America is now beset by two Gulf crises: one in the Persian Gulf, the other in the Gulf of Mexico. The two crises, each in its own way, have brought us back to reality. The chaos in Iraq has painfully demonstrated the limitations of American power and the inability of our military to subdue a people who don’t want to be occupied. Similarly, the disaster on the Gulf Coast has lifted the veil on the effects of years of neglect of our infrastructure and what happens when the country is guided by an economic philosophy that reduces a large proportion of the working public to minimum-wage jobs without access to good schools or adequate healthcare.
The fact that the richest nation in the world could not organize the rescue of its own people–and at times did not even seem to want to–was not lost on other countries that were once in awe of American power, wealth and principles. The images of desperate Americans clinging to rooftops and bridges while the President was on vacation at his ranch did more to destroy our credibility than any military retreat ever could.
How we respond to these twin crises–the lessons we draw from them–will tell us a lot about the kind of country we are. Above all, they call for us to reorder our priorities by giving up imperial missions abroad and rebuilding the social fabric and physical capital upon which the safety and livelihoods of all Americans depend. In the editorials that follow, we explain why withdrawal from Iraq will in the end make us a stronger and more secure country that is better able to contribute to a peaceful international order–and how the rebuilding at home can begin.
Each week the evidence mounts that the Iraq War is making us less safe while doing little to stabilize Iraq. Yet many moderates and liberals, including much of the Democratic leadership in Congress, continue to oppose withdrawing US forces or even setting a timeline for doing so. Their support for “staying the course” may be based on the honorable idea that we must clean up the mess we have created. But their opposition to withdrawal will only prolong a war that each day is generating more jihadi terrorists while diverting resources from more urgent needs at home and abroad.
Those who oppose withdrawal acknowledge that the war is not going well but argue that we can’t pull out until order has been restored and enough Iraqi troops have been trained to keep the peace. But the experience of the past two years strongly suggests that it’s beyond our capability to bring order to a country we do not understand and, even more sobering, that the occupation itself is at least in part the cause of the chaos there. The number of insurgents has steadily grown, as has the number and sophistication of their attacks on US and Iraqi forces. Today Iraq produces less electricity and less oil than it did before the US invasion; Iraqi unemployment has increased to more than 50 percent; and crime and corruption are rampant. Not surprisingly, the overwhelming majority of Iraqis say they oppose America’s military presence.
This astonishing record of failure is in part due to the horrendous mistakes the Bush Administration made in the early days of the occupation, from disbanding the Iraqi Army to torturing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. But today’s deepening crisis is also the inescapable result of an unwanted foreign occupation and the insurgency that inevitably arose to fight it. American actions to break that insurgency, whether by storming into Sunni houses in the middle of the night, detaining large numbers of suspected fighters or leveling cities like Falluja, breed even more bitterness, anger and recruits, as well as more chaos and lawlessness.
American military officials now admit that the insurgency cannot be defeated by force. Rather, as Gen. Donald Alston, the chief military spokesman in Baghdad, acknowledged earlier this summer, it can only be “settled in the political process.” But the occupation has so poisoned that process that it may be impossible to establish a national pact as long as US forces remain in Iraq. On the one hand, the Sunni population and Shiite nationalists associated with Muqtada al-Sadr seem convinced that the United States is using its power to facilitate a Kurdish and southern Shiite breakup of the country. They thus believe, whether rightly or wrongly, that they must defeat the United States before they can get a fair hearing in the new Iraq. On the other hand, the Shiite-dominated government, knowing that it has US protection, has had little or no incentive to compromise with the Sunnis or the Shiite nationalists, as evidenced by its unwillingness to give serious consideration to their concerns in the drafting of the new Constitution. Meanwhile, the government seems determined to elevate the role of Islam in Iraqi society, stripping women of the rights they have enjoyed for decades. As a result, Iraqis have been brought a step closer not to a workable government but to full-scale civil war and the establishment of an Islamic state.
Thus, instead of producing security or fostering democracy, we have allowed ourselves to be used by one faction of the country, albeit a majority, to impose a government inimical to the rights of the minority and to the future functioning of Iraq. We now find ourselves in the uncomfortable position of asking our men and women in uniform to fight for a government that seems determined to create an Islamic state aligned with Iran and to maintain order in what could become an increasingly bloody civil war.
Those who argue that withdrawal must be contingent upon an improvement of conditions in Iraq have it backward. Conditions will not improve, at least not fundamentally, until we establish a clear timetable for withdrawal and begin to reduce our military presence. At this point, nothing may prevent the civil war that in many respects has already begun; but at the least, the announcement of withdrawal would change the political dynamics, which in turn would create an opportunity for more responsible forces in Iraq to emerge. There is good evidence that withdrawal of US troops and the re-opening of the constitutional process will take some of the steam out of the insurgency and give moderate Sunnis a reason to opt for a political settlement. It might also force the current government to make a more genuine effort to bring Sunnis and Shiite nationalists into the political process. And it would put more of an onus on Iraq’s regional neighbors to responsibly police their borders and curb their allies within Iraq.
Those who oppose withdrawal argue that if we leave, Iraq will become a failed state and a haven for terrorists, much like Afghanistan in the 1990s. This assumes that the interests of Sunni nationalists, who account for the great majority of the insurgents, and foreign fighters are the same. But there is every reason to believe that once US troops begin to depart, the Iraqi insurgents will turn on the foreign jihadis. The Sunni tribal community is tightly knit, with considerable resources and decades of experience in exercising control over the country. Its leaders are not likely to cede power to foreigners of any stripe. Already there is evidence of resistance to the jihadis in places like Ramadi.
Our strategy ought not to be to fight every prospective terrorist to the death in Iraq–a prescription for endless war–but to deny them the cause that has swollen their ranks. Indeed, the greatest blow the Bush Administration could strike against jihadi terrorism would be to end the occupation. Conversely, the longer we stay, the more trained jihadi fighters there will be to let loose on the world and on Iraq’s neighbors. Thus an expeditious US withdrawal is a critical regional and national security priority, not a prescription for emboldening the terrorists, as some claim.
Admittedly, withdrawal from Iraq will be a defeat of sorts–defeat of a misguided policy that tried to remake America into an imperial power and turn Iraq into a strategic garrison. But from this defeat another US foreign policy can emerge, one guided by America’s real interests and principles and above all by a commitment to international law and diplomacy. If combined with creative regional diplomacy that no longer targets Iran and Syria as our enemies and that commits the United States to a serious effort at brokering an equitable Israeli-Palestinian settlement, withdrawal from Iraq may be able to limit the violence the invasion unleashed and put the United States in a better position to contribute to a more stable Middle East.