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When Should the U.S. Withdraw From Iraq?

Discussants: Ted Galen Carpenter, and James Phillips
Updated: February 29, 2008

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Approaching the five-year anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, policymakers remain sharply divided on how, when, or whether to bring U.S. forces home. The question has featured prominently in the U.S. presidential race. Presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain opposes any timetable for withdrawal of forces and favors a “greater military commitment” to Iraq. The Democratic front-runners, by contrast, urge a timeline for redeployment. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton says she’d bring “nearly all” troops home by the end of 2009; Sen. Barack Obama says he’d remove all combat troops within sixteen months of taking office.

Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute, and James Phillips, a research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at the conservative Heritage Foundation, debate the economic, political, and strategic consequences of withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq.


Jim PhillipsMost Recent

February 29, 2008

James Phillips

The choice offered by presidential candidates is either abandoning Iraq (and dooming its people to a protracted civil war that inevitably will provide fertile ground for al-Qaeda and other hostile forces to exploit) or patiently assisting the Iraqi government to overcome formidable challenges, reaching out to Sunni Arabs, and consolidating the security gains of the surge by anchoring them in a sustainable political accommodation. The United States eventually should withdraw all troops not needed for training, logistical support, and counter-terrorist operations, but it should do so at a deliberate pace calibrated according to the situation in Iraq.

This will be a costly enterprise. But the war in Iraq is an integral part of the war against terrorism and modern terrorists can inflict huge costs. The September 11 terrorist attacks, in addition to the deaths of almost 3,000 people, resulted in up to $639 billion of economic losses, according to a 2002 study by the New York State Senate Finance Committee. A key issue is whether a rushed withdrawal from Iraq will raise or lower the risks of future terrorist attacks.

While the democratic presidential candidates deny that Iraq is part of the war against terrorism, al-Qaeda leaders clearly see the connection. Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's chief lieutenant, outlined plans for using Iraq as a conduit for exporting jihad to neighboring countries and attacking Israel, in an intercepted 2005 letter to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, then the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq [AQI]. Al-Qaeda's operational commander in Afghanistan, Abu al-Layth al-Libi, declared that Iraq was "the focal point of the conflict" in a video released on April 28, 2007. The U.S. intelligence community concluded in a 2006 National Intelligence Estimate that a defeat for the United States in Iraq would be regarded as a tremendous victory for Islamic radicals and would inspire more fighters to continue the struggle elsewhere. Although the Iraq conflict may not have begun as part of the war against al-Qaeda, it is dangerously naÔve to deny its relevance in that struggle.

If U.S. troops are yanked out, the hard-won progress in Iraq will rapidly evaporate, al-Qaeda [AQI] will regroup and reinvigorate its efforts to provoke a civil war and transform Iraq into an incubator for jihadist terrorism. Rather than jettisoning our Iraqi allies, the U.S. has a moral obligation and a vital national interest in helping them to defeat our common enemies.


Ted Galen CarpenterFebruary 28, 2008

Ted Galen Carpenter

It is important to clarify the real strategic choice in Iraq. It is not between a U.S. withdrawal in the next 6 to 12 months or a withdrawal sometime in the next 5 years or so. It is a choice between a prompt withdrawal and trying to stay in Iraq for decades—or in Senator McCain’s flippant formulation, a century. The creation of numerous “enduring” military bases and the building of an embassy nearly as large as Vatican City confirms that the U.S. intends to stay a very long time.

A long-term occupation would be an extremely costly proposition, both in lives and dollars. The mission currently costs more than $10 billion per month. Even if the level of violence remains relatively low, and Washington ultimately achieves its long-delayed objective of reducing troop levels below 100,000 (neither of which is certain), the monthly cost would still run $7 billion to $8 billion. And that is merely the direct financial drain. It does not take into account such indirect costs as the care of thousands of additional wounded veterans over the coming decades—an obligation that will add tens of billions more to the tab. A long-term mission in Iraq is a multi-trillion-dollar commitment.

The hawks argue that we have no choice, though, because a withdrawal would, according to James Phillips, be a “disaster.” He worries especially that al-Qaeda would acquire a sanctuary and that Iran would be strengthened. The first concern is greatly overblown. Al-Qaeda [AQI] is universally hated by Shiites and Kurds, and it has clearly worn out its welcome even with its former Sunni allies. A University of Maryland poll reveals that an overwhelming majority of Iraqi Sunnis dislike al-Qaeda (PDF). Who would provide a sanctuary?

