Roger Cohen


"Murthquake" has struck the U.S. capital and a question that had remained just below the surface of political life is now front and center: should American troops get out of Iraq right now?

Slate, the online magazine, coined the Murthquake term to describe the effects of a statement last week from a senior House Democrat, Representative John Murtha of Pennsylvania. He called the Iraq war "flawed policy wrapped in illusion: and declared that U.S. troops in Iraq should "immediately redeploy."

Murtha punches above his weight on military affairs. A retired marine colonel decorated for his Vietnam service, he is respected on matters of war and peace. At least he was until he said "our troops have become the primary target of the insurgency" and castigated the administration for never listening.

The Bush White House, which has pursued a take-no-prisoners policy with its opponents, immediately compared Murtha to "Michael Moore and the extreme liberal wing of the Democratic party." That was rich.

Not to be outdone, Jean Schmidt, a Republican congresswoman from Ohio, made the mistake of extending to Murtha a message she said she'd received from a marine colonel: "Cowards cut and run, marines never do." Those seven words, directed at an ex-marine with 37 years service, provoked the House into an explosion of jeers and Schmidt into a retraction.

At last! Emotion and debate commensurate with the gravity of the Iraq war, the loss of over 2,000 service members, and the fact that America's global standing is tied to the outcome of the Baghdad adventure. It's as if the country has at last thrown off the imperative of unity in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

Iraq has been a curious war, both in theater, where it began in earnest after it was officially declared over, and on the domestic front, where the absence of the draft has tended to muffle debate. Because the fighting has not been felt all across society, it has often appeared remote.

As Murtha noted: "The burden of this war has not been shared equally. The military and their families are shouldering the burden. Our military has been fighting this war for over two and a half years."

It has taken that long for the war to come home. It's here now in part because midterm congressional elections next year have focused the minds of those seeking re-election.

The political calculus is simple enough. With a majority of Americans now opposed to the war, members of Congress, particularly Republicans, are thinking hard about whether they want to go into the November 2006 vote with the war festering and troop levels unchanged. Those Republicans also know Bush is history in 2008 come what may: term limits also limit loyalty.

So an Iraq debate, even a shouting match, is now legitimate. Murtha believes U.S. troops could be out within six months, "a reasonable time to get them out of there" if the job begins now. He envisions leaving "a quick reaction force in the region."

Other Democrats want at least schedule for troop withdrawals, a proposal defeated by a Senate vote last week.

Behind these views lie five convictions: until the United States gets serious about withdrawal, the Iraqi forces being trained will never get serious; a guerrilla war like the Iraq conflict cannot be won; the presence of American troops in Iraq galvanizes the insurgency; the Iraq conflict spurs global terrorism; and, with the armed forces already stretched, demands of blood and treasure have become unacceptable.

These are serious arguments. But the counterarguments of the administration are also serious, whatever the grave blunders of intelligence, planning and execution that have left the United States in this predicament.

Past ineptitude is not a reason to cut and run; it may be an additional reason to persevere.

Perhaps the administration's position was most succinctly put in recent days by Vice President Dick Cheney: "A precipitous withdrawal from Iraq would be a victory for the terrorists, an invitation to further violence against free nations and a terrible blow to the future security of the United States."

That security has been safeguarded since Sept. 11, 2001. It's anybody's guess why. Perhaps Osama bin Laden or his lieutenants feel an attack on American soil would lead to an outpouring of sympathy at a time when America's image is suffering. But, on the empirical evidence, the Bush strategy has at lest succeeded in this critical respect.

The rapid exit of U.S. troops would increase the likelihood of all-out civil war, precipitate a likely breakup of Iraq (with the chance of a wider war), leave American credibility shattered for an extended period, and reverse tentative moves toward open societies in the Middle East. Even a fraction of this damage seems unacceptable.

The administration is arguing for a "ramp-up, ramp-down" approach to the withdrawal of troops. As Iraqi forces ramp up, the American forces will ramp down, perhaps to below 100,000 by the end of 2006 from the more than 150,000 there today.

That's a reasonable approach, but there's a problem: the murkiness surrounding the combat readiness of Iraqi troops under training. We don't really know if one battalion or 36 or 90 are at or close to the needed level. Numbers are flying around; they seem as wayward as estimates of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction.

In short, Iraq is messy. There are not good choices. But the arguments for staying on outweigh those for a quick withdrawal.

Murtha, meanwhile, has done everyone a service. By this week, the administration's tone had changed. Cheney called him "a good man, a Marine, a patriot." Bush suddenly declared that disagreeing with his administration was not unpatriotic.

Wow. For four years this administration has prospered by finding any means to insinuate that criticism was unpatriotic. Bush won re-election with a vitriolic bombardment to this effect. By consenting at last to the legitimacy of debate, Bush has gone some small way toward tackling the reality, rather than the illusion, of Iraq.

return to index