Commentary

Iraq: Exit Rather Than Spend

By Charles V. Peña
October 24, 2003

Seventeen lawmakers — Republicans and Democrats — who recently returned from a trip to Iraq say they must support the president’s special request for $87 billion to underwrite U.S. military operations and reconstruction efforts in Iraq. Why should American taxpayers make a large down payment on what is likely to be a long-term and expensive mortgage on Iraq? Because, they say, the money is needed to restore order, stability, and safety for troops that might be in for an extended occupation. According to Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.): “If we are going to have security for our troops, we must fund reconstruction.” My, how things change — like the sands of Iraq’s deserts.

The original reason for changing the regime in Baghdad was the threat posed by Iraq’s store of weapons of mass destruction, which U.S.-led inspectors have yet to find. Then it was Iraq’s links to al Qaeda, although none has been confirmed and even President Bush admits that there is no evidence to tie Saddam Hussein to 9/11. Only at the 11th hour did the president argue that it was necessary to depose Hussein to liberate the Iraqi people and establish democracy in the Middle East — an argument that has become more prominent after the war. Finally, in the post-war period, Iraq is cited as the central front in the war on terrorism. However, this is largely the result of going to war in the first place and creating a target in al Qaeda’s backyard.

Now the safety of U.S. troops — rather than defending America’s national security — has become the primary rationale for staying the course. But if troop safety is the driving concern, there is an obvious alternative to piling $87 billion on top of the earlier $75 billion Iraq war supplemental appropriation and continuing to expand a $400 billion budget deficit. The answer? Withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq.

Rather than abandoning Iraq, the United States would simply be making good on the president’s prewar promise: “The United States has no intention of determining the precise form of Iraq’s new government. That choice belongs to the Iraqi people.” But the president has to do better than saying that the transition to self-government will “neither be hurried nor delayed.” There needs to be a definitive and prompt timetable for U.S. withdrawal.

The administration must hand the government of Iraq back to the Iraqis, sooner rather than later. In the words of one Iraqi: “We thank the Americans for getting rid of Saddam’s regime, but now Iraq must be run by Iraqis.” The longer American forces stay, however well intentioned and noble the motive, the more Iraqis will come to resent a foreign occupier. Even Ahmad Chalabi — founder of the Iraqi National Congress exile group that urged the administration into war — is now arguing for handing more control over to the Iraqi Governing Council and a prompt transition to a provisional government.

Secretary of State Colin Powell has suggested that a new Iraqi constitution could be written within six months, paving the way for elections and self-rule within another six months. Members of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi governing council contend that the process could take as long as 18 months. But if the U.S. Constitution — written without any working model — was completed in four months, certainly the Iraqis could do the same in six months. More importantly, the United States should not insist on a constitution and an American-style democratic government that may not comport with Muslim values. Rather, Iraqi self-determination and self-rule should be the goal — with the clear understanding that whatever form the new government in Baghdad takes, it must not support terrorists who would attack the United States.

The desire of some Iraqis for a slow transition should raise eyebrows in Washington. To be blunt, a prolonged U.S. occupation is becoming the rationale for the United States to lavish even more money on Iraq. (It is somewhat self-fulfilling: The more we spend, the longer we stay, and on and on.) That development is the first sure sign that, whether by design or default, Iraq has become part of an American empire. Eventually, empires end up defending their client states’ interests rather than the best interests of their own people, and that already seems to be the case in Iraq.

The United States must leave Iraq posthaste before the Iraqi mission becomes a sinkhole that swallows billions more of taxpayer dollars and all too many American lives. The best way to guarantee the safety of American troops is to bring them home.

Charles V. Peña, director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute, is a member of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy.