Unlike the proverbial gift that keeps on giving, the Iraq War is like the gift that keeps on taking away, especially from Europeans, and the Democratic Party.
I don't mean in any electoral sense. By late 2008 most Americans are likely to support the Democratic Party's call to withdraw troops, even though President George W. Bush's “surge” strategy seems to be working. In Europe, most of the leaders who were either for or against the Iraq War – Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac, Gerhard Schroeder, Jose Maria Aznar – have all gone and the issue has lost its political salience.
Rather, it represents a moral dilemma. One that may destroy pretensions by both the Democratic Party and Europe's new crop of leaders for a foreign policy based on values.
“Really”, I can hear you say. “Surely it's the neo-conservatives, who inspired the war, and President Bush, who led it, who will suffer, both electorally and morally.” Wrong. “Then because they will be accused of not supporting U.S and allied troops?” Wrong again.
Let me explain.
But first let us agree on one thing. If there is a foreign policy principle most Democrats and Europeans believe in, it is the moral imperative of stopping genocide. From President Roosevelt's entry into World War II, through the shame of American inaction over Rwanda and commitment in the Balkans under President Clinton, to Senator Biden's impassioned Darfur plea at a Democratic debate, a straight line runs through. Today, while most Democrats eschew overseas military action, U.S polls change if you mention Darfur.
Many Republicans and neo-conservatives have, of course, felt the same. Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle were among the staunchest proponents of action over the slaughter in Bosnia, as was former Senator Bob Dole. But the GOP does not define itself, like the Democratic Party, as an international champion of good. Sure there is the struggle for freedom, which during the Cold War united both left and right and inspired President Kennedy's still-impressive oratory. But righteousness abroad does not flow through the GOP's veins like it rushes to the Democratic Party's heart. As a Democratic friend told me: “We're supposed to be the good guys.”
Europe – with its modern identity and values forged in the ashes of by war, and genocide – places the defence of universal values at its core. To this end, the EU has been at the forefront of the establishment of the International Criminal Court, and the hunt for Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic. As MEP Graham Watson recently said in the European Parliament: “Our inability to prevent the first genocide of this century would send the wrong signal about Europe's role and potential within the world”.
Now back to Iraq. The country is teetering on the brink of the Middle East's most violent civil war for decades, which even conservative analysts believe may claim hundreds of thousands of lives on top of the many already killed.
Shia militias are harrying Sunnis – even in areas like Basrah where they are a small, unthreatening minority – and are only kept from creating religiously “cleansed” areas in most of Baghdad, much like Serb war-lords sought in former Yugoslavia, by U.S troops. In turn, while violence has dropped dramatically in Sunni areas, extremists may resume their bombing campaign, targeting Shia. And in flash-points like Kirkuk, Kurds and Shia eye each other nervously across a divided city, with occasional bombings foreshadowing events to come.
In all cases, what that keeps this three-way carnage from being unleashed is the presence of U.S forces and their Iraqi helpmates. They may not be able to stop the pinprick killings or occasional bomb-blasts. But they are undoubtedly preventing larger-scale killings and have even brought peace to many neighbourhoods following the “surge”. Their departure will almost inevitably lead to a Middle Eastern killing field. One in which we have – inadvertently – turned the soil, if not planted the seed.
Yet despite this, many in the Democratic Party are pushing to get U.S combat troops home. Some, like Senators Obama and Edwards want, this to happen immediately; others like Hillary Clinton argue for a more gradual withdrawal. But the bottom-line is the same.
Europeans, in turn, are acting as if the problem has nothing to do with them. The last Danish troops will leave next months while their British and Polish brothers-in-arms will follow in 2008.
It is not hard to see why.
Withdrawals may put pressure on Iraqi leaders to make the necessary comprises to capitalise on the recent military gains. And even if they do not, then what is the point of troops dying if they cannot stop the war, only bring a lull to the fighting? This is Bush's war. Better to pull troops out, than to see them die only to postpone killings by a few months.
Finally, there is the electorate. Congress was elected on a clear mandate to end the war. Many Democrats – and Republicans up for re-election in 2008 – know they need to heed this fact lest they be punished at the polls. In Europe, with the “Iraq generation” of leaders all gone, there is nothing to be gained in anything but gestures, like Bernard Kouchner's visit to Baghdad.
To be clear, there are many good arguments for beginning to withdraw U.S combat troops from Iraq. With even General David Paetreus hinting that the fall in killings are dependent on changes at the political level (which even he seems to think is unlikely) the electoral pendulum is likely to swing even further to the Democrats' position. And Republicans in Congress know this.
But as I started by saying, the problem is not electoral. It is moral. For none of these reasons negates the point that withdrawal is likely to precipitate an even greater carnage than is the case today. The consequences of a withdrawal for U.S power are probably exaggerated and the Middle East has seen many vicious civil wars that did not spill into regional fighting. The bigger issue is whether the U.S can live with having precipitating genocide and whether the EU can stand on the sidelines.
The Democratic Party may choose to pull out anyway and the Europeans may continue ignoring the war – but both should be honest about the consequences of doing so. “Never again” means Iraq too, not just in the Balkans and Sudan.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.