By Paul Krugman
The New York Times
Monday 21 November 2005
Not long ago wise heads offered some advice to those of us who had argued since 2003 that the Iraq war was sold on false pretenses: give it up. The 2004 election, they said, showed that we would never convince the American people. They suggested that we stop talking about how we got into Iraq and focus instead on what to do next.
It turns out that the wise heads were wrong. A solid majority of Americans now believe that we were misled into war. And it is only now, when the public has realized the truth about the past, that serious discussions about where we are and where we're going are able to get a hearing.
Representative John Murtha's speech calling for a quick departure from Iraq was full of passion, but it was also serious and specific in a way rarely seen on the other side of the debate. President Bush and his apologists speak in vague generalities about staying the course and finishing the job. But Mr. Murtha spoke of mounting casualties and lagging recruiting, the rising frequency of insurgent attacks, stagnant oil production and lack of clean water.
Mr. Murtha - a much-decorated veteran who cares deeply about America's fighting men and women - argued that our presence in Iraq is making things worse, not better. Meanwhile, the war is destroying the military he loves. And that's why he wants us out as soon as possible.
I'd add that the war is also destroying America's moral authority. When Mr. Bush speaks of human rights, the world thinks of Abu Ghraib. (In his speech, Mr. Murtha pointed out the obvious: torture at Abu Ghraib helped fuel the insurgency.) When administration officials talk of spreading freedom, the world thinks about the reality that much of Iraq is now ruled by theocrats and their militias.
Some administration officials accused Mr. Murtha of undermining the troops and giving comfort to the enemy. But that sort of thing no longer works, now that the administration has lost the public's trust.
Instead, defenders of our current policy have had to make a substantive argument: we can't leave Iraq now, because a civil war will break out after we're gone. One is tempted to say that they should have thought about that possibility back when they were cheerleading us into this war. But the real question is this: When, exactly, would be a good time to leave Iraq?
The fact is that we're not going to stay in Iraq until we achieve victory, whatever that means in this context. At most, we'll stay until the American military can take no more.
Mr. Bush never asked the nation for the sacrifices - higher taxes, a bigger military and, possibly, a revived draft - that might have made a long-term commitment to Iraq possible. Instead, the war has been fought on borrowed money and borrowed time. And time is running out. With some military units on their third tour of duty in Iraq, the superb volunteer army that Mr. Bush inherited is in increasing danger of facing a collapse in quality and morale similar to the collapse of the officer corps in the early 1970's.
So the question isn't whether things will be ugly after American forces leave Iraq. They probably will. The question, instead, is whether it makes sense to keep the war going for another year or two, which is all the time we realistically have.
Pessimists think that Iraq will fall into chaos whenever we leave. If so, we're better off leaving sooner rather than later. As a Marine officer quoted by James Fallows in the current Atlantic Monthly puts it, "We can lose in Iraq and destroy our Army, or we can just lose."
And there's a good case to be made that our departure will actually improve matters. As Mr. Murtha pointed out in his speech, the insurgency derives much of its support from the perception that it's resisting a foreign occupier. Once we're gone, the odds are that Iraqis, who don't have a tradition of religious extremism, will turn on fanatical foreigners like Zarqawi.
The only way to justify staying in Iraq is to make the case that stretching the U.S. army to its breaking point will buy time for something good to happen. I don't think you can make that case convincingly. So Mr. Murtha is right: it's time to leave.