Both sides – representing nearly the entire
political spectrum in Washington – rule out a prompt U.S. military
withdrawal because that supposedly would turn Iraq into a “failed state”
and a “breeding ground for Islamic terrorism.” Therefore, the thinking
goes, U.S. troops must remain while Iraq builds a democracy that can
stop the extremists.
But there is a case to be made for U.S. withdrawal
as the best option for both resolving the conflict and neutralizing the
foreign Islamic extremists in Iraq. A corollary of this thinking holds
that the continued U.S. military presence does more harm than good.
The logic of withdrawal goes like this:
First, a distinction must be made between the
Sunni-led insurgency, which is fighting out of a sense of Iraqi
nationalism and to protect the Sunni minority’s interests in Iraq, and
the al-Qaeda-linked terrorist network of Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
It is engaged in a jihad to drive Americans and other Westerners out of
the Middle East.
While the interests of the Sunni-led insurgency and
the Zarqawi-led terrorists may overlap under the present circumstances,
that is primarily because an American force of 138,000 troops remains
The Sunni insurgents see the U.S. army as the enemy
because it invaded Iraq and is now protecting a government dominated by
Iraq’s Shiite majority. Zarqawi’s group has made itself somewhat useful
to the Sunnis by recruiting Islamic extremists to come to Iraq and
undertake suicide bombings that kill Americans and wreak havoc.
If the Americans and other Western forces weren’t
in Iraq, however, two changes would likely occur: first, the draw for
radicalized Islamic youth to infiltrate into Iraq and become suicide
bombers would have disappeared; second, Zarqawi’s limited usefulness to
the Sunnis would soon dissipate.
There would no longer be Americans for Zarqawi and
his terrorist band to target and the loss of new recruits would minimize
any value his organization would have in battling the Shiites. Zarqawi’s
remaining terrorists would quickly become more a liability than an asset
– and thus a target of Iraqis from all religious sects.
Many Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq already are fed up
with the indiscriminant devastation inflicted by Zarqawi’s militants.
Despite religious differences, which date back 1,400 years, there even
have been reports of Iraqi Sunnis turning their guns on Zarqawi’s
fighters to protect Shiite neighbors.
For instance, on Aug. 13 in the western city of
Ramadi, Sunni members of the Dulaimi tribe set up protective perimeters
around their Shiite neighbors and reportedly fought Zarqawi’s forces who
were trying to dislodge the Shiites from the Sunni-dominated city.
[Washington Post, Aug. 14, 2005]
Without the presence of U.S. troops, Zarqawi could
lose his raison d’etre, his manpower and his protection from
Sunni insurgents who tolerate him now only because they’re in a
desperate struggle against both the powerful American military and the
But the Bush administration’s political strategy at home
has been to treat the Sunni-led insurgents and the Zarqawi-led
terrorists as the same enemy.
Few distinctions are made even though the two
groups employ different tactics. The Iraqi insurgents fight primarily
with small arms and roadside bombs aimed at U.S. troops, while the
foreign terrorists rely heavily on suicide bombers to kill Iraqi
civilians and police as well as American soldiers.
By lumping the two forces together as “terrorists,”
Bush again has shaped the Washington debate much as he did in 2002 and
early 2003 when he and Vice President Dick Cheney morphed Iraq’s secular
dictator Saddam Hussein into al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
That strategy worked so well that many Americans
said they supported the invasion of Iraq as revenge for the Sept. 11,
2001, attacks, even though no Iraqis participated in the Sept. 11
attacks and Hussein’s regime brutally repressed Islamic extremists.
Another argument for American withdrawal is that it
could push the Shiites and their Kurdish allies into compromising with
the Sunni minority on an overall settlement.
As the current impasse over a new constitution
shows, the Shiites and Kurds see little reason to make significant
concessions to the Sunnis because the American military continues to
tilt the power balance in favor of the Shiite-Kurdish side.
The Shiites and Kurds want broad autonomy over the
oil riches of Iraq’s south and north, respectively, and feel they can
get that. So, when U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalizad entered the Iraqi
assembly for some eleventh-hour arm-twisting before the Aug. 15 deadline
for completing work on the new constitution, the intervention had little
In part, that’s because Bush has left himself
little maneuvering room for pressuring the Shiites and Kurds, since he
has effectively ruled out any sudden U.S. military withdrawal. Rather
than looking for an exit, which might at least worry the Shiites and
Kurds, Bush continues to paint himself – and the United States – into a
“Pulling the troops out now would send a terrible
message to the enemy,” Bush declared on Aug. 11 at his ranch in
By tying American “credibility” to the outcome in
Iraq, Bush has locked the United States in even tighter. His comment
also recalled Richard Nixon’s warning that the United States would be a
“pitiful, helpless giant” unless it held tough in Vietnam.
But Nixon’s predictions of a geopolitical
catastrophe that would follow the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam did not
come to pass – despite the continuation of horrific violence, especially
in Cambodia, for several more years.
Likewise, it’s not at all certain that a U.S.
military withdrawal from Iraq would bring the dire consequences for the
United States that Bush foresees. Indeed, if combined with U.S. support
for a fair resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and a genuine
commitment for political reform in repressive Arab states, an Iraq
withdrawal might strengthen overall American relations with the Islamic
It still can’t be ruled out that a messy civil war
in Iraq will follow, but that could happen whether U.S. forces stay or
go. It already appears that a civil war is underway, with militias and
death squads from various factions eliminating perceived enemies.
Now, however, the Shiites can rely on Americans to
do much of the hard fighting in Fallujah and other Sunni strongholds. A
U.S. withdrawal at least would give the Shiites and the Kurds an
incentive to show more flexibility in compromising with the Sunnis.
A U.S. withdrawal also would free up Special Forces
to concentrate on tracking down and eliminating al-Qaeda’s leadership,
an operation that was disrupted by Bush’s hasty decision to focus on
Iraq in 2002.
But what about the spread of Western-style
democracy, another central argument underpinning Bush’s Middle East
While it’s impossible to predict what type of
government Iraqis might produce on their own, Bush’s theory that
“democracy” automatically creates more moderate behavior has always
rested on dubious logic.
Dating back to ancient Greece, many democracies
have veered off into reckless behavior – falling under the sway of
charismatic leaders, getting swept up by ethnic hatreds or becoming
consumed by war fever.
Democracy also doesn’t ensure that a country’s
policies will be liked in Washington.
Since the end of World War II, the U.S. government
has intervened time and again when populations have elected leaders who
were viewed as hostile to American interests. In the Western Hemisphere
alone, think of Arbenz in Guatemala, Allende in Chile, Ortega in
Nicaragua, Aristide in Haiti, Chavez in Venezuela.
In the Islamic world, Western powers have shown a
similar selective respect for the democratic process – embracing it as
long as their favorites win the elections.
In 1953, for instance, the CIA instigated a coup in
Iran that ousted elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh after he
tried to nationalize Iran’s oil. In 1991, Western governments looked on
sympathetically when the Algerian army nullified elections after it
became apparent that an Islamic fundamentalist party would win in a fair
Just last month, Washington expressed dismay when
Iranian voters shocked the political establishment in Tehran by choosing
a populist hard-liner, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as Iran’s new president.
Ahmadinejad pulled off the upset by vowing to stand up to Western
pressure over Iran’s nuclear program.
Other times in recent history, Western democracies
have themselves demonstrated a susceptibility to extreme or irrational
One only has to remember the Iraq War hysteria that
swept the United States in 2002 and 2003 as Bush whipped up the American
public with false claims about the grave threat posed by Iraq’s weapons
of mass destruction. In hyping that danger, Bush had the aid or
acquiescence of Congress and the major U.S. news media.
Another dubious argument against U.S. withdrawal is
the notion that the United States has an obligation to repair the damage
already inflicted on Iraq. The idea was pithily expressed by former
Secretary of State Colin Powell in what he called the “Pottery Barn
rule” that “if you break it, you own it.”
Though Powell’s comment has some earthy wisdom to
it (even if Pottery Barn really doesn’t have such a rule), there is a
contrary saying that could apply better to Bush’s responsibility for the
disaster in Iraq: “Haven’t you done enough damage already?”
Sometimes the person who created a mess is not the
right person to clean it up. There are times when the practical – as
well as the moral – action is to step back and let others do their best
to pick up the pieces.
Any debate about the wisdom to “stay the course”
must include whether there’s a realistic prospect for the U.S. policy to
succeed in Iraq. If that judgment is negative, then extending the war is
both impractical and immoral.
Some American military analysts already are warning
that the political imperative to hold down U.S. casualties has limited
“civic action” and other hearts-and-minds tactics that are vital to any
counterinsurgency war. Instead, the U.S. military often hunkers down in
air-conditioned bunkers, venturing out for specific operations against
Only recently has the Bush administration begun to
adjust to the facts on the ground. On Aug. 14, the Washington Post
reported that “the Bush administration is significantly lowering
expectations of what can be achieved in Iraq, recognizing that the
United States will have to settle for far less progress than originally
One senior official told the Post that “we are in
the process of absorbing the factors of the situation we’re in and
shedding the unreality that dominated in the beginning.” [Washington
Post, Aug. 14, 2005]
A debate about U.S. military withdrawal might offer
a measure of accountability for the war’s architects who have sent
almost 1,900 American soldiers to their death – along with tens of
thousands of Iraqis – while Washington lived in a world of “unreality.”
Plus, the debate could define the political stakes
of the congressional elections in 2006. If Bush refuses to reconsider
his war policies and the dying goes on indefinitely, the Iraq withdrawal
debate – and next year’s election – might finally give the American
voters a chance to express an informed judgment on the war.
[For a detailed examination of how the United
States reached this curious political juncture, see Robert Parry’s
Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.
For a selection of Consortiumnews.com stories as Bush’s war policies
evolved, see “Bush’s
Grim Vision”; “Misleading
the Nation to War”; “Bay
of Pigs Meets Black Hawk Down”; “Bush’s
Grimmer Vision”; and “Iraq
War’s Two Constants.”]