Critics of the decision to go to war would do well to recognize that we are no longer debating the merits of invading Iraq; we are debating the merits of abandoning Iraq. Now that the United States has turned that country inside out and created conditions that Iraqis do not have the means to remedy alone, a premature withdrawal would hardly right what most advocates of doing so consider to be the wrongs of the past. And greater wrongs do exist. One is indifference; another is betrayal. If we "bring the troops home" before stability is returned to Iraq, the United States would be guilty of both.
Aside from the staggering moral calculation involved in leaving to its fate a country the United States has invaded and destabilized, how would a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq at this early date work in practical terms? It wouldn't. The result would be a strategic catastrophe. Preventing Iraq from coming apart at the seams means preventing the country from becoming what Afghanistan was until recently -- a vacuum filled by terrorist organizations, which is what one National Intelligence Council report suggested Iraq is now fast becoming. Only an Iraqi government that possesses a relative monopoly on the means of violence can prevent this outcome. Alas, Iraq's security forces are nowhere near their goal of fielding sufficient numbers of police, national guard, and soldiers. In the meantime, then, either the U.S. military will fill the gap or no one will.
This would seem to be a rather obvious truth. It certainly is to Iraq's leaders. Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari predicts, "If the United States pulls out too fast, there would be chaos," while his colleague, Mowaffak Al-Rubaie, calls the prospect "a recipe for disaster." Yet from the vantage point of the United States, whose troops continue to bleed in Iraq, it isn't so obvious. Hence, Americans must ask themselves exactly what they owe Iraq. If U.S. policy truly has a moral component, which I believe it does, the answer must be something better -- or, at the very least, not worse -- than what went before. That does not mean garrisoning Iraq in perpetuity. But it does mean staying until, at a minimum, Iraqis have the ability to subdue forces unleashed by our actions.