Policy Analysis No. 588

Escaping the Trap: Why the United States Must Leave Iraq

Executive Summary

The U.S. military occupation of Iraq has now lasted longer than U.S. involvement in World War II. Yet there is no end in sight to the mission.

Staying in Iraq is a fatally flawed policy that has already cost more than 3,000 American lives and consumed more than $350 billion. The security situation in that country grows increasingly chaotic and bloody as evidence mounts that Iraq has descended into a sectarian civil war between Sunnis and Shiites. Approximately 120 Iraqis per day are perishing in political violence. That bloodshed is occurring in a country of barely 26 million people. A comparable rate of carnage in the United States would produce more than 1,400 fatalities per day.

That reality is a far cry from the optimistic pronouncements the administration and its supporters made when the war began. We were supposed to be able to draw down the number of our troops to no more than 60,000 before the end of 2003, and Iraqi oil revenues were to pay for the reconstruction of the country.

Even worse, Iraq has become both a training ground and a recruiting poster for Islamic extremists. U.S. occupation of Iraq has become yet another grievance throughout the Muslim world and has exacerbated our already worrisome problem with radical Islamic terrorism.

It is time to admit that the Iraq mission has failed and cut our losses. The notion that Iraq would become a stable, united, secular democracy and be the model for a new Middle East was always an illusion. We should not ask more Americans to die for that illusion.

Withdrawal will not be without cost. Radical Islamic factions will portray a withdrawal as a victory over the American superpower. We can minimize that damage by refocusing our efforts on al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and elsewhere, but there is no way to eliminate the damage. Even superpowers have to pay a price for wrongheaded ventures.

Whatever price we will pay for withdrawing from Iraq, however, must be measured against the probable cost in blood and treasure if we stay. That cost is already excessive. We are losing soldiers at the rate of more than 800 per year, and the financial meter is running at some $8 billion per month. With President Bush’s announcement of a “surge” of 21,500 additional troops, the pace of both will increase.

Worst of all, there is no reasonable prospect of success even if we pay the additional cost in blood and treasure. We need an exit strategy that is measured in months, not years.

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Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of seven books on international affairs and a coauthor of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War against Al Qaeda (2004).