Commentary

Iraq: A Quick Exodus Is in America’s Best Interests

By Charles V. Peña
May 28, 2003

President Bush has named longtime diplomat L. Paul Bremer as the new civilian administrator and senior coalition official in Iraq. Reportedly, administration officials, while generally pleased with the accomplishments of retired Army Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, hope that Bremer will make the process move faster. That the administration seems keen on speeding up the political transition in Iraq and the eventual U.S. military withdrawal is good news.

There already are early warning signs that the United States can ill afford to linger in Iraq and overstay its welcome. Thousands of Muslims — Shiite and Sunni — have protested against the U.S. military presence. American troops, saddled with peacekeeping duties they are not trained to perform, have fired on crowds and killed civilians in Mosul and Fallujah. The lesson is clear: The United States must leave Iraq at the earliest possible opportunity.

This means that the United States must avoid a Balkans-style nation-building enterprise in Iraq. In November 1995, President Clinton assured the American public that U.S. troops would be in Bosnia for only one year. Nearly eight years later, those troops are still there. Unlike Clinton, Bush has not even set a timetable for how long the United States will stay in Iraq, only that “we will remain in Iraq as long as necessary, and not a day more.” That’s an open-ended commitment. But if the United States can devise a plan and execute a decisive military victory in less than 4 weeks, certainly the administration can do better job devising and executing an exit plan for Iraq.

Here is a prescription for a quick exit.

  • An interim Iraqi authority must be established immediately. According to Garner, the nucleus of an interim government is emerging and should be in place by the end of May. The one concern is that the United States needs to avoid being seen as “stacking the deck” and creating what amounts to a puppet government beholden to U.S. interests. Unfortunately, such manipulation may already be happening. Garner named five likely candidates (to fill 8 or 9 seats), all of whom were either Kurds or exiles who have long been backed and financed by the United States.
  • The interim authority must create the framework for a newly elected Iraqi government in 3 months or less.
  • Hold elections within the subsequent 2-3 months. This may seem ambitious, but it only took 6 months from the Bonn, Germany meeting, which created a plan for a new Afghan government after the Taliban was deposed, to have Hamid Karzai elected as the new president in Afghanistan. And when the United States ousted the Marxist military council that seized power in Grenada in 1983, free elections were held the following year.
  • Once a new Iraqi government is in place, which according to the prescribed schedule would be no later than November, withdraw U.S. military forces by year’s end. (After helping depose dictator Manuel Noriega, the United States handed over the entire Panama Canal and control of the country to the new government in a year.)

Most importantly, the United States must be willing to live with the result, which is not likely to be a perfect democracy. The temptation will be for the United States to stay on to help the Iraq get it “right.” And it is only natural that Americans will want to bestow upon Iraqis the same freedoms and liberties that we cherish. But our government’s first responsibility is to the American people , not Iraq. Liberating Iraq and creating democracy may be a noble purpose, but U.S. national security demands only that the new government not harbor or support terrorists who would harm the United States.

Indeed, there is some hope that even an Islamic government would not necessarily be hostile to the United States. 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.” To prevent that gratitude from turning to resentment and hostility, we must have the wisdom to leave as quickly as possible. If we don’t, the United States runs the risk of reliving its experience in Lebanon in the 1980s. Or worse, our own version of the Soviet experience in Afghanistan — Arabs and Muslims from the region could flock to Iraq to expel the American infidel.

Charles V. Peña is the director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute.