Commentary

Exiting Iraq and Renewing the War on Al Qaeda

According to a recent poll first reported in the Financial Times, “Two thirds of Iraqis either `strongly’ or `somewhat’ oppose the presence of U.S.-led Coalition forces” in their country. Meanwhile, 80 percent of respondents believe that these forces should leave the country immediately, or once a new government is elected in January 2005.

These findings, combined with evidence from earlier polls, show that a growing number of Iraqis prefer a swift end to the military occupation. In a poll taken in March-April, 57 percent said they wanted Western troops to go home within a few months. The Bush administration should take the hint; first by handing over security responsibilities to the interim Iraqi government, and then by removing all U.S. forces from the country.

The United States cannot allow international public opinion to dictate the conduct of our foreign policy. If conditions in the country warranted, the American public would support the continued deployment of over 140,000 troops on Iraqi soil.

But the United States need not retain troops in Iraq to protect our vital security interests there. America’s capacity for projecting our power around the world is truly unprecedented. Just ask the Taliban, who learned that the United States need not have troops stationed within a given country, or even in the vicinity of a given country, to annihilate an odious regime that threatened the safety and security of Americans.

An orderly withdrawal by U.S. forces can be touted for what it is: a victory for both the United States and Iraq, the logical conclusion to action that resulted in the removal of a brutal dictator. The United States can then use withdrawal from Iraq to its own advantage by countering propaganda by the likes of bin Laden, and other anti-American extremists, who characterize the American occupation as a vehicle for asserting U.S. dominance in the region.

By withdrawing militarily from Iraq, the United States will be broadcasting to the world—in particular the Arab and Muslim worlds—that the United States has no plans to take control of Middle East oil or to otherwise impose its will on the region’s populace. Such a message will seriously undermine the terrorists’ most effective recruitment tactics. It will also undermine the terrorists’ tortured claims that their acts of violence against heroic Iraqis who have willingly cooperated with Coalition forces somehow serve the interests of Iraqis. Such claims were always tenuous: They would be absurd on their face in the absence of a foreign occupation force seen as thwarting the wishes of the Iraqi people.

The jihadis will certainly claim that a U.S.military withdrawal from Iraq represents a victory for their side. But it would be the height of irresponsibility for any American leader to allow that ridiculous claim to contribute to a misperception that the United States is no longer capable of defending its interests.

First, the removal of U.S. troops would not, and must not, signal that the United States has chosen to ignore events in Iraq. Instead, the withdrawal must be coupled with a clear and unequivocal message to the people of Iraq: do not threaten us; do not support anti-American terrorists; do not develop weapons of mass destruction. If you do, we will be back.

This message must be communicated publicly because it is the same message that must be understood throughout the international community. Other countries should have nothing to fear from the United States if they disavow support for terrorist groups that aim to kill American citizens.

Second, those same terrorists who have already demonstrated the capability and the intention of harming Americans must understand that they still have much to fear. By ending the military occupation of Iraq, and by redirecting our nation’s resources to the fight against al Qaeda, the United States will again be engaging the terrorists on our terms, not theirs.

That message can be delivered by a Tomahawk cruise missile or an assassin’s bullet. Bin Laden and his ilk may be on the run, but they are not yet destroyed. If nothing else, a renewal of the campaign against al Qaeda will once and for all reveal the absurdity of any claims that they (the terrorists) have us (the United States) on the run.

Iraqis are demanding a swift end to the military occupation of their country. Americans should welcome such expressions of independence and self-reliance. Saddam’s murderous rule might have broken their collective will. It might have left behind a legacy of powerlessness and despair. Instead, we see a proud people determined to take immediate control of their destiny. We should embrace this sentiment, and empower the Iraqis to defend their country.

Christopher Preble, director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is director of the task force that prepared the new report, Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War against Al Qaeda (2004).