Less than two weeks ago, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta presided over the final withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. Since then, Iraq has been dissolving as quickly as an Alka-Seltzer tablet in warm water.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government issued an arrest warrant for the Deputy PM, Tareq al-Hashemi, promptly after the last U.S. truck convoy rolled across the border into Kuwait. Maliki, a Shiite, accuses Hashemi, a Sunni, of involvement in terrorism. Hashemi fled to the north, taking refuge in the Kurdish region under the protection of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. Hashemi has admitted that some of his guards were involved in attacks, but denied involvement and refused to return to Baghdad for trial on the ground that Maliki exercised political control over the courts.
Last Thursday, in a series of coordinated attacks, more than seventy people were killed in Iraq. The Thursday attacks spurred speculation that al Qaeda in Iraq had been revived, though other terrorist groups were probably capable of the planning and coordination that had previously been al-Qaeda's trademark. Another attack, a suicide bombing at Iraq's Interior Ministry, killed at least six the day after Christmas.
This carnage is not Iraq's "new normal." It is a return to the old normal that will continue until some new strongman asserts control over Iraq or Iraq is broken up into sectarian regions and swallowed by its various neighbors.
On the day of the Interior Ministry attack, the parliamentary minority controlled by Iran's puppet, Moqtada al-Sadr, demanded that the Iraqi parliament be dissolved and that new elections be held to resolve the disputes. That a new parliament would be able to resolve anything is risible, given the several parliaments' failure to act since the first one was established after the fall of Saddam Hussein.
Now we have to face the fact that there is neither any way for us to stop Iraq's dissolution nor any reason for us to try.
It is not the fact that our troops have been withdrawn that makes it impossible for us to influence Iraq's future. It is the fact that our standing in the Middle East has been weakened by our unwillingness to deal with the terrorist nations' intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, or with the Islamic ideology that propels nations to sponsor terrorism.
There are some who will demand that American troops be sent back into Iraq to provide order and stability as only they can. The neoconservatives will insist that, like socialists defending their flawed idea, nation-building didn't fail because its theory wasn't properly applied or for a sufficiently long time. This is a debate we should engage in eagerly, because on its conclusion depends the future of American conservatism and, perhaps, the future of America itself.
Neoconservatives will say, truthfully, that nation-building doesn't always fail. They will point to post-World War II Germany and Japan to prove the point. But implicit in those examples is that the defeated Axis powers were comparable to Iraq and Afghanistan, which they were not. In neither Germany nor Japan was there an undefeated enemy. In neither was there a dominant religious imperative that prevented democracy from taking root. And in neither were there third-party nations with the power and motivation to prevent nation-building from succeeding.
Each of those conditions pertains in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and any one of them could have prevented the success of nation-building. When all three combine, the failure was -- again -- both foreseeable and inevitable.
The conservative debate won't be just between those who support the nation-building theory and those who oppose it. There is a third voice -- that of the libertarians -- who not only oppose nation-building but also demand that America withdraw from its role as a superpower.
Rep. Ron Paul, the libertarians' most prominent voice, demands not only withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan but also from our bases in other parts of the world. Amidst our economic crisis, the siren call of cutting defense engagements abroad is stronger than it is in times of economic growth. There is some basis for the idea of reducing our forces in Europe, where our NATO allies have had a free ride since the fall of the Soviet Union. Why should we defend those who won't invest in their own defense?
In truth, we shouldn't. But that doesn't mean that we should forfeit our influence there -- or in Japan and the Pacific. That's because our interests in defending freedom are based on more than vague moral principles. The libertarians are wrong because our nation -- any nation -- is entitled to build and protect its interests abroad. For America to remain free and prosperous, we cannot abandon freedom of the seas, of the skies, of the cyber domains and of space. If we fail, our adversaries -- be they the Islamic terror-sponsoring nations, China, or Russia -- will prevail and our freedom will decay as inevitably as Iraq will dissolve.
American conservatism used to be defined in terms of fiscal responsibility, personal responsibility, and strong defense. If the libertarians and the neoconservatives succeed in redefining it, the political force of conservatism will disappear until the basic principles are re-established. We cannot allow that to happen because the consequences for our nation will be too dire.
For the next ten plus months, the critical campaign to prevent Obama's re-election will demand our best efforts and our fullest attention. But we cannot afford to let the debate over conservatism's future be delayed. We can, and must, debate and resolve our internal differences at the same time. If we do, we can clear away the fog that now envelops the values of conservatism. By so doing, we can push whoever the Republican nominee may be in the right direction, in both meanings of that term.
Let's begin with the principle stated by British Prime Minister Henry John Temple, Lord Palmerston, stated to Parliament in 1848: "We have no eternal allies and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow." Palmerston's Principle is as correct with respect to domestic politics as it is to foreign affairs. In the political circus that will be 2012, it is a principle that should be a benchmark of the conservative debate.