The Case For Facing Facts

I have been troubled by the reluctance of my fellow liberals to acknowledge the progress made in Iraq in the last six months, a reluctance I am embarrassed to admit that I have shared.

Giving Gen. David Petraeus his due does not mean we have to start saying it was a great idea to invade Iraq. It remains the terrible idea it always was. And the occupation that followed has been until recently a continuing disaster, causing the death or maiming of far too many American soldiers and Iraqi civilians.

Still, the fact is that the situation in Iraq, though some violence persists, is much improved since the summer. Why do liberals not want to face this fact, let alone ponder its implications?

The problem is one that I have seen cripple our political life again and again and that seems to grow steadily worse. Liberals and conservatives are equally guilty. Neither side wants to face facts that don't fit its case.

Consider abortion. Too many pro-lifers and pro-choicers seem determined to ignore the other fellows' points as they cling to their own rigid positions. And abortion is just one example.

Conservatives refuse to face the fact that free markets need to be regulated to guard against chicanery and to protect the health and safety of consumers, workers and the public in general. Liberals are too prone to see government as the solution, which of course it can be, and not as part of the problem, a role in which it has also demonstrated impressive potential.

I have yet to find a conservative who acknowledges that our lowest unemployment rates since World War II have come in years when we had the highest income-tax rates, but it is a fact. And I have yet to hear a liberal express regret that it was not one of our own who had the courage and imagination to challenge Soviet leaders "to tear down this wall."

Conservative and liberal rigidity joined to create a tragic end to the war in Vietnam. Liberals became so antiwar that they could not admit that every South Vietnamese was not a closet Viet Cong; in fact, a significant number of them did not want to live under the communist North. The Nixon administration could not admit that South Vietnamese leaders were too inept to prevail. This meant that neither the administration nor its liberal critics planned for our exit. In our chaotic departure, we abandoned hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese who could only escape across the South China Sea in boats so rickety that many did not survive. Many of those who could not flee languished for years in North Vietnamese prisons and "reeducation camps."

This sad story should inspire us to face similar facts in Iraq. General Petraeus has proved that many Iraqis will respond to the kind of empathetic approach with which he has replaced the previous strategy of banging down doors and shooting first. At the same time, we have seen Iraq's politicians remain unwilling to get their act together. I agree with other war critics who believe these politicians will be motivated to reconcile their differences only when they know we are going to leave on a date certain and they will no longer be able to dither endlessly under our protection in the Green Zone.

Nonetheless General Petraeus's success provides important lessons. By talking to enemies like the Sunni tribal leaders and by taking his troops out of isolated bases and putting them into Baghdad neighborhoods where they could learn to understand the people and the people could see them as human beings, he has taught us how to deal effectively with insurgencies. And liberals should be the first to point out to George W. Bush that talking to our enemies is a good idea.

Finally, the Iraqis who have responded to General Petraeus remind us of our obligation to all Iraqis who have helped us. Even believing as firmly as I do that we must leave, I recognize our duty to try to do so in a way that poses the least danger to our friends. Above all, we should never repeat the shame of Vietnam. We should make plans now so that if the worst happens we can extricate the Iraqis who have stuck their necks out for us.