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On staying the course 

 

David Brooks, the collegial conservative in The New York Times’ stable of op-ed columnists, wrote a piece Sunday that is worth reading because it spells out more compellingly than anyone else has done the case for staying the course in Iraq until final victory even if it takes forever.

Not that Brooks is exactly convinced any longer of the power of that strategy. President Bush may be the only person alive who actually still believes that. But Brooks’ apocalyptic prose describes the terrible consequences for the entire Middle East and a neutered United States of a gradual pullout of combat forces from Iraq starting in late 2007, as the Iraq Study Group tentatively recommends. That is now the fallback position of the president and also of most people who have split with him on the merits of the war but dither about how to change course.

However unwise the war has been, the theory goes, if the United States begins any kind of retreat, immediate or phased, the carnage from the strife between Sunnis and Shias and Kurds will first destroy Iraq and then spread far beyond its borders to engulf the whole Muslim world. Iraqis will flee the country in droves, creating a refugee crisis and destabilizing other societies (as if 1.6 million of them have not already spilled into Jordan, Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia).

Brooks writes from an imagined vantage point far into the future and describes the “Second Thirty Years War,” this one starting with and flowing from the phased withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq.

“The essence of this disorder was that the Arab nation-states lost control,” Brooks writes from his perch at mid-century. “Supranational groups — like loosely connected terror networks, the new Sunni and Shiite Leagues and the satellite television networks — went from strength to strength while national governments toppled and fell.”

National institutions, even Arab nationalism itself, were swept aside and gave way to government by death squads and a new sort of radical leader influenced by Iraq’s crazed cleric Moktada al-Sadr and the fiery Hezbollah leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah. If you’re a fan of W. B. Yeats’ prophetic poem “The Second Coming” (“Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”) you know the frightening scenario.

That is a plausible but only worst-case prophecy. Something else is wrong with Brooks’ argument, and it is basic. His premise is fake.

The conditions that could lead to disintegration and anarchy in Iraq and then the Arab world from Egypt to Pakistan will not arise when the United States begins to withdraw. They already exist, and the tinderbox was lit not by James Baker’s effort to get his acolyte George W. Bush to accept defeat but by the decision four years ago to invade Iraq. Bush’s father predicted the scenario in 1998, explaining why he shrank from such an invasion in 1991.

Sheik Nasrallah is not a figment of Brooks’ imagination. He already is the most energizing leader in the Arab world, thanks to the bumbling this summer of Bush and Condoleezza Rice, who in the face of world condemnation backed Israel’s saturation bombing of Lebanon in hopes it would destroy Hezbollah, the radical Shiite movement. Instead, it gave Hezbollah and its leader Olympian status. The last vestige of Western sympathy in Lebanon vanished.

This week, the multitudes are banging at the gates of the Lebanese government backed by the United States, and it will soon fall or be forced to surrender effective rule to Hezbollah. Nasrallah’s words to the screaming throngs in Beirut Thursday night were eerie: “It’s no coincidence that all those who supported Israel in the war are today supporting what remains of this failing government ... Does any Lebanese accept supporting a government that George Bush and Ehud Olmert support?”

Bush’s occupation of the country, the revelations of torture and the daily TV fare of chaos, carnage and suffering have already radicalized much of the region. The flamethrowers were marginalized in the government of Iran four years ago but the people dumped the modernists in the elections last year and handed power to the firebrands. Bush can claim credit, too, for electing the radical Hamas in Palestine.

America’s favorite Muslim, the cordial dictator Pervez Musharraf, has to play it cool now and negotiate meaningless agreements with radical insurgents because anti-Western feeling is boiling. This week, Hamid Karzai, the U.S.-backed president of Afghanistan, fought away tears as he condemned U. S. and allied bombings that killed women and children.

“The surviving governments scrambled to stay in front of their radicalized populations,” Brooks wrote of the aftermath of U. S. withdrawal.

What radicalizes the Muslim world is American occupation of Arab people — in their minds, without cause. And just what would remove that burning irritant?

Brooks makes an eloquent case for doing something — slipping away in phases with some political cover, as the superpolitical Iraq Study Group proposes, if not a declaration of victory and a hasty retreat. But it is not for staying the course.

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