In testimony yesterday before the House Armed Service Committee, Defense Secretary Robert Gates stated that the United States has an “interest” in keeping troops in Iraq past the agreed date of withdrawal, December 31, 2011. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R‑Calif.) pressed Gates by asking:
How can we maintain all of these gains that we’ve made through so much effort if we only have 150 people there and we don’t have any military there whatsoever,” Hunter asked. “We’d have more military in Western European countries at that point than we’d have in Iraq, one of the most central states, as everybody knows, in the Middle East?
The logic of Rep. Duncan’s question provides some interesting context. His logic implies that the thousands of U.S. troops stationed in wealthy, developed, Western Europe is both necessary and beneficial to our current interests. But this is not a very good argument as European countries continue to cut their defense budgets in large part because they are sheltered under the American security umbrella. It is in fact highly questionable why Americans should be willing to accept massive deficits as far as the eye can see and spend still more on our military, so that our allies can continue to shirk their fundamental obligations to their own people. There is no reason why we should want to adopt the same model for Iraq.
And yet, Rep. Duncan assumes that U.S. troop deployments in Europe are the model for providing political and economic stability everywhere in the world. If U.S. troops withdraw, all of our “gains” in Iraq would be lost.
This assumes that, first, U.S. troops can provide this stability, and second that our strategic interests in Iraq are on par with those in other parts of the world. But leaving U.S. troops in Iraq for another two, five, or seven years will not advance American security. It is not now, and should never have been, the responsibility of U.S. troops to create a functioning state in Iraq. That is the responsibility of the Iraqi people and their government. Likewise, our troops should not serve as Iraq’s police force.
There is no doubt that there are political and security challenges in Iraq, but these concerns should not delay the withdrawal. There will always be excuses, especially from those who favored the war at the outset, for a continued presence. And these risks will persist no matter how long U.S. troops stay. The future of Iraq lies with the people of Iraq, and it is well past the time when they must take the reins.
A handover of security responsibilities to the Iraqi people is in America’s strategic interest. As we are currently seeing with European defense budgets, the United States has been in the business of doing for other governments what they should be doing for themselves. Now would be a good time to start to change this pattern.