Escaping the Trap: Why the United States Must Leave Iraq


Optimism about the U.S. mission in Iraq has faded dramaticallyin the past few months. The bipartisan Iraq Study group concededthat the situation in Iraq was “grave and deteriorating.” ThePentagon’s report to Congress in November 2006 paints a similarlydismal picture, with attacks on U.S. troops, Iraqi security forces,and Iraqi civilians at record levels.

Yet proponents of the war refuse to admit what is becomingincreasingly obvious: Washington’s Iraq occupation anddemocratization mission is failing, and there is little realisticprospect that its fortunes will improve. Something much moredramatic than a modest course correction is needed.

It is essential to ask the administration and its hawkishbackers at what point they will admit that the costs of thisventure have become unbearable. How much longer are they willing tohave our troops stay in Iraq? Five years? Ten years? Twenty years?How many more tax dollars are they willing to pour into Iraq?Another $300 billion? $600 billion? $1 trillion? And most crucialof all, how many more American lives are they willing to sacrifice?Two thousand? Five thousand? Ten thousand?

Proponents of the mission avoid addressing such unpleasantquestions. Instead, they act as though victory in Iraq can beachieved merely through the exercise of will power.

The Dire Security Situation inIraq

Whether or not one describes it as a civil war, the securitysituation in Iraq is extraordinarily violent and chaotic. Moreover,the nature of the violence in that country has shifted since theFebruary 2006 bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, one of ShiaIslam’s holiest sites. The Sunni‐​led insurgency against U.S. andBritish occupation forces and the security forces of theU.S.-sponsored Iraqi government is still a significant factor, butit is no longer the dominant one. The turmoil now centers aroundsectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiites. Baghdad is theepicenter of that strife, but it has erupted in other parts of thecountry as well. The Iraq Study Group noted that four of Iraq’s 18provinces are “highly insecure.” Those provinces account for about40 percent of the country’s population.

A November 2006 UN report highlights the extent of the growingbloodshed. The carnage is now running at approximately 120 victimseach day. This is occurring in a country of barely 26 millionpeople. A comparable pace in the United States would be ahorrifying 1,400 deaths per day‐​or nearly 500,000 per year. Ifviolence between feuding political or ethno‐​religious factions wasconsuming that many American lives, there would be little debateabout whether the United States was experiencing a civil war.

In addition to the casualties in Iraq, there are other humancosts. The United Nations estimates that some 1.6 million peoplehave been displaced inside Iraq (i.e., they are “internalrefugees”) as a result of the fighting. Another 1.8 million havefled the country entirely, mostly to Jordan and Syria. Moreover,the pace of the exodus is accelerating. Refugees are now leavingIraq at the rate of nearly 3,000 a day. The bulk of those refugeesare middle and upper class families. Indeed, there are affluentneighborhoods in Baghdad and other cities that now resemble ghosttowns.

The Complex Nature of theViolence

The mounting chaos in Iraq is not simply a case of Sunni‐​Shiitesectarian violence, although that is the dominant theme. The IraqStudy Group notes the complexity of Iraq’s security turmoil. “InKirkuk, the struggle is between Kurds, Arabs, and Turkmen. In Basraand the south, the violence is largely an intra‐​Shia struggle.“Implicitly rejecting the arguments of those who contend that theviolence is primarily a Sunni‐​Shia conflict confined to Baghdad,the members of the commission point out that “most of Iraq’s citieshave a sectarian mix and are plagued by persistent violence. PrimeMinister Nouri al‐​Maliki warns of that conflicts in the variousregions could be “Shi’ite versus Shi’ite and Sunni versusSunni.”

There is also mounting evidence that the majority of Iraqis nolonger want U.S. troops in their country. The bottom line is thatthe United States is mired in a country that is already in theearly stages of an exceedingly complex, multi‐​sided civil war, andwhere all significant factions save one (the Kurds) want Americantroops to leave. That is an untenable situation.

