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Should We Stay or Should We Go?

It’s official. A new USA Today/Gallup Poll finds that American attitudes about Iraq are schizophrenic—at least on the surface.

In a sampling taken May 4-6, 68 percent of respondents said that they think it is likely a withdrawal of U.S. forces would lead to “a full-scale civil war and result in the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqis.” 66 percent believe “al Qaeda would use Iraq as a base for its terrorist operations.” 52 percent believe “a broader war involving several countries in the Middle East would break out.” And 55 percent believe “there would be new terrorist attacks against the U.S., like the ones that occurred on 9/11.”

All of those conclusions would seem to strengthen the case for “staying the course,” as President Bush proposes. Yet 59 percent of respondents say that we should “set a timetable for removing troops from Iraq and stick to that timetable regardless of what is going on in Iraq at that time.” Only 36 percent say that we should “keep a significant number of troops in Iraq until the situation gets better.”

How to square the circle? How to reconcile Americans’ (well-founded) belief that disaster will follow if we leave Iraq with their equally intense desire to do just that? Apparently, it comes down to the fact that most Americans don’t think that our staying in Iraq staves off any of the disasters they envision. Of those surveyed, 58 percent said that the likelihood of terrorist attacks on the U.S. would not be affected by leaving Iraq or by staying the course there.

But that conclusion is at odds with the consensus of the U.S. intelligence community. The National Intelligence Estimate, issued in January, had this to say:

Coalition capabilities, including force levels, resources, and operations, remain an essential stabilizing element in Iraq. If Coalition forces were withdrawn rapidly during the term of this estimate . . . we judge that the ISF [Iraqi Security Forces] would be unlikely to survive as a non-sectarian national institution; neighboring countries—invited by Iraqi factions or unilaterally—might intervene openly in the conflict; massive civilian casualties and forced population displacement would be probable; AQI [al Qaeda in Iraq] would attempt to use parts of the country—particularly al-Anbar province—to plan increased attacks in and outside of Iraq; and spiraling violence and political disarray in Iraq, along with Kurdish moves to control Kirkuk and strengthen autonomy, could prompt Turkey to launch a military incursion.

All of this—and in particular the part about al Qaeda—suggests that the terrorist threat against the U.S. would increase if our troops were to leave Iraq. And, although National Intelligence Estimates have been wrong before, there is good reason to think that the consensus conclusion is right on this issue.

In the past four years, Iraq has become the central front in the global war on terrorism. If we leave prematurely, it will be seen as a victory for al Qaeda, which will then shift resources to fight us on other battlefields, starting with Afghanistan.

Democrats are dreaming if they think that stationing U.S. Special Forces troops “in the region”—i.e., hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away from the conflict’s center—could do much to contain the damage. How many Special Forces raids do we conduct today against terrorist safehouses in Iran or Syria? None, as far as I know. If we pull the bulk of our forces out of Iraq, logistical and political complications would prevent the kind of regular commando incursions needed to contain the al-Qaeda threat. In any case, we wouldn’t have the human intelligence to act. Spy satellites simply won’t provide the actionable intelligence we’d need.

Talk of the Iraqi “civil war” has distracted the American people from the real stakes in Iraq. The administration would be well advised to remind everyone of what’s involved—though by this time its credibility is so shot that its warnings may not be believed by anyone not already firmly in the anti-withdrawal camp.



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