A new justification for our war on Iraq has been born out of the war itself. No one will have forgotten that the war was launched to remove weapons of mass destruction from Iraq (weapons that have turned out not to be there); to end support of Iraq for Al Qaeda (also missing); and to build a democracy in Iraq as a glowing lesson in governance for the whole Middle East (a democracy that looks more and more like a mirage). But now we are invited to set aside all these disproven or failing prewar justifications and embrace a new, postwar one: We must stay in Iraq because, having once gone in, we cannot afford to fail.
The claim has a certain argument-stopping plausibility. It seems to mark the boundaries of a new mainstream consensus. It has cross-appeal to war opposers and war supporters. War supporters are saved from having to confess error. In the Democratic primary contest alone there are four legislators–Dick Gephardt, John Kerry, John Edwards and Joseph Lieberman–who voted for the Congressional resolution authorizing the war. All are now critical of the war, but not one has repented his vote. All argue with the President over means only. They assert that the war is necessary, but he is fighting it in the wrong way. He must seek more foreign support; he must send in more American troops; he must recruit more Iraqi troops; he must come up with a better plan; he must give a better accounting for the $87 billion he has asked for; he must raise taxes in order to pay the sum. Everything about the war, they say, is wrong but the war itself, which remains right in spite of the collapse of all of its former justifications.
For some war opposers, too, the new justification is plausible, because it seems to acknowledge a responsibility toward the Iraqi people. Helping Iraq now becomes the cost to be paid for the mistake of going to war in the first place. And surely such an obligation does exist. Having removed the Iraqi state, the United States has incurred some kind of a duty to provide for the Iraqi people. The question, though, is: Provide what? If the United States were to restrict itself to supplying technical and humanitarian support, there could be no argument. The sooner Iraq’s electricity is restored, its schools opened and its garbage picked up, the better. Probably, there is also a humanitarian argument for providing stop-gap security. Unfortunately, just this sort of expenditure is the least popular, as the vote in the Senate on the $87 billion demonstrated. Most senators had no problem voting the $67 billion to maintain our people in Iraq. It was the $20 billion earmarked for the Iraqi people that made Republicans and Democrats alike balk and seek to turn $10 billion of it into loans. In other words, these senators voted down the only part of the appropriation that would have directly satisfied an obligation to the Iraqi people. The result was an incoherent strategy: hugely funded American forces kept in Iraq to take care of themselves. They can take care of themselves better–and at lower cost–here in the United States.