Be Careful What You Wish For...

Andrew E. Busch

August 1, 2005

It has been clear for some time that American (and, though it is redundant to say so, European) Leftists have believed that the Iraq War would end in failure. For just about as long, they have also hoped that it would. This preference has been apparent in the obvious glee with which they greet every setback in the war and with which they dispense defeatist propaganda at every opportunity. It is not that they love the Baathists and Al Qaeda—just that they hate George Bush, and that many of them hate the United States itself, so much that they don’t much care who benefits from their bombast.

Leaving aside any effort to assess the likelihood that the Left’s desire will be realized, it is worth considering what the consequences of that realization would be, not for the Iraqi people, not for the United States, and not for Western Civilization, but for the things the Left really cares about—itself and its own ideological aims. Even within that narrow and self-referential realm, there are at least three reasons that it should seriously rethink what it wants in Iraq.

First, as David Frum and others have pointed out, the more thoroughly the Left is identified with American failure in Iraq, the more serious will be the political repercussions for it at home. During the Vietnam War, the spectacle of anti-war demonstrators waving Viet Cong flags and chanting "Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, the NLF is gonna win" tainted the Left and, by association, the Democratic Party, for a generation. This taint was all the stronger because America actually lost. A victorious nation might have been more forgiving of the fifth column. A repeat in Iraq could be equally devastating to the Left, if not moreso. Regardless of whether mainstream America thinks the Iraq War is being effectively prosecuted at the moment, it does not take well to rooting for the enemy. And if we lose, who believes that Zarqawi and his friends will sit back and leave the United States alone? When he strikes again, this time in the heart of America and using Islamofascist Iraq as a base, someone will get blamed. It is not likely to be the people who tried to defeat him.

Second, the success of the Left’s agenda in Iraq—that is to say, the failure of the agenda of the United States—will lead to another sort of backlash, of a policy rather than electoral sort. As much as opponents of the war despise it, it has represented two rather noble features of the American character—the desire to use force in a measured and careful way rather than indiscriminately, and the closely related desire to prevent future conflict by helping former enemies to a better life. More broadly, America is attempting in Iraq to introduce the rule of law and consent of the governed into a region that has seen little of either, in the hopes that the majority of Iraqis will rise to the occasion, live up to their potential as human beings, and provide an example to others in the region. It is, in short, an experiment based on the belief that those in Iraq and the Middle East in general can be helped to stand on their feet in freedom and dignity rather than consigned forever to live on their knees, grovelling before tyranny, hatred, and fanaticism. Should this experiment fail, the majority of Americans will not retreat, as the Left would prefer, to a posture of suicidal passivity. It is more likely that they will write off the Middle East as lost beyond reasonable hope, will stop trying to improve its lot, and will harden their hearts. In the face of future 9/11s, Americans will put no further faith in intricate and costly schemes of society-building, and are likely to embrace instead a response that largely eschews a discriminating and constrained use of force. The disturbing motto "Kill them all and let God sort them out" may become the mantra of American public opinion. America will be diminished, becoming more like ancient Rome at its coarsest, and the Left—for once, rightly—will be horrified. Its horror, however, will be hypocritical, since it has spent so much energy undermining and hoping for the failure of a policy that actually did try to "sort them out" and lift them up.

At the same time, a defeat in Iraq will make the prospect of preemptive war against terrorist nations believed to be stockpiling mass-casualty weapons—already reduced due to the difficulty of the Iraq War—unthinkable. This, of course, is precisely one of the reasons why the Left hopes for such a defeat. However, this course is quite risky for many of those on the Left, not merely politically but existentially. By demonstrating the potential for preemptive war, the invasion of Iraq has already had one positive consequence: It frightened Libya into surrendering its nuclear weapons program, which was much more advanced than the United States had previously understood. A U.S. defeat in Iraq will have a powerful effect in the opposite direction, persuading rogues like Iran that America has been tamed and that they have nothing to fear any longer. By surrendering the deterrent that has been won in Iraq, the United States will open the floodgates to the already-significant danger of nuclear terrorism. And who will the terrorists target with the bombs that America did not preempt because it lost heart in Iraq? Probably not Cheyenne, Salt Lake City, or Mobile. Not Boise, Paducah, or the thousands of small towns that dot "red America." The more likely answer is Washington, D.C., New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco—the deep blue metropolises that serve as highly concentrated enclaves of the Left in America. The phrase "Better red than dead" will take on a whole new meaning. Once that happens, the second phenomenon—insistence by the rest of America on an immediate, indiscriminate response—will rise to a irresistible crescendo.

Be careful what you wish for. Be very careful.

Andrew E. Busch is a Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center.