Saving Face or Saving Lives


Richard W. Crockett


Political pundits tell us that the American people are “fed up” with partisan politics and that last week’s election began the restoration of the political center.  While this trend, if it be so, may help to resolve issues in American domestic politics, it holds out little hope when it comes to the war in Iraq.  The war in Iraq confronts this nation not with alternatives of left and right, or liberal and conservative, or even of Democratic and Republican solutions.  It confronts us with a choice between saving face and saving lives.


The administration has presented the American people with the Hobson’s choice of selecting between that of “cut and run,” and of “stay the course.”  With the debate framed in this manner, the first alternative appears unpatriotic and the second appears senselessly futile.  The first involves saving American and some Iraqi lives and the second involves saving face.  The elusive quest when cast as saving face is based upon the hope that in the end the war will produce “success” or a “victory.” The difficulty is that we don’t know what either success or victory looks like. 


The election that seemed to denounce excessive partisanship also denounced the war in Iraq.  A majority wants the troops to come home.  Also, there is a large number who want to get out of Iraq “responsibly.”  But is it acting responsibly to continue to sacrifice lives permanently in order to save face for the time being?


Some argue that if the U.S. pulled out its forces, a “blood bath” between Shiites and Sunnis would follow.  A blood bath is going on now, and it unnecessarily is including Americans.  It s true that it could get worse, but that is the choice of the Islamic extremists and the insurgency.


President Bush has cast this war as an “ideological conflict.”  An ideological conflict is a conflict over ideas. Democracies handle such conflicts in stride.  The Iraqis seem unable to do that which suggests that democracy, or any other form of deliberative government, does not exist and is not likely to exist soon.  To understand the war in Iraq as an ideological conflict is to over simplify what is happening there.  However, that view does imply that it cannot be resolved by military means and requires political means because ideology is about politics, unless we are saying that this so-called ideological conflict is between our ideology and theirs, rather than between two versions of Islam.  If it is between our and theirs, we have no place in it for it is theirs to decide.  If it is the latter, between two versions of Islam, we still have no place in it because, as a nation, we do not embrace either Islamic ideology.


 The Iraqi Shiite and Sunni militants are the principle protagonists and theirs is not merely a conflict over ideology, but over theology.  Such conflicts are virtually never resolved because they spring from faith—and faith rejects reason, which is essential to deliberation and democracy.  In faith, believers are ready to die for their idea, and in the present conflict, with suicide bombers, these “true believers” are doing so readily.  John Fiske, the 19th Century American historian, once quipped the man “who was ready to die for and idea must have had only one.”  That appears to be the case for the Muslim extremists.