Iraq is Burning: A Look Back at Those Who Warned Us Not To Cut and Run

Looking back through time, it seems that the major liberal talking point post-9/11 was that the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were not really wars at all and that there was no foreseeable end date or identifiable enemy. Liberals weren’t saying that the enemy would persist but rather that American interests in the region were either selfish or, if Bush was sincere, then futile. Now there are two sides one can take in light of recent events: either ISIS is born of US military interference in the region or US military presence in the region was all that was preventing the inevitable (ISIS) from rising. There are plenty of examples of Dems calling for early withdrawal and calling the war pointless. They should be held accountable for pushing for the troop withdrawal the whole time. Ultimately (no matter how Bush and Cheney framed it), Republicans were committed to a long-term presence in the region because they knew that was the only chance that Iraq had to be rebuilt as a functioning (and free) country. The implication from GOP politicians at the time was that we can’t be rushing to leave the Mid-East; not now, not in a few years, perhaps not for decades. Now as ISIS systematically beheads women and children, I wonder if the left still believes the operation was fruitless. All I know is that when the US presence was at its greatest, safety was at an all-time high. With the troops withdrawn, it is at a low. In any case, let’s look back through quotes from various players in the war over the years.

President Bush, speaking at a Senate Republican fundraising dinner, said that he welcomed the debate but vowed that there would be “no early withdrawal” from Iraq “so long as we run the Congress and occupy the White House.”

I want to remind you of the consequences if those who want to withdraw from Iraq happen to prevail in the debate,” he said. “An early withdrawal would be a defeat for the United States of America. An early withdrawal would embolden the terrorists. Talk about a deadline before we’ve done the job sends chills throughout the spines of Iraqi citizens, who are wondering whether or not the United States has the capacity to keep its word.


“Three years and three months into the war, with all of the losses, the insurgency, the burgeoning civil war that’s taking place — what was it, seven bombings in Baghdad yesterday? — an open-ended time commitment is no longer sustainable,” Feinstein said on CNN’s “Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer.

What now comes to mind is Pelosi’s quip in June 2006:

“Stay the course’ is not a strategy, it’s a slogan, and we need more than that,” she said in June in a jab at how Bush once described his approach to the war.

So what exactly was/is her plan? Stay the course seems like a lot better than what we have now.

Or how about when she said:

The president “is an incompetent leader _ in fact he’s not a leader,” Pelosi said in 2004, referring to his Iraq policies.

Perhaps this quote is better applied to the current administration – but I digress.

Dems have also repeatedly maligned GOPers for saying that liberals were waving the white flag by voting to cut and run.

In October of 2006 an indignant George Stephanopoulos grilled Bush about his ‘white flag’ comments:

“You’ve used some pretty tough rhetoric. You said this election is ‘a choice between Republicans and Democrats who want to wave the white flag of surrender in the war on terror.’ Can you name a Democrat who wants to ‘wave the white flag of surrender’?”

But the truth, to me, seems that is EXACTLY what happened when the Dems took control. America eventually voted in Democratic leadership (the Dems had the House, Senate, and Presidency at one point) and look what happened. A cut and run and Iraq collapses.

Sure Bush took what seemed to be a demagogic tone when he said:

“There’s a group in the opposition party who are willing to retreat before the mission is done,” he said. “They’re willing to wave the white flag of surrender. And if they succeed, the United States will be worse off, and the world will be worse off.”

But at this point, who can really deny that to be the truth?

A lot of conservatives hit it right on the button, and had no illusions about a ‘get in and get out quick’ scenario:

On Feb. 1, 2002 Norman Podhoretz printed an article predicting WWIV:

Yet, given the transfiguring impact of major wars on the victors no less than on the vanquished, who can tell what we may wind up doing and becoming as we fight our way through World War IV? Whatever the exact contours may turn out to be, the Islamic countries in particular, and the world in general, will look very different by the time this war is over. Very different, and very much better for the vast majority of people everywhere. Unless, that is, the United States is held back by its coalition from moving all the way forward, or the President breaks the promise he made, in his magnificent speech to Congress on September 20, not to waver or falter or tire or lose patience until victory is achieved—a victory that would leave us not with “an age of terror” but with “an age of liberty here and across the world.”

Then we have Robert Kagan and Bill Kristol on Oct. 29, 2001:

When all is said and done, the conflict in Afghanistan will be to the war on terrorism what the North Africa campaign was to World War II: an essential beginning on the path to victory. But compared with what looms over the horizon–a wide-ranging war in locales from Central Asia to the Middle East and, unfortunately, back again to the United States–Afghanistan will prove but an opening battle.

But this war will not end in Afghanistan. It is going to spread and engulf a number of countries in conflicts of varying intensity. It could well require the use of American military power in multiple places simultaneously. It is going to resemble the clash of civilizations that everyone has hoped to avoid. And it is going to put enormous and perhaps unbearable strain on parts of an international coalition that today basks in contented consensus.

