Withdraw immediately or stay the present course? That is the key question about the war in Iraq today.
American public opinion is decidedly against the war; even in the "red states," more than half of Americans want out. That sentiment is understandable.
The prewar dream of a liberal Iraqi democracy friendly to the United States is no longer credible. No Iraqi leader with enough power and legitimacy to control the country will be pro-American. Still, President Bush says the United States must stay the course. Why? Let's consider his administration's most popular arguments for not leaving Iraq.
• If we leave, there will be a civil war. In reality, a civil war in Iraq began just weeks after U.S. forces toppled Saddam Hussein. Even Bush, who is normally impervious to uncomfortable facts, recently admitted that Iraq has peered into the abyss of civil war. He ought to look a little closer. Iraqis are fighting Iraqis. Insurgents have killed far more Iraqis than Americans. That's civil war.
• Withdrawal will encourage the terrorists. True, but that is the price we are doomed to pay. Our occupation of Iraq also encourages the killers — precisely because our invasion made Iraq safe for them. Our occupation also left the surviving Baathists with a choice: Surrender, or ally with Al Qaeda. They chose the latter. Staying the course will not change this fact. Pulling out will most likely result in Sunni groups' turning against Al Qaeda and its sympathizers, driving them out of Iraq.
• Before U.S. forces stand down, Iraqi security forces must stand up. The problem in Iraq is not military competence. The problem is loyalty. To whom can Iraqi officers and troops afford to give their loyalty? The political camps in Iraq are still shifting. So every Iraqi soldier and officer risks choosing the wrong side. As a result, most choose to retain as much latitude as possible to switch allegiances. All the U.S. military trainers in the world cannot remove that reality. But political consolidation will. Political power can only be established via Iraqi guns and civil war, not through elections or U.S. colonialism by ventriloquism.
• Setting a withdrawal deadline will damage the morale of U.S. troops. Hiding behind the argument of troop morale shows no willingness to accept the responsibilities of command. The truth is, most wars would stop early if soldiers had the choice of whether to continue. This is certainly true in Iraq, where a withdrawal is likely to raise morale among U.S. forces. A recent Zogby poll suggests that most U.S. troops would welcome an early withdrawal deadline. But the strategic question of how to extract the United States from the Iraq disaster is not a matter to be decided by soldiers. Carl von Clausewitz spoke of two kinds of courage: first, bravery in the face of mortal danger; second, the willingness to accept personal responsibility for command decisions. The former is expected of the troops. The latter must be demanded of high-level commanders, including the president.
• Withdrawal would undermine U.S. credibility in the world. Were the United States a middling power, this case might hold some water. But for the world's only superpower, it's patently phony. A rapid reversal of our present course in Iraq would improve U.S. credibility around the world. The same argument was made against withdrawal from Vietnam. It was proved wrong then, and it would be proved wrong today. Since Sept. 11, 2001, the world's opinion of the United States has plummeted. The U.S. now garners as much international esteem as Russia. Withdrawing and admitting our mistake would reverse this trend. Very few countries have that kind of corrective capacity. We do.
Two facts, however painful, must be recognized, or we will remain perilously confused in Iraq. First, invading Iraq was not in the interests of the U.S. It was in the interests of Iran and Al Qaeda. For Iran, it avenged a grudge against Hussein for his invasion of the country in 1980. For Al Qaeda, it made it easier to kill Americans. Second, the war has paralyzed the U.S. in the world, diplomatically and strategically. Although relations with Europe show signs of marginal improvement, the transatlantic alliance still may not survive the war. Only with a rapid withdrawal from Iraq will Washington regain diplomatic and military mobility. Tied down like Gulliver in the sands of Mesopotamia, we simply cannot attract the diplomatic and military cooperation necessary to win the real battle against terror.
In fact, getting out now may be our only chance to set things right in Iraq. For starters, if we withdraw, European politicians would be more likely to cooperate with us in a strategy for stabilizing the greater Middle East. Following a withdrawal, all the countries bordering Iraq would likely respond favorably to an offer to help stabilize the situation. The most important of these would be Iran. It dislikes Al Qaeda as much as we do. It wants regional stability as much as we do. It wants to produce more oil and gas and sell it. If its leaders really want nuclear weapons, we cannot stop them. But we can engage them.
None of these prospects is possible unless we stop moving deeper into the "big sandy" of Iraq. America must withdraw now.
Lt. Gen. William E. Odom (Ret.) is senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and professor at Yale University. He was director of the National Security Agency from 1985 to 1988.
A longer version of this article appears in the current issue of Foreign Policy magazine.
© 2006 Los Angeles Times