Saturday, May 28, 2005

Just before going on a run this evening, I read the Times article on the federal judge who ruled that the DoD "would have to release perhaps dozens of photographs taken by an American soldier of Iraqi detainees in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq."

As remarkable as that ruling is, I don't bring it up for the judicial questions it raises. Rather, I mention it because one of the few real consequence those pictures would have would be a renewed call for an American withdrawal from Iraq. And that would be a mistake.

At this point I need to back up a little. As some of you know, I've been teaching here in Austria for the last eight months. And each day when I go for a run, I pass by "The Schloss". Although the building is known most famously as the Von Trapp residence in The Sound of Music, it now houses an American institute for international diplomacy.

As I passed by the Schloss today, I tried to imagine what Austria would be like had the U.S. pulled out too soon. By 'too soon' I mean this: not so soon that Austria would have fallen into the Soviet bloc, but still prior to the point where economic and political conditions had stabilized enough for us to feel comfortable with leaving. The result wouldn't have been pretty. Austria would have remained free in name, but it would likely lack much of what little democratic and capitalistic spirit it currently has.

Now, the comparison of post-war Austria with post-war Iraq is, to say the least, fraught with significant historical differences. But there is at least one general similarity: while Austria shared a lengthy border with communist Europe, Iraq shares a border with several regimes that are non-democratic at best and outright tyrranical at worst.

Again, my concern here is not with security per se. If America pulled out next year or soon thereafter, I don't think there's a risk that Iraq would turn into another Iran. But I do think we'd be leaving a significant cultural void.

The U.S. didn't stay in Austria until it had established a democratic order; it stayed until it had established a democratic culture, a culture embodied by everything from an entrepreneurial spirit to the spirit of debate.

At this point, America's military is not in Iraq to secure political order alone. It is there to secure a democratic culture in an openly anti-democratic region. Abu Ghraib and the atrocities committed by the American military in Iraq have already harmed that culture enough. Withdrawing our troops too soon, I fear, would permanently maim it altogether.


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