And here’s Bill Kristol again on January 14, 2003:

I mean, the world is a mess. And I think it’s very much to Bush’s credit that he’s gotten serious about dealing with it. But Iraq’s not going to be the end of it […]
Obviously, there are exercises of American power that could be unwise, and where we could be too hasty, and we could be hubristic. We’re against that […] The danger is American withdrawal, American timidity, American slowness. … The danger is not that we’re going to do too much. The danger is that we’re going to do too little.

America’s long destiny in the region had actually been quite accurately predicted as a long-term culture clash long before 9/11 even happened:

This is from a Sep. 1, 1990 article by Bernard Lewis called “The Roots of Muslim Rage”:

It should by now be clear that we are facing a mood and a movement far transcending the level of issues and policies and the governments that pursue them. This is no less than a clash of civilizations—the perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both. It is crucially important that we on our side should not be provoked into an equally historic but also equally irrational reaction against that rival.

Then there is Samuel Huntington writing in the Summer 1993 issue of Foreign Affairs (this is his famous ‘Clash of Civilizations’ article):

This centuries-old military interaction between the West and Islam is unlikely to decline. It could become more virulent. The Gulf War left some Arabs feeling proud that Saddam Hussein had attacked Israel and stood up to the West. It also left many feeling humiliated and resentful of the West’s military presence in the Persian Gulf, the West’s overwhelming military dominance, and their apparent inability to shape their own destiny. Many Arab countries, in addition to the oil exporters, are reaching levels of economic and social development where autocratic forms of government become inappropriate and efforts to introduce democracy become stronger. Some openings in Arab political systems have already occurred. The principal beneficiaries of these openings have been Islamist movements. In the Arab world, in short, Western democracy strengthens anti-Western political forces. This may be a passing phenomenon, but it surely complicates relations between Islamic countries and the West.


On both sides the interaction between Islam and the West is seen as a clash of civilizations. The West’s “next confrontation,” observes M. J. Akbar, an Indian Muslim author, “is definitely going to come from the Muslim world. It is in the sweep of the Islamic nations from the Meghreb to Pakistan that the struggle for a new world order will begin.”

This is not to say every conservative got it right.

Kenneth Adelman, a former Reagan administration official wrote a 2003 piece entitled “Cakewalk in Iraq” in which he wrote:

I believe demolishing Hussein’s military power and liberating Iraq would be a cakewalk. Let me give simple, responsible reasons: (1) It was a cakewalk last time; (2) they’ve become much weaker; (3) we’ve become much stronger; and (4) now we’re playing for keeps.” It’s worth remembering that “last time”—that is, in 1991, when a genuine coalition of American, European, and Arab armies expelled Saddam Hussein from Kuwait—the ground war was over in a hundred hours. Next time, the reader was left to conclude, the job would be wrapped up even faster.

Obviously, this is a terrible prediction but for the most part, conservatives were committed to the region, for whatever reason one may claim.

Andrew Sullivan also nailed it on the head, and was one of the few people who was willing to call the war what it really is. In a long October 7, 2001 article Andy wrote that “this is a religious war”:

For the past two decades, this form of Islamic fundamentalism has racked the Middle East. It has targeted almost every regime in the region and, as it failed to make progress, has extended its hostility into the West. From the assassination of Anwar Sadat to the fatwa against Salman Rushdie to the decadelong campaign of bin Laden to the destruction of ancient Buddhist statues and the hideous persecution of women and homosexuals by the Taliban to the World Trade Center massacre, there is a single line. That line is a fundamentalist, religious one. And it is an Islamic one.


In this sense, the symbol of this conflict should not be Old Glory, however stirring it is. What is really at issue here is the simple but immensely difficult principle of the separation of politics and religion. We are fighting not for our country as such or for our flag. We are fighting for the universal principles of our Constitution — and the possibility of free religious faith it guarantees. We are fighting for religion against one of the deepest strains in religion there is. And not only our lives but our souls are at stake.

And hence, the war was clearly to be a cumbersome one; and we needed to be ready to set up camp for years to come. When President Obama withdrew the troops, he subverted years of the mission.

Back to the other side, there was the late Sen. Robert Byrd who wanted to cut and run because he saw no meaning to the war. The following is from a Washington Times article that covered an exchange between Sen. Byrd, and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz during a Senate subcommittee hearing on Feb. 27, 2002. Byrd was lamenting that the U.S. was still maintaining armed forces in Iraq and that there’s “no end in sight” to the war:

“Instead of concentrating on completing our operations in Afghanistan, the Pentagon seems to be looking for opportunities to stay longer and expand our presence in the region,” Mr. Byrd told Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. “We seem to be good at developing entrance strategies but not on developing exit strategies. … There’s no end in sight in our mission in Afghanistan.”

Mr. Wolfowitz said the Pentagon has no clear view of how long U.S. troops should remain in Afghanistan or how much the operation might eventually cost. That’s because “things change and they change rapidly,” he said.