Fears about Iran’s enhanced influence have some validity, but that train left the station a long time ago. When the United States overthrew the Baathist regime that made Iraq into the principal strategic counterweight to Iran, it guaranteed that Tehran’s position would be strengthened. A Shiite-led government in Baghdad may not be an Iranian vassal, but it will have close ties to Iran. And no extended U.S. occupation (short of making Iraq a outright U.S. puppet) can prevent that outcome.

Leaving Iraq will not be without adverse consequences to the United States, but for a superpower, it will be a setback, not a disaster.  Conversely, trying to stay in Iraq means having U.S. troops attempt to referee the still simmering Sunni-Shiite internecine struggle—a conflict that could fully re-ignite at any time. Trying to remain in Iraq also plays into the hands of al-Qaeda, which has already benefitted enormously from a U.S. military occupation that has antagonized the overwhelming majority of people in the Muslim world. The Iraq mission was always the foreign policy equivalent of purchasing stock in Enron or Worldcom. It is long past time to acknowledge error and terminate our losses.


Jim PhillipsFebruary 27, 2008

James Phillips

The struggle in Iraq is difficult, but winnable. With continued American support, the elected government of Iraq has a good chance to survive the disjointed insurgency, reach an accommodation with Sunni Arab moderates, and become an important ally in the war against terrorism.  The U.S. cannot afford to withdraw many of its troops until the Iraqi government has adequate time to build up its own security forces. Iraq may never become a Jeffersonian democracy, but the present government with all its warts is far preferable to what is likely to emerge if the U.S. irresponsibly abandons its Iraqi allies.

Ted Carpenter is overly pessimistic about the prospects for salvaging a friendly government and surprisingly optimistic about the manifold spillover effects of an American defeat. He allows that U.S. “prestige” may suffer, but glosses over the implications of a defeat for the war against al-Qaeda [AQI], efforts to contain Iran, growing Islamic radical threats in the region, the loss of Iraqi oil exports in the tight world oil market, and the humanitarian consequences for the Iraqi people. While he is concerned about giving al-Qaeda a recruiting poster, he seems remarkably unruffled by allowing it to establish a sanctuary in the heart of the Arab world in close proximity to many of the governments it seeks to overthrow.

Iraq’s dramatic drop in violence is not merely a reflection of the halt in sectarian cleansing—some of the worst violence is between rival groups of the same sect. It is due to greater realism in Iraqi politics: many Sunnis have been disabused of the notion, encouraged by Sunni Islamists and chauvinists, that they are entitled to dominate Iraq and are capable of forcibly re-imposing that domination. The backlash against AQI and other Sunni insurgent groups has been accompanied by an alienation of Shiites from the unruly militias that claim to defend them—about 20% of the 90,000 volunteers who have joined pro-government security forces in the last year have been Shiites.

The weakening appeal of radical Islamists on both sides is a positive development that has opened the door to greater political progress.  The security gains attributable to the surge have made this possible and helped to amplify this trend. If the U.S. walks away from Iraq now, the Iraqis who have taken risks to fight our common enemies will face a devastating defeat. Abandoning Iraq would make a bad situation much worse.


Ted Galen CarpenterFebruary 26, 2008

Ted Galen Carpenter

America needs far more realism about the future of the U.S. mission in Iraq than James Phillips provides in his post. He overstates both the favorable prospects if the U.S. stays in Iraq and the adverse consequences if Washington pulls the plug on the occupation.

Despite the recent lull in violence, the long-term prospects for a stable, united (much less secular and democratic) Iraq are not good. Phillips highlights such developments as the passage of de-Baathification reform and a national budget as evidence of great progress. But most Sunnis regard the former as a fraud that will make their precarious status even worse. And when advocates of staying in Iraq cite the mere passage of a national budget as a huge achievement, they are truly grasping at straws.

The reality is that the central government remains quarrelsome and largely impotent. The real power lies in the increasingly ethnically homogenous regions. Iraqi Kurdistan is an independent state in all but name, having its own flag, currency, and military–and routinely bypassing Baghdad to cut deals with foreign oil companies and other firms. The predominantly Shiite south is likewise increasingly independent of Baghdad regarding policies that really matter. The oil-rich Basra area, for example, is dominated by a local Shiite faction that repeatedly shows its contempt for the central government.

