Commentary

It’s Our Call

This article appeared in the American Spectator, January 26, 2005.

President Bush may look forward to liberating foreign lands, but the majority of Americans believe that his chief priority should be dealing with Iraq. How long we stay there ultimately must be decided based on American, not Iraqi, interests.

One reason the U.S. military is badly stretched is that Washington continues to maintain garrisons around the globe. Traditional commitments in Asia and Europe have been supplemented by sporadic intervention elsewhere, including the ongoing presence in Iraq.

America should defend foreign nations and base troops overseas based on its interests, not those of other countries. U.S. deployments should advance Americans’ security, not other people’s desires.

Unfortunately, U.S. analysts and policymakers often ignore this fundamental principle. For instance, Frederick Barton, Bathsheba Crocker, and Craig Cohen of the Center for Strategic and International Studies propose allowing “the Iraqis themselves” to vote on America’s continued military presence.

That would be fine if the Iraqis said go. But their saying stay would offer no reason for the U.S. to stick around. Washington should bear the cost and risk soldiers’ lives only if doing so serves American interests, irrespective of what the Iraqis think.

It’s a common mistake. U.S. officials have routinely said that Washington plans on staying in South Korea as long as the South Koreans want us to stay. But why?

The Republic of Korea is well able to defend itself. That it prefers to save money by relying on the U.S. is no justification for America’s security guarantee.

Thankfully, over the objection of the Korean government the Bush administration recently decided to bring home one-third of the existing garrison. But 25,000 U.S. troops will remain.

In fact, other nations and peoples routinely expect the U.S. to serve their interests. When the administration announced last year that it intended to withdraw two armored divisions from Germany, residents in towns hosting the forces complained.

They weren’t worried about having to defend against, say, a Russian invasion. Rather, they feared losing the cash that U.S. soldiers bring.

Two years ago Icelanders made a similar complaint when Washington decided to close its air base at Keflavik. Washington reasonably pointed out that there no longer was a Soviet threat, but officials from Iceland — which doesn’t bother to field a military —were not convinced.

Warned Helgi Agustsson, Iceland’s ambassador to the U.S.: “September 11th wasn’t supposed to happen either. An enemy always looks for the weakest link.” Petulantly, Prime Minister David Oddsson said that American naval vessels might not be welcome if the U.S. pulled out its F-15 fighters.

Equally presumptuous, though for more understandable reasons, were Liberians in summer 2003. They had suffered decades of conflict and civil war. The murderous President Charles Taylor, who had emerged victorious a few years before in a three-sided civil war, was then beset by a growing insurgency.

Since Liberia was established by freed U.S. slaves, the west African nation was considered to be Washington’s client. Two decades ago a U.S. Senate report concluded: “It is fair to say that in the eyes of other African and Western governments, Liberia’s well-being is an American responsibility.”

Liberians obviously felt the same way. One banner proclaimed at a demonstration in the capital of Monrovia: “Uncle Sam Must Come at Once.” Doug Collier, a relief worker, said that Liberians asked him, “Why doesn’t America come in and save us?”

Although Nigeria sent troops, that wasn’t viewed as enough. A refugee exclaimed: “we like the Nigerians — but we want some few Americans or British, to help them out and ensure the stability of the country.”

One can understand why Liberians wanted U.S. aid. But American troops are not pawns to be moved about the globe in someone else’s international chess game.

This point befuddles even some of Washington’s closest allies. After his election South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun complained that “So far, all changes in the size of U.S. troop strength here have been determined by the United States based on its strategic consideration, without South Korea’s consent.”

But upon what does he believe America’s deployments should be based? South Korea’s strategic consideration?

Bringing stability and democracy to Iraq is no mean task. And the U.S. cannot stay if it is not wanted. But an Iraqi desire that American forces remain is no cause to keep them there. Only the protection of American interests warrants the sacrifice of American lives.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan.