If I were a journalist, I would list all the arguments that you hear against pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq, the horrible things that people say would happen, and then ask: Aren’t they happening already? Would a pullout really make things worse? Maybe it would make things better.
Here are some of the arguments against pulling out:
- We would leave behind a civil war.
- We would lose credibility on the world stage.
- It would embolden the insurgency and cripple the move toward democracy.
- Iraq would become a haven for terrorists.
- Iranian influence in Iraq would increase.
- Unrest might spread in the region and/or draw in Iraq’s neighbors.
- Shi’ite-Sunni clashes would worsen.
- We haven’t fully trained the Iraqi military and police forces yet.
- Talk of deadlines would undercut the morale of our troops.
But consider this:
1. On civil war. Iraqis are already fighting Iraqis. Insurgents have killed far more Iraqis than Americans. That’s civil war. We created the civil war when we invaded; we can’t prevent a civil war by staying.
For those who really worry about destabilizing the region, the sensible policy is not to stay the course in Iraq. It is rapid withdrawal, reestablishing strong relations with our allies in Europe, showing confidence in the UN Security Council, and trying to knit together a large coalition including the major states of Europe, Japan, South Korea, China, and India to back a strategy for stabilizing the area from the eastern Mediterranean to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Until the United States withdraws from Iraq and admits its strategic error, no such coalition can be formed.
Thus, those who fear leaving a mess are actually helping make things worse while preventing a new strategic approach with some promise of success.
2. On credibility. If we were Russia or some other insecure nation, we might have to worry about credibility. A hyperpower need not worry about credibility. That’s one of the great advantages of being a hyperpower: When we have made a big strategic mistake, we can reverse it. And it may even enhance our credibility. Staying there damages our credibility more than leaving.
Ask the president if he really worries about U.S. credibility. Or, what will happen to our credibility if the course he is pursuing proves to be a major strategic disaster? Would it not be better for our long-term credibility to withdraw earlier than later in this event?
3. On the insurgency and democracy. There is no question the insurgents and other anti-American parties will take over the government once we leave. But that will happen no matter how long we stay. Any government capable of holding power in Iraq will be anti-American because the Iraqi people are increasingly becoming anti-American.
Also, the U.S. will not leave behind a liberal, constitutional democracy in Iraq no matter how long it stays. Holding elections is easy. It is impossible to make it a constitutional democracy in a hurry.
President Bush’s statements about progress in Iraq are increasingly resembling LBJ’s statements during the Vietnam War. For instance, Johnson’s comments about the 1968 election are very similar to what Bush said in February 2005 after the election of a provisional parliament.
Ask the president: Why should we expect a different outcome in Iraq than in Vietnam?
Ask the president if he intends to leave a pro-American liberal regime in place. Because that’s just impossible. Postwar Germany and Japan are not models for Iraq. Each had mature (at least a full generation old) constitutional orders by the end of the 19th century. They both endured as constitutional orders until the 1930s. Thus, General Clay and General MacArthur were merely reversing a decade and a half of totalitarianism – returning to nearly a century of liberal political change in Japan and a much longer period in Germany.
Imposing a liberal constitutional order in Iraq would be to accomplish something that has never been done before. Of all the world’s political cultures, an Arab-Muslim one may be the most resistant to such a change of any in the world. Even the Muslim society in Turkey (an anti-Arab society) stands out for being the only example of a constitutional order in an Islamic society, and even it backslides occasionally.
4. On terrorists. Iraq is already a training ground for terrorists. In fact, the CIA has pointed out to the administration and Congress that Iraq is spawning so many terrorists that they are returning home to many other countries to further practice their skills there. The quicker a new dictator wins political power in Iraq and imposes order, the sooner the country will stop producing experienced terrorists.
Why not ask: “Mr. President, since you and the vice president insisted that Saddam’s Iraq supported al-Qaeda – which we now know it did not – isn’t your policy in Iraq today strengthening al-Qaeda’s position in that country?”
5. On Iranian influence. Iranian leaders see U.S. policy in Iraq as being so much in Tehran’s interests that they have been advising Iraqi Shi’ite leaders to do exactly what the Americans ask them to do. Elections will allow the Shi’ites to take power legally. Once in charge, they can settle scores with the Ba’athists and Sunnis. If U.S. policy in Iraq begins to undercut Iran’s interests, then Tehran can use its growing influence among Iraqi Shi’ites to stir up trouble, possibly committing Shi’ite militias to an insurgency against U.S. forces there. The U.S. invasion has vastly increased Iran’s influence in Iraq, not sealed it out.
Questions for the administration: “Why do the Iranians support our presence in Iraq today? Why do they tell the Shi’ite leaders to avoid a sectarian clash between Sunnis and Shi’ites? Given all the money and weapons they provide Shi’ite groups, why are they not stirring up more trouble for the U.S.? Will Iranian policy change once a Shi’ite majority has the reins of government? Would it not be better to pull out now rather than to continue our present course of weakening the Sunnis and Ba’athists, opening the way for a Shi’ite dictatorship?”
6. On Iraq’s neighbors. The civil war we leave behind may well draw in Syria, Turkey, and Iran. But already today each of those states is deeply involved in support for or opposition to factions in the ongoing Iraqi civil war. The very act of invading Iraq almost ensured that violence would involve the larger region. And so it has and will continue, with or without U.S. forces in Iraq.
7. On Shi’ite-Sunni conflict. The U.S. presence is not preventing Shi’ite-Sunni conflict; it merely delays it. Iran is preventing it today, and it will probably encourage it once the Shi’ites dominate the new government, an outcome U.S. policy virtually ensures.
