You Can't Go Home Again
(The Patriot Post) -- by Peggy Noonan --
The biggest takeaway, the biggest foreign-policy fact, of the past decade is this: America has to be very careful where it goes in the world, because the minute it's there -- the minute there are boots on the ground, the minute we leave a footprint -- there will spring up, immediately, 15 reasons America cannot leave. The next day there will be 30 reasons, and the day after that 45. They are often serious and legitimate reasons.
So we wind up in long, drawn-out struggles when we didn't mean to, when it wasn't the plan, or the hope, or the expectation.
We have to keep this phenomenon in mind as we chart our path in the future. It's easy to start a war but hard to end one. It's as simple as that. It's easy to get in but hard to get out. Even today, in Baghdad, you hear that America can't leave Iraq because the government isn't sturdy enough, the army and police aren't strong enough to withstand the winds that will follow America's full departure, that all that has been achieved -- a fragile, incomplete, relative peace -- will be lost. America cannot leave because Iraq will be vulnerable to civil war, not between Sunnis and Shiites, they tell you now, but between Arabs and Kurds, in the north, near the oil fields.
America is scheduled to leave Iraq this December, of course, but everyone seems to be waiting for Nouri al-Maliki's government to request an extension. (A longtime observer told me he thought Prime Minister Maliki would not ask, in part because he assumes that if he gets in trouble the U.S. will come back.) Meanwhile, another observer told me, the December hand-off from the U.S. to the Iraqi government will actually be more like a hand-off from the Defense Department to the State Department, with the part of U.S. security forces played by contractors from Uganda.
In Afghanistan, America cannot leave because it is the 9/11 place, the place that helped 9/11 to happen. America cannot leave because, as the iconic Time cover had it, the Taliban will cut off women's noses and brutalize them in other ways. America cannot leave because al Qaeda will return, fill the vacuum left by our departure, and create a new terror state. America cannot leave because of turbulent, dangerous Pakistan. America cannot leave because from the day we arrived, we invested blood and treasure, and it cannot have been in vain. America can never leave because American troops always bring their kindness and constructiveness with them, and their rule of law. Innocent people will be defenseless without them.
There are always a million facts and forces arrayed against the idea of America leaving. So America has to watch where it goes.
In the troubled future we are entering, America must be prudent as never before, know and respect its own interests and limits as never before. It must be careful of the lives of its soldiers. It must be careful, even, of its purse, which is something we haven't always worried about, but must now, and not only because of the crash and the deficits. What if what just happened in Japan had happened on the San Andreas fault? What if it were a broken American nuclear reactor? You have to keep some wealth and force in reserve, you can't just assume you'll always be lucky.
These are the thoughts I brought back from a trip to Iraq and Afghanistan. I left with the sound of Defense Secretary Robert Gates's speech at West Point ringing in my ears. The time for big counterinsurgency efforts such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan, he suggested, has passed: "In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should 'have his head examined,' as Gen. MacArthur so delicately put it."
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