Illusory Solution‐​Send MoreTroops

Increasing the number of U.S. troops in Iraq by 20,000 or so isa futile attempt to salvage a mission that has gone terribly wrong​.In all likelihood, it would merely increase the number ofcasualties‐​both American and Iraqi – over the short term whilehaving little long‐​term impact on the security environment.Moreover, the magnitude of the proposed buildup falls far short ofthe numbers needed to give the occupation forces a realisticprospect of suppressing the violence. Experts on counterinsurgencystrategies have consistently concluded that at least 10 soldiersper 1,000 population are required to have a sufficient impact.Indeed, some experts have argued that in cases where armedresistance is intense and pervasive (which certainly seems to applyto Iraq), deployments of 20 soldiers per thousand may beneeded.

Given Iraq’s population (26 million) such a mission wouldrequire the deployment of at least 260,000 ground forces (anincrease of 115,000 from current levels) and probably as many as520,000. Even the lower requirement will strain the U.S. Army andMarine Corps to the breaking point. Yet a lesser deployment wouldhave no realistic chance to get the job done. A limited “surge” ofadditional troops is the latest illusory panacea offered by thepeople who brought us the Iraq quagmire in the first place. It isan idea that should be rejected.

Consequences of Leaving

Proponents of staying in Iraq offer several reasons why a promptwithdrawal would be bad for the United States. Those arguments varyin terms of plausibility. All of them, though, are ultimatelydeficient as a reason for keeping U.S. troops in Iraq.

Allegation: Al‐​Qaeda Would Take Over Iraq

Administration officials and other supporters of the war havewarned repeatedly that a “premature” withdrawal of U.S. forceswould enable Al‐​Qaeda to turn Iraq into a sanctuary to plot andlaunch attacks against the United States and other Westerncountries. But Al‐​Qaeda taking over Iraq is an extremely improbablescenario. The Iraq Study Group put the figure of foreign fightersat only 1,300, a relatively small component of the Sunni insurgencyagainst U.S. forces. It strains credulity to imagine 1,300 fighters(and foreigners at that) taking over and controlling a country of26 million people.

The challenge for Al‐​Qaeda would be even more daunting thanthose raw numbers suggest. The organization does have some supportamong the Sunni Arabs in Iraq, but opinion even among that segmentof the population is divided. A September 2006 poll conducted bythe Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University ofMaryland found that 94 percent of Sunnis had a somewhat or highlyunfavorable attitude toward Al Qaeda. As the violence of Al Qaedaattacks has mounted, and the victims are increasingly Iraqis, notAmericans, many Sunnis have turned against the terrorists. Therehave even been a growing number of reports during the past year ofarmed conflicts between Iraqi Sunnis and foreign fighters.

The PIPA poll also showed that 98 percent of Shiite respondentsand 100 percent of Kurdish respondents had somewhat or veryunfavorable views of Al Qaeda. The notion that aShiite‐​Kurdish‐​dominated government would tolerate Iraq becoming asafe haven for Al Qaeda is improbable on its face. And even if U.S.troops left Iraq, the successor government would continue to bedominated by the Kurds and Shiites, since they make up more than 80percent of Iraq’s population and, in marked contrast to thesituation under Saddam Hussein, they now control the military andpolice. That doesn’t suggest a reliable safe haven for AlQaeda.

Allegation: The Terrorists Would Be EmboldenedWorldwide

In urging the United States to persevere in Iraq, President Bushhas warned that an early military withdrawal would encourage AlQaeda and other terrorist organizations. Weak U.S. responses tochallenges over the previous quarter century, especially in Lebanonand Somalia, had emboldened such people, Bush argues. Hawkishpundits have made similar allegations.

It is a curious line of argument with ominous implications, forit assumes that the United States should have stayed in bothcountries, despite the military debacles there. The mistake,according to that logic, was not the original decision to intervenebut the decision to limit American losses and terminate themissions. That is a classic case of learning the wrong lessons fromhistory.

Yes, Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups apparently concludedthat the Lebanon and Somalia episodes showed that U.S. leaders andthe American people have no stomach for enduring murky missionsthat entail significant casualties. They are likely to draw asimilar lesson if the United States withdraws from Iraq without anirrefutable triumph. That is why it is so imperative to be cautiousabout a decision to intervene in the first place. Military missionsshould not be undertaken unless there are indisputably vitalAmerican security interests at stake.

