ON EMBOLDENING

In the wake of Russ Feingold’s call last week for a clearly-defined timetable for withdrawl of American troops from Iraq, President Bush has been stirring himself from his vacation long enough to offer a series of iterations of the same tired argument that announcing plans to withdraw troops would be letting the terrorists win (a category which, to review, includes smkoing pot, buying knock-off merchandise, and treating intelligence claims with skepticism, but doesn’t include buying an SUV, writing gay people out of the constitution, or renewing the PATRIOT Act). The latest edition of this argument, deployed for the liberal policy threat du jour, is dressed up in tactical sounding language about “emboldening” terrorists, but the thrust is nothing new: There are evil people who must be defied, and they want us to take troops out of Iraq, so we must do the opposite. Comforting rhetoric for some, but not much of a military strategy.

In Iraq, as elsewhere, there may be a certain number of fanatics willing to sacrifice anything under any circumstances, but there’s a much larger number of people who weigh their choices based on an array of perceptual, factual, emotional, and social, factors which drive one towards or against an act of terrirism. Bush would have us believe that an announcement of a schedule for American withdrawl would inspire more of these people to take Iraqi and foreign lives. This would require that there be a significant number of angry people not currently “emboldened” to take action because it seems futile, who on hearing that US troops would be leaving would decide that insurgents could make a dent after all and would suddenly become violent, targeting – according to Bush’s rhetoric – the very troops whose tenure in Iraq had just been announced to be temporary. The sad truth is that terrorists are indeed making a dent in Iraq, and they seem to be plenty emboldened. More credible, I’d say, is the opposite theory: the creation of a clear timetable for American withdrawl, with doing little to satiate insurgent leaders, would deprive them of their greatest recruiting tool and send a signal well beyond Iraq’s borders that the United States government does not have imperial ambitions in the country. As Feingold himself argued two months ago:

When I was in Baghdad in February, a senior coalition officer told me that he believes the U.S. could “take the wind out of the sails of the insurgents” by providing a clear, public plan and timeframe for the remaining U.S. mission. He thought this could rob them of their recruiting momentum. I also think it could rob them of some unity. All reports indicate that the forces fighting U.S. troops and attacking Iraqi police, soldiers, and civilians are a disparate bunch with different agendas, from embittered former regime elements to foreign fighters. The one thing that unites them is opposition to America’s presence in Iraq. Remove that factor, and we may see a more divided, less effective, more easily defeated insurgency.

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