As the midterm elections approach, Iraq dominates the headlines. In a remarkable misappropriation of history, President Bush is conjuring the ghost of Hitler and outlandish World War II analogies to justify his policies. In the Bush administration’s distorted lexicon, calls for withdrawal are appeasement, and dissent is yet another form of disloyalty.
But if the United States wants to achieve its strategic objectives in the Middle East—after three and half years of inconclusive warfare—it is time to transcend the prevailing myths and consider the ramifications of an American departure from Iraq.
The first argument is that the American presence is the only way to avoid civil war. The reality is that Iraq is engulfed by a low-level civil war. Much of the violence now dominating television screens is sectarian strife. As Shi’ite militias and Sunni militants confront one another—and as Iraq’s democratically elected politicians increasingly demonstrate their impotence to lead their constituencies—the notion that American troops are defending a democratic Iraq against Saddam Hussein loyalists and foreign fighters is at best anachronistic. The longer US forces attempt to impose coercive stability, the more America will become entangled in Iraq’s sectarian conflicts. Whether Iraq can hold itself together is a question that Americans can no longer answer on behalf of Iraqis.
The second argument is that even if Americans can’t hold Iraq together, the US presence at least prevents a larger regional conflict. This myth holds that, in the vacuum created by an American withdrawal, all of Iraq’s neighbors will find themselves sucked into the conflict. But for decades, conflicts in the Middle East have been successfully compartmentalized; civil wars and strife in countries as different as Algeria, Yemen, and Lebanon did not provoke larger regional conflicts.
Should America leave Iraq, the involvement of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey, and perhaps even Israel in Iraq’s civil war certainly will be more intense. However, all these countries have experience in pursuing their interests through proxies as opposed to direct involvement. Iraq may become a battlefield where Iraqi factions are supported by outside patrons eager to advance their geopolitical interests. But such conflict is likely to be waged within well-delineated lines, preventing a regional war.
What about the argument that Iraq will turn into a haven for terrorists? To a large extent, this has already happened. Under our watch, Iraq has become a magnet for jihadists eager to hone their skills in battle against US forces. The killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi this year has done little to stem the growth of terrorist cells in the country. The US invasion has achieved one thing: the transformation of a tyrannical state into one that will attract a large number of transnational terrorists. And that reality is unlikely to be disturbed by the size and strength of American forces.
“Staying the course” isn’t working. A US departure can’t make things much worse. If direct confrontation is not succeeding, then a more realistic solution is to quarantine the country to minimize negative consequences.
The final argument marshaled in defense of an open-ended American commitment is the notion that a withdrawal would damage America’s credibility. But the damage has been done. By defining victory not as the removal of Hussein but the creation of a Jeffersonian democracy on the banks of the Tigris, at any point the United States leaves, global opinion will conclude that America “was defeated.” Simply punching time on the clock won’t change that perception. Israel stayed in South Lebanon for 18 years; when it withdrew in 2000, Hezbollah claimed victory.
Whenever America withdraws, it will have empowered a Sunni narrative that brave warriors of the faith brought low the mighty power of the West. The challenge facing Washington is how to secure America’s interests in the Middle East in light of such perceptions.
Nearly four years after the American invasion, it is time to acknowledge that the mission will likely remain unaccomplished. The problems that the American invasion was to avert have only grown worse. Instead of embracing distorted myths that only perpetuate an errant war, it is time to appreciate that the consequences of failure may not be calamitous.
Nikolas Gvosdev is the editor of the National Interest. Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of Hidden Iran: Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.