A decision to withdraw and leave Iraq to its own fate is notwithout adverse consequences. America’s terrorist adversaries willportray a pull‐​out as a defeat for U.S. policy. But the cost ofstaying on indefinitely in a dire security environment is evenworse for our country. President Bush and his advisors need toconsider the possibility that the United States might stay in Iraqfor many years to come and still not achieve its policy goals. Andthe costs, both in blood and treasure, continue to mount.

Allegation: The Conflict Will Spill Over Iraq’s Bordersand Create Regional Chaos

That concern does have some validity. The ingredients are inplace for a regional Sunni‐​Shia “proxy war.” Predominantly ShiiteIran has already taken a great interest in political and militarydevelopments in its western neighbor. Indeed, Washington hasrepeatedly accused Tehran of interfering in Iraq. There is littledoubt that Iran wants to see a Shiite‐​controlled government inBaghdad and would react badly if it appeared that Iraq’s Sunniminority might be poised to regain power and once again subjugatethe Shiite majority. The current Iraqi government is quite friendlyto Iran, and Tehran can be expected to take steps to protect thenew‐​found influence it enjoys in Baghdad.

But Iraq’s other neighbors are apprehensive about the specter ofa Shiite‐​controlled Iraq. Saudi Arabia, in particular, regards theprospect of such a state on its northern border as anathema,worrying about the impact on its own Shia minority‐​which isconcentrated in the principal oil‐​producing region. There areindications that wealthy Saudis are already providing funds toSunni forces in Iraq.

A regional Sunni‐​Shiite proxy war in Iraq would turn the Bushadministration’s policy there into even more of a debacle than ithas already become. Even worse, Iraq’s neighbors could be drawn inas direct participants in the fighting. Washington should takesteps to head off those dangers.

Probably the best approach would be for the United States toconvene a regional conference that included (at a minimum) Iran,Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan, and Turkey. The purpose of such aconference should be to make all parties confront the danger of theIraqi turmoil mushrooming into a regional armed struggle thatultimately would not be in the best interests of any countryinvolved. Ideally, that realization might lead to a commitment bythe neighboring states to refrain from‐​or at least bound the extentof – meddling in the escalating violence in Iraq.

Ultimately, though, maintaining a U.S. military occupation ofIraq to forestall a possible regional proxy war is simply too higha price to pay, both in money spent and American livessacrificed.

Allegation: Leaving Iraq Would Betray a Moral Obligationto the Iraqi People.

In addition to their other objections, opponents of withdrawalprotest that we will leave Iraq in chaos, and that would be animmoral action on the part of the United States. Even some criticsof the war have been susceptible to that argument, invoking theso‐​called Pottery Barn principle: “You broke it, you boughtit.”

There are two major problems with that argument. First, unlesssome restrictions are put in place, the obligation is seeminglyopen‐​ended. There is little question that chaos might increase inIraq after U.S. forces leave, but advocates of staying the coursedo not explain how the United States can prevent the contendingfactions in Iraq from fighting the civil war they already seem tohave started. At least, no one has explained how the United Statescan restore the peace there at anything resembling a reasonablecost in American blood and treasure.

Leaving aside the very real possibility that the job of buildinga stable democracy might never be done, the moral obligation thesisbegs a fundamental question: What about the moral obligation of theU.S. government to its own soldiers and to the American people?There is clearly an obligation not to waste either American livesAmerican tax dollars. We are doing both in Iraq. Staying the courseis not a moral strategy; it is the epitome of an immoral one.

The Consequences of Staying inIraq

Leaving Iraq is clearly not cost‐​free, but the costs (bothtangible and intangible) of a prompt exit must be measured againstthe costs of staying the course. Moreover, even if the UnitedStates absorbs the costs of a prolonged mission, there is nocertainty that anything resembling victory resides at the end ofthat effort. Indeed, most of the indicators suggest that we wouldbe merely delaying defeat.

Damage to America’s Standing in the World

Even the September 2006 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraqconceded that the U.S. occupation of Iraq had served as a focalpoint and inspiration for Muslim extremists. Equally worrisome, ithad also served as a training arena for such militants to honetheir military and terrorist skills. An Al Qaeda letter interceptedby the U.S. military indicates that the organization itself regardsa continued U.S. military presence and, consequently, a long war inIraq as a boon to its cause.

