The debate over President Obama’s withdrawal of American military forces from Iraq must include the alternative that critics of that decision have tried to obscure: that he should have committed us to an indefinite, significant, expensive military presence, not to protect Iraq against any external enemy, but until a bitter, religiously motivated civil war is won by the side we prefer. Their reluctance to acknowledge this is compounded by the fact that the side they wish us to support does not appear to have enough support in its own country to sustain itself, nor has it in fact conducted itself in a way conducive to increasing that support.

A similar argument comes from the president’s critics of his decision to withdraw from Afghanistan at the end of 2016. The argument will be that American must continue a significant military presence in that troubled country until the side we prefer in an internal civil war prevails, even though, once again, the people in charge of that faction appear incapable of maintaining support.

The first thing that must be demanded of those advocating a never-ending American military engagement in both countries is how much it will cost, and how to pay for it. The answer is that the cost will be tens of billions of dollars a year, and its advocates intend to pay for it by cutting back on programs that deal with our quality of life at home.

Clearly if it were of overwhelming importance, either to our direct national interest or to some overriding moral principle, it is a price our society would pay – although the responsible way to do it, which was the model before George W. Bush, was if not to raise taxes to finance massive military expenditures, at least not to cut them by hundreds of billions of dollars.

From the standpoint of our national interest, before we overthrew Saddam Hussein, Iraq presented no problem to the United States, nor again after George H.W. Bush correctly expelled him from Kuwait, to any of our allies. (He did pose a threat to the country next door, Iran, with whom he had fought a war, which is why the Iranians were among those happiest when we overthrew him.)

Continued chaos in Iraq is sad for people of that country. But massive American military intervention is much more a cause of that chaos than the antidote to it. Our superb military can stop bad things from happening. But it cannot make good things happen. It cannot bring about unity between Sunnis and Shiites, or even mutual toleration. It cannot push the al-Maliki government or the Karzai government in Afghanistan into being more acceptable to its own people. Nor can it transform a military ridden with factualism, corruption and incompetence into an effective fighting force.

While my primary response to the current debate is to defend Obama for his recognition of the inappropriateness of trying to resolve the deep internal divisions in both countries with an unending American military presence, I think he has erred in both cases by taking steps to conciliate his opponents. Three hundred advisers being sent to Iraq will have no significant impact on the outcome, and our commitment to protect the men and women who fight for their country at our request could lead in itself to a deeper involvement. (As my husband, Jim, and I discussed this, he reminded me of the story of the French general who was asked how many British troops he wished would be sent to his country in the face of a German threat. He replied, “One, and we will put him on the front line.”)

Similarly, extending our stay in Afghanistan for another 21/2 years offers no hope that things in that country will be any better from our standpoint or theirs then it would be if we left at the end of this year. I would feel conflicted about my desire for us to withdraw in both cases if I thought there was anything we could do to stop the violent disturbances that cause serious distress to so many innocent people. But I have not seen any proposal for how we could do that, and nothing in recent history suggests that a prolonged American military presence is of any value in ending these deep internal conflicts.

As to our national interest, there is only one that is even possible to argue. We suffered grievously when the Afghan government allowed Osama bin Laden to murder so many people – here and in Africa – but the answer to the ongoing threat of terrorism is not for us to establish a military occupation in any country where terrorists might find a haven. There are simply too many potential hosts for us to do that, especially if it means maintaining not just a military presence in those countries, but bringing about political reconciliation within them.

This does not mean a return to the vulnerability of 2001. We have done two things since then that must continue to be our main defenses against those who wish to murder people in America. First, we have significantly increased our capacity to thwart terrorist attacks internally. I voted in some cases against what I thought were excesses in those areas, but the fundamental framework of significantly increased security is part of an American consensus. We are spending tens of billions more now than we were in 2001 to defend ourselves and while we can do it better, the essential mechanism will stay in place.

Secondly, more controversially, we have developed the capacity to find those intent on killing people in our country and, to be blunt, killing them before they can. As with internal security, I believe there are improvements that should be made in the drone program, and I think judicial review before strikes are launched against Americans should be part of the process. But I also believe that we have not just a right but a responsibility as a nation to act against people who would emulate bin Laden and murder large numbers of people – here or in other countries – by using force against them. I recognize that this will not be done with perfection, and that there will be cases when innocent people are victims. We must minimize that, but in a world in which hostile forces still dominate, it would be hypocritical to pretend that this could be done with perfection. I do believe that fewer innocent people will be victimized by a continuation of a refined, targeted program involving both drones and American personnel in particular situations than by a continued military presence. The recent capture of the man who was a major factor in the murder of American personnel in Benghazi is an example of this.

Obama is correct in understanding that a continued American military presence in countries is a mistake. I understand the pressure to which the president feels subjected from the proponents of an American mission to maintain order in the world, and the concern that he be “blamed” for defeat for the factions we have supported in both countries. But in neither case is it within our power to prevent these events; in neither case will it result in any serious damage to legitimate American interest. In both cases what his critics are demanding will exacerbate the problem of a growing deficit to which they pay very unconvincing lip service.

The final point that is relevant in our democratic system, although not by itself determinative, is that the president’s critics are very much in a minority in American public opinion. I was interested to note in a New York Times article about the meeting the president had on Iraq with congressional leaders that Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio disagreed with the notion that the president should ask Congress for permission, while Democrats Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada and Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California supported a congressional authorization. When Republican leaders who spend much of their time criticizing the president for ignoring Congress reverse themselves and urge him to act in a significant military situation without any congressional approval, it is a sign that they understand that the public is on the other side. The president should follow the logic of his own position, accelerate our withdrawal from Afghanistan to the end of this year, and rescind his order to send 300 advisers into the turmoil of Iraq where they can only become entangled in a way that will lead to further problems.

Barney Frank is a retired congressman and the author of landmark legislation. He divides his time between Maine and Massachusetts.

Twitter: @BarneyFrank

– Special to the Telegram