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July 29, 2004

Do we really need to stay in Iraq?

I read a disturbing book the other day: Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. must end the military occupation and renew the war against Al Queda.   The book (really a pamplet at 83 pages) is a report written by the Cato Institute Special Task Force on Iraq, directed by Christopher Preble.

The thesis of the report is simple: a long-term military occupation of Iraq is not in the US' best interests.   There are three inter-related arguments to support this conclusion:

  1. Occupying Iraq increases the terror threat to the US because the occupation:

    • Diverts resources from the fight against Al Queda and distracts the attention of political, military and intelligence leaders, and

    • Provides Al Queda and its Islamist allies with a powerful recruiting tool.

  2. A long-term occupation is risky, expensive and won't work because it:

    • Will continue to cost US taxpayers on the order of $50 billion a year in incremental expenditures

    • Squeezes the all-volunteer military

    • Risks having US troops become targets for the indigenous tribal, religious or ethnic groups seeking to gain power

    • Does not significantly enhance the US military's ability to project power in the region if it were to become necessary to do so in the future.

  3. Occupying Iraq won't help make the middle east more democratic

    • Historically, it has been very rare for democratic regimes to be established through foreign military intervention

    • Given Iraq's recent history and ethnic/religious makeup, creating a functioning democracy in Iraq is a very ambitious goal.
I don't know that I agree with all of these conclusions; particularly the one about the war in Iraq helping Al Queda.   (While fighting against the Coalition in Iraq may aid AQ's recruiting effort, the US forces have also been doing an excellent job of attriting Al Queda members fighting in Fallujah or Al Najaf.   And I'd rather see Al Queda mujahadin fighting against fully equipped US Marines or Army troopers in Iraq rather than fighting civilian cops here in the US.)   But Cato's arguments are thought provoking.

Thomas Ricks had a relevent article in Tuesday's WaPo reporting that the US commanders in Iraq are considering lowering the profile of Coalition troops in Iraq and pulling back to bases in rural or less populated areas.   This may be a good idea, since it would reduce the friction between Iraqis and Coalition patrols (which are generally better targets than they are effective at preventing civil violence in the country) and place Iraqi forces in clear control of their own security.   Of course, Coalition troops would be available to backup the Iraqis if necessary.

This issue presents a classic conflict between America's Wilsonian ideals and a more pragmatic, realpolitik view of US interests.   Interestingly, it is the Republicans who are advocating the idealistic, Wilsonian position that we have an obligation to the Iraqi people to help them move beyond autocratic forms of government.   Traditionally, "human rights" and advancing the cause of democracy have been Democratic issues, while Republican foreign policy has tended to view the world in more geostrategic terms where the enemy of our enemy is our friend, regardless of their domestic policies or respect (or lack thereof) for human rights.   Of course, the Bush administration argues that supporting democracy in the Mideast is an essential element in fighting the social and political tensions that have led to Arab terrorism.

Perhaps the Cato Institute is right that having removed Saddam (and the very real future threat he posed to his neighbors and the rest of the world -- notwithstanding the non-existant WMD stockpiles) and having made the point that no one can defy UN resolutions and cease-fire agreements with the US with impunity, perhaps we should leave the Iraqis to decide their own future.

I don't know that I am ready to accept this argument, but at some point the Iraqi people themselves will be responsible for creating the kind of government and society that they want to live in.   If our military presence and support is not wanted or needed, we should leave.

July 29, 2004 at 04:29 PM | Permalink


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