elected Iraqi government and the United States.
And unlike in Vietnam, the insurgents in Iraq are predominantly members of a minority group (Sunni Arabs) that comprise only about 20 percent of the population. Their inability to block the January elections, combined with growing public resentment of their indiscriminate violence, have led other Sunnis to reconsider their boycott of the political process. The insurgents' political base has been undermined as it becomes clear they oppose not just the American presence, but the elected government as well.
A more accurate analogy than Vietnam is Algeria in the 1990s. Elections there in 1995, although flawed, helped drain popular support from Islamic radicals who offered little except political violence and terrorism. In Iraq, the elections last January and this coming December could play a comparable role.
Similarly, the Bush administration has encouraged the transitional Iraqi government to include as many Sunni Arab leaders as possible within a broad-based national coalition. This transitional government, the first elected Iraqi government in nearly 50 years, is eager to fight al Qaeda and the remnants of Saddam's regime. The United States simply can't abandon such an ally if it hopes to defeat terrorism and build a democratic Middle East.
So how long should the United States stay in Iraq? Long enough for the Iraqi government to train and deploy enough security forces to defend itself. The situation on the ground -- not the Washington political calendar -- must dictate events.
President Bush never said it would be easy to build a stable, democratic Iraq. He never said it would come cheaply. Freedom never does. So why talk of abandoning the elected Iraqi government now, and squandering a chance of a victory that could result in a stable, democratic Iraq that would be a long-term ally against terrorism?
James Phillips is a research fellow in Middle Eastern affairs at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).
Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder tribune wire