Commentary

Iraq Is Not World War II

In his commencement speech to the 2004 graduating class of the U.S. Air Force Academy, President Bush likened the war on terrorism to World War II, comparing 9/11 to Pearl Harbor. “The Middle East will set the course of our current struggle,” said Bush, we are fighting “the war on terror in Iraq.” But even implying that Iraq is like the Second World War ignores history and shows that the president continues to confuse and conflate Iraq with al Qaeda.

The Japanese attacked the United States on December 7, 1941, and the other Axis powers — Germany and Italy — consequently declared war on America. Al Qaeda attacked the United States on September 11, 2001, not Iraq. In fact, none of the attackers were Iraqis. Both Nazi Germany and imperial Japan were capable military powers with demonstrated designs on dominating world power and a clear threat to the United States. Their victory would have consigned key economic and strategic regions of the world to the control of hostile, anti-American regimes, which would have isolated the United States and made our security fragile.

Iraq under Saddam was a third-rate power with only limited capabilities to pose a threat in its own neighborhood. Iraq was not a credible threat to the United States and certainly was not a candidate for global hegemony. So any comparison of Iraq to World War II is absurd.

With the exception of al Qaeda infiltrators, the insurgents in Iraq are not a direct threat to the United States. They are a threat only to U.S. troops occupying Iraq. Ironically, at least some of those now fighting us in Iraq are the same people who cheered our overthrow of Saddam’s dictatorship. But now they are fighting a foreign occupier for control of their own country. In other words, these are not people who would travel thousands of miles to attack the U.S. homeland.

Not only is Iraq an unnecessary war, it is a war we cannot afford, especially with a budget deficit expected to exceed $500 billion this year. The Bush administration’s original estimate for the cost of the Iraq war was $50-$60 billion, but current estimates put the cost of the war at $100-$150 billion plus another $60-$100 billion for reconstruction. Former Bush economic adviser Larry Lindsey was rebuked when he suggested that the war would cost $200 billion. But his estimate appears closer to the truth than the administration’s rose-colored glasses prediction.

But it’s not just a matter of dollars and cents. In April 2003, one Iraqi expressed this sentiment: “We thank the Americans for getting rid of Saddam’s regime, but now Iraq must be run by Iraqis.” A year later, a USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll showed that more than 70 percent of Iraqis viewed U.S. forces mostly as occupiers; almost 60 percent believed U.S. troops had conducted themselves badly; more than half believed attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq can be justified (less than 20 percent believed this just six months prior); and nearly 60 percent thought those troops should leave immediately. In other words, the United States has overstayed its welcome. And this was before the revelations of abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison.

The sum total of all this is that America’s presence and actions in Iraq — however noble and well-intentioned — are doing more to make the terrorist threat to Americans in the United States worse, not better. Iraq is now our own version of Israeli occupation of the West Bank, only on a much larger piece of real estate and with spillover effects throughout the Muslim world. We are fueling extreme anti-American sentiment that breeds hatred, which is a steppingstone to violence and terrorism. We continue to deny this fact because we mistakenly assume that they hate us for who we are. We refuse to acknowledge that what we do matters.

We know that the presence of 5,000 U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia after the Gulf War was one of Osama bin Laden’s stated reasons for engaging in terrorism, including the devastating attacks of September 11 that killed more than 3,000 people. This is precisely why we must remove the nearly 140,000 U.S. troops from Iraq — sooner rather than later, within months, not years, of handing sovereignty back to the Iraqi people at the end of June.

But isn’t this appeasement? Won’t we be handing the terrorists a victory? What the Bush administration never understood is that they gave the terrorists their victory when the United States invaded Iraq. We confirmed the radicals’ claim that America is invading the heart of Islam. The question is whether we give them an even bigger victory — at greater cost to us — by staying longer.

We can leave now on our terms and refocus our attention and resources on the real threat to America, al Qaeda. Or we can run the risk of being forced to leave at a later date under conditions that make our defeat inescapable.

Charles V. Peña is the director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute and a member of a Cato Institute Special Task Force that produced the report “Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against Al Qaeda.”