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What If We Leave?

It is continually proclaimed that an American withdrawal from Iraq would carry grim consequences. President Bush calls it a “nightmare scenario,” and Frederick Kagan predicts “catastrophe.” Few Democrats disagree: House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer warns that “precipitous withdrawal … could lead to disaster, spawning a civil war, fostering a haven for terrorists and damaging our nation’s security and credibility.”

Indeed, the aftermath of withdrawal would be problematic and messy—like the present war—but it might not be as dire as increasingly desperate war supporters maintain.

The least persuasive scenario—but the one most likely to arrest the attention of Americans—is that Iraq will be taken over by international terrorists who would use it as a “safe haven” to “launch attacks on America,” as the president put it in an interview on “NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” in January.

Since al-Qaeda already has something of a safe haven in the unruly areas of Pakistan, it is not clear how adding space in Iraq would be of notable help. Moreover, international terrorism is essentially a conspiratorial enterprise carried out by tiny cells of plotters who can operate anywhere. Insofar as the 9/11 planners needed a safe haven, they found it in Hamburg, Germany, while those in London, Indonesia, Morocco, Madrid, and elsewhere were locals whose cells were based in their home countries and whose physical connection to the international jihadist movement was limited at best. Furthermore, in the wake of a U.S. exit, Iraqis are unlikely to tolerate the continued presence of foreign fighters (who make up only a very small portion of the insurgency) because these adventurers have mostly spent their time killing Iraqis and because, for better or worse, their key mission will have been accomplished.

More plausibly, America’s exit from Iraq will exhilarate international terrorists because victory over the U.S. will seem even greater to them than victory over the Soviets in Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden’s theory that Americans can be defeated, or at least productively inconvenienced, by inflicting comparatively small but continuously draining casualties on them will achieve apparent confirmation.

But that one is already lost: almost any exit from Iraq will have this effect. People like bin Laden believe that America in-vaded Iraq as part of its plan to control the Middle East’s oil and dominate the world —a perspective that polls suggest is enormously popular in Muslim countries as well as in such non-Muslim ones as Germany and France. The U.S. does not intend to do that—at least not in the direct sense bin Laden and others allege —nor does it seek to destroy Islam, as many others around the world bitterly assert. Such people will see almost any kind of American withdrawal as a victory for the terrorist insurgents, to whom they will give primary credit for forcing America to leave without accomplishing what they mistakenly take to be its key objectives.

Moreover, jihadists may be inclined to draw a special lesson by comparing the results of 9/11 with those of the Iraq War: it is much more productive to hit the “far enemy” when it comes near than to hit it in its homeland. That is, if their goal is to get the U.S. out of the Middle East, it is better for jihadists to cause it damage in places where its interests are limited rather than in places where its interests are vital. Thus, even if the result of the Iraq War exhilarates some terrorists, it would not necessarily whet their appetites for another 9/11.

After the American venture in Iraq is over, freelancing jihadists who trained there may seek to continue their operations elsewhere, like the jihadists who fought alongside the mujahideen against the Soviets in Afghanistan. If those experiences are any indication, however, the impact of these adventurers may not prove terribly significant. Following the example of their predecessors in Algeria, Chechnya, and Bosnia, they will most likely end up offering marginal reinforcement to rebel forces in places like Kashmir, Somalia, and Afghanistan. They might also try making trouble in their home countries, like Saudi Arabia, if they can manage to get back.

Whatever happens with the freelancers, the civil war in Iraq may become worse after the United States withdraws. But the ranks of the anti-American insurgency will be significantly reduced because those committed to forcing out the occupiers will presumably stop engaging in violence when their main target leaves the scene. As in Afghanistan after the Soviets left, a warlord-dominated and partially criminalized civil conflict could persist, though it will more likely resemble the somewhat less horrible, if exceedingly complicated, factionalized civil war in Lebanon.

In time, the Iraqis, like the Lebanese before them, will have to sort this out—perhaps with the aid of some of their neighbors. The U.S. invasion almost instantly made Iraq a failed state, and only the exhausted locals can patch it back together, as many civil wars in Africa and Asia have demonstrated over the last decade. An eventual agreement among combatants is possible in all this, as is a military coup and the return of strong-man rule—particularly if the elected government is seen as incompetent. The notion, however, that a resentful new government in Iraq will cut off oil production to spite the U.S. makes little sense, as that would further impoverish the country and destabilize the regime.

Those who favor continued U.S participation in Iraq’s civil war need to explain how the American presence there—irritating to most Iraqis, polls suggest—will significantly speed the reconciliation process. They also need to indicate how many American lives they are willing to sacrifice for this end, assuming that it is even possible.

