Gates is Right That Congressional Opposition "Emboldens the Enemy" But So What?

On Friday, Defense Secretary Gates said that formal Congressional opposition to the Bush troop increase in Iraq "emboldens the enemy," leading, predictably, to condemnations of this comment by members of Congress. At some level, of course, the members of Congress are right. This sort of talk is not that different from the various efforts by Bush Administration officials over the last five years to label as unpatriotic any opposition to the administration's strategic goals or tactical decisions. But it's also likely that Gates is right: There probably are some Iraqi insurgents who will read Congressional opposition to troop increases as a sign that if only they (the insurgents) persist in their attacks, the Americans will pack up and go.

This is both common sense and a lesson of recent history. Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower (an excellent read) makes plain how Osama bin Laden inferred from American retreats in Lebanon and later in Somalia that the U.S. was a paper tiger that would pack up and leave if hit hard. Likewise, Hezbollah inferred from the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon that its persistent attacks had succeeded. Each was emboldened by their foe's retreat.

But it doesn't follow that the U.S. -- or particular members of Congress -- should therefore avoid every action that would embolden the enemy. It depends on the nature of the enemy and the nature of the emboldening. The violence in Iraq now stems from multiple sources, including but not limited to: 1) homegrown mostly Sunni former Baathists who simply want to destabilize the regime in the hopes of fomenting chaos and ultimately a Baathist restoration; 2) Shiite militias taking revenge on, and prompting further cyclical violence by, Sunnis; and 3) foreign (almost exclusively Sunni) jihadis who want to ignite a civil war that will engulf the region and ultimately spill into a global war between purified Islam and the West. Group 3 probably poses the greatest long-term danger to U.S. interests, and they would likely claim a propaganda victory by the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, but their goals are better served by our forces continuing to remain there. So long as large numbers of American troops are in Iraq, al Qaeda and like organizations can recruit radical Muslims from the world over to fight jihad there. As for the groups that want us to withdraw our troops, they might well be emboldened by our doing so, but just because current enemies want us to do something doesn't mean it's against our interest to do it.

The ONLY real question is whether signaling an intent to withdraw sooner rather than later will make the post-withdrawal situation worse than it would be if Americans keep a united front behind President Bush's troop "augmentation" (in Secretary Rice's phrase) for another year before admitting that our presence is not helping matters. And because the members of Congress who oppose the troop increase think that the surge/augmentation/escalation only delays the inevitable while sacrificing more American lives, they should also think that enemy emboldenment is largely irrelevant, and certainly an acceptable price to pay for the American lives that will be saved if they manage to speed the withdrawal.