This month we mark the beginning of spring and the beginning of the fourth year of the war in Iraq. The president, vice president and assorted generals are out peddling success. But on the ground, sectarian violence is spreading. The Iraqi police are less a national force than separate sectarian forces with divided loyalties.
Former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, once the CIA's favorite in Iraq, says the country is already in a civil war. And virtually every general and colonel, once retired, warns of the mess we are in.
Americans prefer the optimism and promises of victory that the president offers. But in reality, there are no good choices now. Already, this war has cost too much in lives, in money, in honor and in distraction. As William Odin, former director of the National Security Agency under Ronald Reagan said, it is the worst foreign policy debacle in our nation's history.
The war has divided us from our allies. It has fostered hatred of America across the Moslem world. It has provided a recruiting boon and a training ground for al-Qaeda terrorists. It has sparked a sectarian civil war in an oil-rich country in the heart of the Persian Gulf. The civil war is already drawing in its neighbors — Turkey, Iran, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Syria.
Getting out is not easy. The sacrifice of those who gave or risked their lives cannot be for nothing. Spending $500 billion to generate more instability — a failed state that harbors more terrorists — is more than a mistake. So when the president calls upon us to "stay the course," claiming victory is within reach, people would like to believe him.
But harboring such illusions only condemns us to sacrifice more lives and more resources on what looks increasingly like a lost cause. Polls are worth little, but it is worth noting that both the vast majority of Iraqis and the vast majority of the American forces think we should set a timeline and start withdrawing the troops.
We cannot tax our already overstretched military to put more troops on the ground — particularly when there is no reason to think that more troops will make a difference. We cannot stop the escalating civil war with what we have. We can't even provide security to much of Baghdad. We may stay another year, another two years. Sacrifice another 20,000 lives in casualties. Spend another $500 billion. It is impossible to see why that would make any difference on the ground.
The last time American soldiers were caught in a civil war in this region was in 1982, when Ronald Reagan dispatched American marines to Lebanon and lobbed a few artillery shells from battleships at the Beirut suburbs. Terrorists blew up the U.S. compound, killing over 270 Marines. Reagan realized his mistake. He took the Marines out immediately — and invaded tiny Grenada to cover his retreat. Lebanon was left to ugly sectarian civil wars, even as elections took place and weak governments succeeded one another. Iraq now witnesses this same sectarian violence.
At the end of the day, the Iraqis will have to decide how long and how bitterly they will fight one another. They will decide what kind of a state they build. The president says that American security is directly related to the victory of liberty and democracy in Iraq — and surely we'd rather have a strong, peaceful democracy than a failed state with a Shiite-dominated government aligning itself with the Iranian mullahs, who call the United States the great Satan. But wishes cannot be the basis for policy. We can't ask Americans to give up their lives, to defer their dreams for an illusion.
The more the president denies reality, the greater the cost to this country. It is time to be clear: Announce that we have no desire to retain permanent bases, announce a staged withdrawal of our forces and tell the Iraqis that they have to build the future they will suffer. We should seek to help them as we can — but we cannot determine their future without sacrificing our own.
The president is clear, but wrong — while Democrats have remained almost tongue-tied. This isn't about politics. It is about the future of our country. How we get out of this catastrophe isn't about self-survival, it's about the nation's security.
Democrats don't have to be united — Republicans aren't either. But each of them has the responsibility as elected leaders of this country to give Americans their best advice in a hard situation. Yes, the White House has already threatened to turn the war once more into a partisan club. And Democrats shudder to think how successful that was in 2002 and 2004.
But no one can look strong on national security with a finger in the wind. It is time to stand up.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. is founder and president of the National Urban League.