The Iraq Study Group and many Democrats advocate enlisting the support of Iraq’s neighboring states to settle the civil war. This approach holds promise because Iraq’s neighbors have good reason to be concerned. Although they may support different factions in Iraq’s civil conflict, a stable, productive, diverse, and peaceful Iraq would likely serve their best interests. They certainly don’t need floods of Iraqi refugees, and if the civil war can’t be stopped, they would want to do all they could to contain it, perhaps applying the Europeans’ approach to the Bosnian war in the early 1990s. Their hearts—or at least their interests—are in the right place.

There is a dilemma, however: almost all of Iraq’s neighbors are on the hit list of the neoconservatives who influence the Bush administration so heavily. In the run-up to the Iraq War, neoconservative guru Norman Podhoretz strongly advocated expanding Bush’s axis of evil. “At a minimum,” he suggested, the list should extend beyond Iraq, Iran, and North Korea to include “Syria and Lebanon and Libya, as well as ‘friends’ of America like the Saudi royal family and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, along with the Palestinian Authority …” More realistic (and prescient) than other neocons about democracy, he noted that “the alternative to these regimes could easily turn out to be worse, even (or especially) if it comes into power through democratic elections.” Accordingly, he emphasized, it will be necessary for the United States “to impose a new political culture on the defeated parties.”

As Baghdad was falling in 2003, neocon Richard Perle triumphally issued a similar litany of targets in a speech at the U.S. Army War College, adding for good measure—and possibly in jest—France and the State Department. In their book, The War Over Iraq, Lawrence Kaplan and William Kristol stress that the war they so passionately advocated was over a lot more than just Iraq: “The mission begins in Baghdad, but does not end there. … War in Iraq represents but the first installment.” And in a speech in late 2006, Charles Krauthammer continued to champion what he calls “the only plausible answer,” an ambitious undertaking that involves “changing the culture of that area, no matter how slow and how difficult the process. It starts in Iraq and Lebanon, and must be allowed to proceed …” Any other policy, he divined, “would ultimately bring ruin not only on the U.S. but on the very idea of freedom.”

These men do not, of course, directly run the White House. But given how much they and other neoconservatives have influenced the administration’s intellectual development and military decision-making, the designated target countries would be foolish in the extreme not to take such threats very seriously. As long as the United States and its seemingly permanent bases linger, most of Iraq’s neighbors have good reason to feel profoundly uneasy. And for their own purposes, they have a strong incentive to assure that the American experience there is as miserable as possible.

Accordingly, in an important sense the ongoing presence of the United States makes productive co-operation by most of Iraq’s neighbors problematic. But America’s withdrawal would instantly shift the issue, supplying Iraq’s neighbors with a comparatively unqualified interest in ending the civil war and stabilizing the country. The danger is that their efforts could mostly be devoted to supporting one side or the other in the civil war, which happened with the not-so-neighborly nearby interveners in Lebanon and Congo’s civil wars. But pressure from the international community and a more modest, somewhat distant America, as well as the sensible appeal of the imperative to bring the Iraq disaster under control, may well be able to prevent that.

The sorting-out process may be facilitated if, as seems likely, the U.S. reacts to its Middle East misadventure by embracing an Iraq Syndrome reminiscent of the Vietnam Syndrome that restrained America from meddling further in Africa and Southeast Asia, while the Soviet Union foolishly gathered up a set of expensive dependencies there (and in Afghanistan) that hastened the demise of the Cold War.

The American public would probably be quite capable of shrugging off defeat and failure, as it proved in Vietnam as well as in the lesser debacles of Lebanon in 1983 and Somalia in 1993. And since American casualties are what matter in the U.S., little attention would likely be paid if a civil-war bloodbath developed in Iraq. Accordingly, there would likely be few, if any, calls to send troops, contrary to the current cry of war supporters that if things fall apart we would just have to go in again. Since Iraqi citizens do not vote in American elections, the U.S. government would likely reduce financial support for the Iraqi government after American troops leave.

This process might impel a suitably mellowed country to abandon some of its self-infatuated rhetoric. The United States has become a “superpower” unable to make electricity to work in Baghdad and an “indispensable nation” incapable of garnering international co-operation when it really needs it, and it may come to re-examine its role in the world.

Perhaps America will even embrace the wisdom propounded by George W. Bush in the presidential debates of 2000, before the neocons moved in:

If we’re an arrogant nation, they’ll resent us. If we’re a humble nation, but strong, they’ll welcome us. . . . I just don’t think it’s the role of the United States to walk into a country and say, we do it this way, so should you. I think we can help. . . . I think the United States must be humble and must be proud and confident of our values, but humble in how we treat nations that are figuring out how to chart their own course.

It would be a new, and considerably improved, Bush Doctrine.


John Mueller is professor of political science at Ohio State University. His most recent book is Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them.

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