"Coward" and "turn-coat" were among the kinder comments that poured in via e-mails following my column on Sunday in which I argued that the time was coming — and fast — when the U.S. will have to "cut and run" from Iraq.
As was eminently fair, many readers pointed out that I had changed position, seemingly totally, from the one I took just more than a year ago.
Back then, I provoked another outpouring of critical e-mails — many of these conveying a sense of having been betrayed by a liberal commentator — because I came out in support of the impending invasion of Iraq.
Actually, the turnaround was quite a bit less than 180 degrees.
I favored intervention then because the objective of turning first Iraq, and then potentially other Middle Eastern countries at the very least, toward democracy struck me as the one response to terrorism that might actually deal with its root causes by providing an alternative by which people could live.
I still believe in that objective and still believe it is one remedy that might work. No one else has proposed an alternative, and President George W. Bush deserves a great deal of credit for committing himself to it, and the American people a great deal of credit for supporting him at the cost of so much blood and money.
But it won't work. There is just too much hatred in the country — by many toward the "occupiers," but at least as much by almost every group there against each other.
This is a consequence of a quarter of a century of brutal rule by the murderous and maniacal Saddam Hussein.
As well, as is obvious, the Americans made a series of atrocious mistakes during the early months of their occupation.
For this lack of preparation, and at least as much for the sheer hubris of assuming that military power could resolve everything, Bush personally deserves all the blame.
The only policy decisions that now remain are how and when to get out.
I wrote the provocative phrase, "cut and run" quite deliberately. That's what's going to happen. There is no nicer alternative.
To suppose that the United Nations could now come in and win over the people's trust is pure self-delusion.
The U.N.'s own inadequacies have been made manifest by its current failure in Kosovo, by the appalling scandal of kickbacks and shoddy food and medical supplies sent in under the Iraq food for oil program that can no longer be concealed, and by this week's 10th anniversary of its unforgivable failure to prevent the slaughter of 800,000 people in Rwanda.
Anyway, they would see the U.N., which has little credibility among Iraqis, as a front for the Americans.
The truth is, where once democracy was the justification for the American presence in Iraq, it has now become the justification for their absence.
This is because the holding of an election — now planned, if hopefully so, for early next year — has become the ticket home for the Americans. Rather than "declare a victory and bring the troops home" in the famous formulation, the new guiding rule is, or soon will be, "hold an election and bring the troops home."
Pride, a sense of honor, Bush's political interests, a fear of being seen as weak, and, far more rationally, a fear of giving encouragement to terrorists, will keep the Americans in Iraq for quite a while yet — longer if Bush wins re-election.
But the signs keep accumulating. Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry now says, "There has to be a political, a diplomatic, solution." Democratic senator Ted Kennedy is making comparisons with Vietnam.
In Iraq, the U.S. is now fighting on two fronts, against both those Sunnis still loyal to Saddam and against those Shiites, mostly young and poor, who follow the quasi-cultist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. For the first time, the generals are talking of the possible need for more troops.
All moderate leaders, whether religious or clerical, are bound to come under increasing pressure to take extreme "Yanks out" stands, or risk losing their followers.
The risk is real that the U.S. could find itself trying to deal with a genuine, popular uprising.
This kind of explosion of general rage against the occupation would, in fact, be an expression of what most Iraqis actually want. In other words, it would be a genuine expression of democratic feeling.
If the overwhelming majority of Iraqis want the Americans to go, they have to go. In the end, it's as brutal and as simple and as irrevocable as that.
How we deal with terrorism afterwards is quite another question and a deeply troubling one because we'll have no alternative to offer.
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