Commentary

How to Exit Iraq

Calls for a relatively swift end to the U.S. military occupation of Iraq have risen in recent months from a cautious whisper to an anxious chorus. This should not come as a surprise. No rational person looking at the evidence from Iraq today would conclude that the Iraqi people will tolerate a long-term military presence. The question is whether the Bush administration will come to the same conclusion and begin planning for a military withdrawal from Iraq.

Early last year, I chaired a panel of experts tasked with examining America’s military occupation of Iraq. The result was the report, Exiting Iraq. Our unequivocal finding — that it was in America’s interest to quickly end the military occupation — was, at the time, dramatically at variance with the conventional wisdom, which presumed that the United States must remain in Iraq “as long as necessary.”

As long as necessary has proven too long. The authors of Exiting Iraq anticipated that the trend of rising opposition to the U.S. occupation would not be reversed by the nominal handover of sovereignty in June, 2004. We recognized that the presence of U.S. forces undermines the legitimacy of the Iraqi government. We also noted that widespread opposition to the U.S. occupation within the Iraqi populace undermined U.S. credibility on a host of other issues.

Our call for a U.S. military withdrawal by January 30, 2005, to be negotiated in concert with the interim government, would appear fanciful, even absurd, if first put forward on January 17, 2005.

However, that date was both practical and sensible when it was set forth in June, 2004. Had policymakers heeded our advice, they might have been able to save hundreds of American lives, and, I believe, many more Iraqi lives. Moreover, this policy shift could have rescued a modicum of U.S. credibility and put Iraq on a fast-track to self-governance.

U.S. policymakers now have another chance to get it right, first, by urging Iraqis to participate in the upcoming elections; second, by working with the Iraqi government on a timetable for U.S. military withdrawal by January 1, 2006; and third, by following through on our promise to allow the Iraqis to govern themselves, so long as they do not threaten the United States.

Withdrawal is not the only option, and leaving Iraq does carry serious risks. Although there are signs that the occupation is serving to increase ethnic tensions, many worry that the presence of U.S. troops is the only thing standing in the way of a civil war between the disparate groups in Iraq that are vying for power.

But the question ultimately comes down to costs and benefits: Can an alternative course of action, especially a continuation of the occupation, be crafted in such a way that it has some reasonable chance of permanently pacifying Iraq? Can the U.S. nation-building project in Iraq achieve its goals at a cost that will be acceptable to the American people?

Former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski declared last week that the United States could never achieve its goals of a democratic, stable and peaceful Iraq unless the American people were prepared to “commit 500,000 troops, spend [US]$200 billion a year, probably have a draft,” and have some form of wartime taxation. Brzezinski conceded that Americans “are not prepared to do that.”

I agree. Given that a continuation of the current course of action cannot achieve success, and given that the American people are unwilling to pay the costs necessary to do so, there is only one rational option: a prompt military withdrawal.

Although the Bush administration may not be predisposed toward a military exit by the end of this year, 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. 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 people of the region.

Such a message would seriously undermine the terrorists’ tortured claims that their acts of violence against heroic Iraqis who have willingly co-operated with coalition forces somehow serve the interests of Iraqis. Such claims were always tenuous; they would be absurd on their face were it not for the presence of a foreign occupier.

The jihadis will claim that the American withdrawal represents a victory for their side. But while the United States has already suffered a blow to its credibility, it is still eminently capable of defending its vital interests. An American military withdrawal would not, and must not, signal that the United States has chosen to ignore events in Iraq.

If Iraqis wish to retain their sovereignty and independence, they must ensure that al-Qaeda and other anti-American terrorist groups do not establish a safe haven in their country. Accordingly, the withdrawal of U.S. forces must be coupled with a clear and unequivocal message to the new government of Iraq: do not threaten us or allow foreign terrorists in your country to threaten us. 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 world. Other countries should have nothing to fear from the United States if they disavow support for terrorist groups that aim to kill American citizens. But those terrorists who have already demonstrated the capability and the intention of harming Americans still have much to fear.

By ending the military occupation of Iraq, and by redirecting U.S. resources — military, but also diplomatic and political — to the fight against al-Qaeda, the United States will again be engaging the terrorists on its terms, not theirs.

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