Commentary

Forging a Broader Consensus for Withdrawal from Iraq

By William A. Niskanen
May 4, 2007

As President Bush renews his threat to veto any war spending bill that includes a deadline for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq, Senate Majority leader Harry Reid announced that within days, Congress will pass a bill that orders a withdrawal beginning on October 1 to be completed by next April 1.

“The military mission has long been accomplished,” Reid said of Iraq in his speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center last Monday. “The failure has been political.”

Reid challenged Bush to propose a policy that could win Congressional support. The most likely near-term outcome appears to be a Bush veto without any alternative, followed by a funding bill with an “advisory” deadline or a series of short-term funding bills without deadlines until broader agreement on withdrawal can be reached.

If the Democrats want to attract enough Republican support to override President Bush’s expected veto, they should adopt a course change of their own: Declare victory and bring the troops home to flags flying.

In spite of more recent congressional rhetoric, an impartial observer must note that all the original military objectives of the U.S. intervention in Iraq were accomplished some time ago. Saddam Hussein, a thug and threat to both Iraq’s neighbors and the Iraqis themselves, was captured. The Iraqi military was defeated and disbanded. The search for weapons of mass destruction was completed (without finding any). The Iraqi people, for the first time in their history, were afforded the opportunity to ratify a constitution and elect their own government.

All of the realistic objectives for the use of the U.S. military in Iraq were accomplished quickly and at low cost. That should be a sufficient basis to declare victory and bring the troops home with honor.

Over time, unfortunately, the Bush administration broadened U.S. objectives in Iraq to include the creation of a unified, effective, independent, and democratic government — noble goals, but a fantasy that has proven to be beyond the capability of any U.S. military action.

U.S. and Iraqi troops are now engaged in a joint effort to suppress several civil wars that threaten the Iraqi democracy. But a continued civil war may be the necessary next step toward more likely political outcomes: a geographic fragmentation of Iraq along sectarian lines, with the potential of a larger regional war; or the emergence of a strong man who could maintain a unified but autocratic government.

After four years of U.S. occupation in Iraq, it’s still not clear how effective U.S. and Iraqi troops can be in suppressing the several civil wars that rage there; how long the U.S. population and political system will tolerate an inconclusive war; and which of the several possible political outcomes in Iraq best serves U.S. interests.

The dramatic bombings last week do not provide a basis for optimism. If they haven’t already, next November, American voters will most likely demand that the war be brought to an end.

As for which ending benefits the U.S. most, that issue may never be resolved. In terms of American interests, none of the probable outcomes in Iraq is demonstrably superior to the conditions in Iraq when President Bush made the fateful decision to order the military to invade.

The fact remains that in its initial conception, the war in Iraq has long since been won. Our troops can do no more for that country, and we should welcome them home to ticker-tape parades. The longer we wait to withdraw, the more likely we are to bring about a post-war syndrome like that which followed Vietnam: striking a body blow to the pride and morale of the U.S. armed forces for a generation.

Republican politicians would be a lot more likely to support an end to the war in Iraq if the troops were appropriately honored than if they were blamed for the failure to accomplish broader political objectives that they were never intended to bring about. If the Democrats can accomplish such an about-face, and separate the failures of U.S. policy from the exemplary conduct of the U.S. military, they will score a partisan victory and a victory for the country as a whole.

William A. Niskanen, chairman of the Cato Institute, served as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors in the Reagan administration and as a defense department advisor during the Vietnam War.