A December 2006 Zogby poll of populations in five Arab nationsreveals just how much anti‑U.S. sentiment has increased throughoutthat region. Opinions of the United States, which were alreadyrather negative, have grown significantly worse in the pastyear.

Outside the Arab world, there also has been a hardening ofattitudes toward the United States. Even among long‐​standingfriends and allies (in such places as Europe and East Asia), theUnited States is viewed in a significantly more negative light. Thelonger we stay in Iraq, the worse those problems will become.

Straining the All‐​Volunteer Military

Even some hawks are concerned about the negative impact of theIraq mission on the all‐ volunteer force (AVF). They should beconcerned. In December 2006, Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, the Army’schief of staff, bluntly told a House committee that the active‐​dutyArmy “will break” unless there was a permanent increase in forcestructure. And that is before any contemplated additionaldeployments to Iraq.

The military leaders are not exaggerating. Already the Army hasstruggled to meet its recruiting goals, even though it has dilutedthe standards for new recruits, including by issuing waivers incases where there is evidence of criminal behavior or mentalillness. Indeed, the Iraq occupation has been sustained to thispoint only through extraordinary exertions, including anunprecedented number of “stop loss” orders, preventing militarypersonnel from returning to civilian life when their terms ofenlistment are up, and recalling members of the reserves‐​includingsome people in their 40s and 50s. The AVF is straining to thebreaking point already, and the longer we stay in Iraq, the worsethose strains will become.

Costs in Blood and Treasure

The tab for the Iraq mission is already more than $350 billion,and the meter is now running at approximately $8 billion a month.Furthermore, even those appalling figures do not take into accountindirect costs, such as long‐​term care for wounded Iraq warveterans.

Except when the survival of the nation is at stake, all militarymissions must be judged according to a cost‐​benefit calculation.Iraq has never come close to being a war for America’s survival.Even the connection of the Iraq mission to the larger war againstradical Islamic terrorism was always tenuous, at best. For all ofhis odious qualities, Saddam Hussein was a secular tyrant, not anIslamic radical. Indeed, the radical Islamists expressed nearly asmuch hatred for Saddam as they did for the United States. Iraq wasan elective war‑a war of choice, and a bad choice at that.

Deciding to Leave

The United States needs to adopt a withdrawal strategy measuredin months, not years. Indeed, the president should begin theprocess of removing American troops immediately, and that processneeds to be complete in no more than six months. A longer schedulewould simply prolong the agony. It would also afford various Iraqfactions (especially the Kurds and some of the Shia politicalplayers) the opportunity to try to entice or manipulate the UnitedStates into delaying the withdrawal of its forces stillfurther.

Emotionally, deciding to leave under current conditions will notbe easy, for it requires an implicit admission that Washington hasfailed in its ambitious goal to create a stable, united,democratic, secular Iraq that would be a model for peace throughoutthe Middle East. But that goal was unrealistic from the outset. Itis difficult for any nation, and especially the Americansuperpower, to admit failure. However, it is better to admitfailure when the adverse consequences are relatively modest. Adefeat in Iraq would assuredly be a setback for the United States,particularly in terms of global clout and credibility. But one ofthe advantages to being a superpower is that the country can absorba setback without experiencing catastrophic damage to its coreinterests or capabilities. Defeat in Iraq does not even come closeto threatening those interests or capabilities. Most important, awithdrawal now will be less painful than withdrawing years from nowwhen the cost in blood, treasure, and credibility will prove fargreater.

The withdrawal needs to be comprehensive, not partial. The onlytroops remaining in Iraq should be a modest number of SpecialForces personnel who would work with political factions in Iraqinclined to eradicate the Al Qaeda interlopers in their country. Itmust be clear to Iraqis and populations throughout the Muslim worldthat Washington has no intention of trying to maintain a militarypresence in Iraq.

Above all, U.S. policymakers need to absorb the larger lesson ofthe Iraq debacle. Launching an elective war in pursuit of anation‐​building chimera was an act of folly. It is a folly theyshould vow never to repeat in any other country.