The Iraq study group will report their findings shortly. Since the noise about the bipartisan commission began last summer, the media have described the study group’s co-chair, former Secretary of State Jim Baker, as a “realist,” a practical man, an operator’s operator who’s always got a plan. The implication is that realism equals an exit strategy, a way out, a change in policy that would withdraw US forces.
Does “realism” necessarily mean disengagement? History’s most distinguished practical realist who always had a plan ready was Odysseus. Give him a problem, and he’d come up with a way to defeat, deceive, outmaneuver, or divert the enemy. For the great Ithacan, realism meant a better plan to subdue his opponent.
Americans have more recent experience with victorious realists during the Civil War. Lincoln—and the Union—endured several disloyal, incompetent, reluctant senior military commanders in the first years of the conflict. The cost in blood, money, and political capital was enormous. Two years down this troubled road Lincoln brought in a realist to command Union forces who had a vision of how to solve the nation’s military woes that is wholly different from the one which is now identified as “realistic.” A draft call was issued for an additional 300,000 men, and Grant—whom Sherman described as irresistible once he’d set his mind to something—launched a wide offensive that resulted in victory.
Grant, and his boss, understood what the Patton character played by George C. Scott said in the 1970 movie: “Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser.” Some—any—demonstration of progress on the ground is needed to begin to restore the public’s confidence that the struggle in Iraq can be won. This is achievable, but not without sufficient forces to reverse the violence and infuse the Iraqi government with the confidence to act decisively against those who commit it.
The alternative is unacceptable. Asking for help from those who seek our humiliation—Syria and Iran—is preposterous. What would history say if FDR, having landed in North Africa, crossed to Sicily, invaded Italy and getting bogged down at Monte Casino, phoned Berlin for assistance? Retreating to more secure bastions in the Middle East invites new attacks. Departing the region entirely accomplishes the radical fanatics’ objectives, rewards their tactics, and encourages their delusional but dangerous effort to restore the caliphate and destroy modern civilization. For the U.S. beating even a slow retreat would solve problems for both political parties. But how could anyone describe the resulting advancement of the radical fanatics’ goals as realistic policy?
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