8. On training the Iraq military and police. The insurgents are fighting very effectively without U.S. or European military advisers to train them. Why don’t the soldiers and police in the present Iraqi regime’s service do their duty as well? Because they are uncertain about committing their lives to this regime. They are being asked to take a political stand, just as the insurgents are. Political consolidation, not military-technical consolidation, is the issue.
The issue is not military training; it is institutional loyalty. We trained the Vietnamese military effectively. Its generals took power and proved to be lousy politicians and poor fighters in the final showdown. In many battles over a decade or more, South Vietnamese military units fought very well, defeating VC and NVA units. But South Vietnam’s political leaders lost the war.
Even if we were able to successfully train an Iraqi military and police force, the likely result, after all that, would be another military dictatorship. Experience around the world teaches us that military dictatorships arise when the military’s institutional modernization gets ahead of political consolidation.
9. On not supporting our troops by debating an early pullout. Many U.S. officers in Iraq, especially at company and field grade levels, know that while they are winning every tactical battle, they are losing strategically. And according to the New York Times, they are beginning to voice complaints about Americans at home bearing none of the pains of the war. One can only guess about the enlisted ranks, but those on a second tour – probably the majority today – are probably anxious for an early pullout. It is also noteworthy that U.S. generals in Iraq are not bubbling over with optimistic reports the way they were during the first few years of the war in Vietnam. Their careful statements and caution probably reflect serious doubts that they do not, and should not, express publicly. The more important question is whether or not the repressive and vindictive behavior by the secretary of defense and his deputy against the senior military – especially the Army leadership, which is the critical component in the war – has made it impossible for field commanders to make the political leaders see the facts.
Most surprising to me is that no American political leader today has tried to unmask the absurdity of the administration’s case that to question the strategic wisdom of the war is unpatriotic and a failure to support our troops. Most officers and probably most troops don’t see it that way. They are angry at the deficiencies in materiel support they get from the Department of Defense, and especially about the irresponsibly long deployments they must now endure because Mr. Rumsfeld and his staff have refused to enlarge the ground forces to provide shorter tours. In the meantime, they know that the defense budget shovels money out the door to maritime forces, SDI, etc., while refusing to increase dramatically the size of the Army.
As I wrote several years ago, “the Pentagon’s post-Cold War force structure is so maritime heavy and land force weak that it is firmly in charge of the porpoises and whales while leaving the land to tyrants.” The Army, some of the Air Force, the National Guard, and the reserves are now the victims of this gross mismatch between military missions and force structure. Neither the Bush nor the Clinton administration has properly “supported the troops.” The media could ask the president why he fails to support our troops by not firing his secretary of defense.
So why is almost nobody advocating a pullout? I can only speculate. We face a strange situation today where few if any voices among Democrats in Congress will mention early withdrawal from Iraq, and even the one or two who do will not make a comprehensive case for withdrawal now. Why are the Democrats failing the public on this issue today? The biggest reason is because they weren’t willing to raise that issue during the campaign. Howard Dean alone took a clear and consistent stand on Iraq, and the rest of the Democratic Party trashed him for it. Most of those in Congress voted for the war and let that vote shackle them later on. Now they are scared to death that the White House will smear them with lack of patriotism if they suggest pulling out.
Journalists can ask all the questions they like, but none will prompt a more serious debate as long as no political leaders create the context and force the issues into the open.
I don’t believe anyone will be able to sustain a strong case in the short run without going back to the fundamental misjudgment of invading Iraq in the first place. Once the enormity of that error is grasped, the case for pulling out becomes easy to see.
Look at John Kerry’s utterly absurd position during the presidential campaign. He said, “It’s the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time,” but then went on to explain how he expected to win it anyway. Even the voter with no interest in foreign affairs was able to recognize it as an absurdity. If it was the wrong war at the wrong place and time, then it was never in our interests to fight. If that is true, what has changed to make it in our interests? Nothing, absolutely nothing.
The U.S. invasion of Iraq only serves the interests of:
1. Osama bin Laden (it made Iraq safe for al-Qaeda, positioned U.S. military personnel in places where al-Qaeda operatives can kill them occasionally, helps radicalize youth throughout the Arab and Muslim world, alienates America’s most important and strongest allies – the Europeans – and squanders U.S. military resources that otherwise might be finishing off al-Qaeda in Pakistan.);
2. The Iranians (who were invaded by Saddam and who suffered massive casualties in an eight-year war with Iraq.);
3. And the extremists in both Palestinian and Israeli political circles (who don’t really want a peace settlement without the utter destruction of the other side, and probably believe that bogging the United States down in a war in Iraq that will surely become a war with the rest of Arab world gives them the time and cover to wipe out the other side.)
The wisest course for journalists might be to begin sustained investigations of why leading Democrats have failed so miserably to challenge the U.S. occupation of Iraq. The first step, of course, is to establish as conventional wisdom the fact that the war was never in the U.S.’ interests and has not become so. It is such an obvious case to make that I find it difficult to believe many pundits and political leaders have not already made it repeatedly.
Lieutenant General William E. Odom, U.S. Army (Ret.), is a Senior Fellow with Hudson Institute and a professor at Yale University. He was Director of the National Security Agency from 1985 to 1988. From 1981 to 1985, he served as Assistant Chief of Staff for Intelligence, the Army’s senior intelligence officer. From 1977 to 1981, he was Military Assistant to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs, Zbigniew Brzezinski.
Originally published by Nieman Watchdog