“When will we know when we’ve achieved victory and it’s time to leave Afghanistan?” he asked.

“I can’t tell you when we have won,” Mr. Wolfowitz replied. “That’s something, unfortunately, we only know when the terrorists have stopped.”

Mr. Wolfowitz said training an Afghan army will serve to keep Afghanistan from returning to the kind of internal chaos that helped it become a base for al Qaeda, the terrorist network.

“We do not want to see Afghanistan become a haven in three to five years for the same kind of terrorists,” Mr. Wolfowitz said. “We have no desire to stay one day longer than we have to.”

Then we have Tom Daschle on Feb. 28, 2002 who quite foolishly implied the key to finishing in the Mid-East is to just capture Bin-Laden (Something the Bush administration repeatedly steered away from):

“Continued success, I think, is still somewhat in doubt,” Daschle said. “We’ve got to find [Taliban leader] Mohammed Omar, we’ve got to find Osama bin Laden, and we’ve got to find other key leaders of the al-Qaeda network, or we will have failed. We’re not safe until we have broken the back of al-Qaeda, and we haven’t done that yet.”

I posit that the Iraq war, as we can see now, was not some waste of time or resources. Rather, it is the fight of our generation and a great struggle against those who would harm and terrorize the world. It is not easy to make such a commitment overseas or in war at all, but now with ISIS openly threatening the White House (and cutting the heads off of children), we can see the metastasizing threat of fundamentalist Islamic terrorism heading our way. They are already torturing and slaughtering the innocent people of Iraq and now control more territory than any terrorist group in history. How much more can we let them take?

On January 4, 2003, former CIA analyst, and National Security Council staff member (and Brookings scholar) Kenneth Pollack defined the coming threat and America’s place in it in eloquent terms:

It is conceivable that if the United States removes Saddam Hussein from power and leads an international effort to rebuild Iraq and create a strong democracy there, that this could both succeed, and it could have an influence on other countries in the region. But, these are things that are going to take quite some time. Building a new Iraq, building democracy in Iraq is probably going to take years, if not decades. And the impact on the rest of the region is also likely to take years, if not decades.

By the same token, it is possible that a determined U.S. action in Iraq could have some kind of an impact on other problems in the region — the Arab/Israeli dispute, the problems in the moderate Arab countries with increasingly disenfranchised youth, stagnant economies, legal and educational systems that are leading them nowhere. But, these are all massive problems, and we should not count on an invasion of Iraq to be the solution to all of them. At best they could help.

At best an invasion of Iraq, if done properly, might open up new opportunities that will allow the United States and our allies to start taking other actions that could address these problems. But I think that it would be dangerous to suggest that all we need to do, to solve all of the problems of the Middle East, is to get rid of Saddam Hussein.

Within the Bush administration, there does seem to be a great deal of debate as to whether or not the United States should mount a full-scale invasion of Iraq. But, there does seem to be consensus that if the United States is going to mount that full-scale invasion, if we do go to war to remove Saddam Hussein, that afterwards we must be committed to a long-term effort to rebuilding Iraqi society, and building a functional democratic Iraqi state because any other approach is going to lead to chaos in Iraq. And creating chaos in Iraq will simply be substituting one set of problems for the problems that we already have. That, however, is a very different point from saying that Iraq should become the first of many such endeavors around the world. And that, too, seems to be a real bone of contention within the Bush administration.

Yet, at the time, liberals like Paul Krugman could only think about the importance of proving Bush wrong and trying to argue that there weren’t weapons of mass destruction. To Krugman, Iraq should have been left alone:

A year ago, President Bush, who had a global mandate to pursue the terrorists responsible for 9/11, went after someone else instead. Most Americans, I suspect, still don’t realize how badly this apparent exploitation of the world’s good will — and the subsequent failure to find weapons of mass destruction — damaged our credibility.

It’s time for President Obama, and all those who wanted to get out of Iraq as soon as possible, to admit that they have made a terrible mistake, though given Obama’s track record, his desk seems a bit too slippery for the buck to have a chance to stop there.

It must be noted that President Bush may have made the mistake himself of declaring victory a bit too early but in that same speech he also said:

Our mission continues. Al Qaida is wounded, not destroyed. The scattered cells of the terrorist network still operate in many nations and we know from daily intelligence that they continue to plot against free people. The proliferation of deadly weapons remains a serious danger.

The enemies of freedom are not idle, and neither are we. Our government has taken unprecedented measures to defend the homeland and we will continue to hunt down the enemy before he can strike.

The war on terror is not over, yet it is not endless. We do not know the day of final victory, but we have seen the turning of the tide.

President Bush was always very clear about the monumental size of the mission and the commitment needed. The threat of terrorism coming to America’s shores has always been real. Through post-9/11 desensitization such realities may have become lost to our senses but it is no excuse for inaction in Iraq in 2014, when American troops have been torn away from the region and the Iraqi people left to the caprices of a barbaric and malevolent enemy.


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