Moreover, a major reason for the lull in violence is that previous ethnic cleansing campaigns have been all too successful. Baghdad was once almost evenly divided among Shiite, Sunni, and mixed neighborhoods.  The city is now predominantly Shiite, with the number of Sunni neighborhoods having shrunk noticeably and mixed neighborhoods having virtually disappeared. A similar process has occurred elsewhere in the country. Although such ethnic separation reduces the occasions for armed clashes between rival forces, it does not bode well for the long-term unity of the country.

The notion that staying in Iraq will be a mortal blow to al-Qaeda [AQI], while pulling out U.S. troops would hand the organization a tremendous victory is misplaced. Proponents of the occupation like to pretend that the struggle in Iraq is purely with al-Qaeda, but that has never been true. Al-Qaeda is merely one player among many in Iraq’s hellishly complex political and military environment. The U.S. invasion and occupation has been an ideal recruiting poster for al-Qaeda globally; a U.S. withdrawal would deprive the organization of that rallying cry. 

Yes, exiting Iraq will be a blow to U.S. prestige. Even a superpower must pay some price for an egregiously foolish mission. But arguments that a U.S. withdrawal would constitute a strategic disaster are wildly over the top. More on that in the next post.


Jim PhillipsFebruary 25, 2008

James Phillips

The United States has paid a heavy price in Iraq, but it risks paying an even heavier price if it pulls the plug on a young democratic government besieged by Islamic radicals and the remnants of Saddam’s dictatorship. Such an act of surrender would be a strategic, geopolitical, humanitarian, and moral disaster.

Proponents of an immediate troop withdrawal underestimate the costs and risks of abdicating our security responsibilities in Iraq. Such a policy would be a huge boon for al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which has been severely weakened by the American surge and the defection of many of its Sunni allies. Bin Laden would trumpet a U.S. retreat as a tremendous victory. Al-Qaeda and its allies would benefit from an influx of new recruits, eager to share in that victory.

Without U.S. troops, Iraq likely would become a failed state, which AQI and other groups would exploit to launch attacks against Iraq’s neighbors and perhaps the United States. Jordan, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia would face the most immediate threat, but Turkey, Egypt, and Israel would also face growing threats from Iraq-based terrorists. The big winners would be Iran and Syria, the world’s two leading state sponsors of terrorism, which would seek to turn Iraq into a stronghold for their terrorist surrogates, as they have done in Lebanon.

While Iraq is not Germany or Japan, neither is it Vietnam. It has much greater geopolitical importance due to its political weight in the Arab world and strategic location in the Persian Gulf, the center of gravity of world oil production. Instability in Iraq could easily spill over to disrupt oil exports from other gulf states, imposing significant long term economic costs on oil importers. Unlike Vietnam, Iraq would export suicide bombers, not boat people. Unlike the Vietnamese communists, al-Qaeda has global ambitions, not merely regional goals.

The surge has been a military success and has paved the way for an Iraqi political surge. In the last month, Iraq’s parliament has passed four laws that advance national reconciliation: de-baathification reform, a limited amnesty for detainees, provincial powers, and a budget that gives Iraq’s diverse constituencies an equitable share of oil revenues. Now that Iraq’s government is making progress, it would be a tragic mistake to abandon it and risk creating a much greater humanitarian catastrophe and a failed state that would serve as a springboard for exporting Islamic revolution and terrorism.


Ted Galen CarpenterFebruary 25, 2008

Ted Galen Carpenter

Proponents of a long-term U.S. occupation of Iraq tend to ignore the enormous price America has already paid in blood and treasure—nearly 4,000 fatalities and $500 billion in direct costs. They cling to the notion that the mission will ultimately prove successful.

Their latest rationale is the supposed success of the “surge” strategy launched in December 2007. In a narrow military sense, the surge has achieved some results, since the level of violence has eased. However, the larger political objective of the surge—getting Iraq’s feuding Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish political leaders to create an effective, united government—remains elusive. Moreover, much of the decline in violence is attributable not to the surge, but to Washington’s new strategy of bribing influential Sunni tribal chiefs and arming their followers. It is highly uncertain whether those Sunni leaders will stay bribed.

Senator John McCain and other pro-war types advocate keeping troops in Iraq as long as the United States has maintained forces in such places as Germany, Japan, and South Korea—i.e., more than half a century.  But Iraq is nothing like Germany, Japan, and South Korea. To note the most obvious difference, U.S. military commanders in those three countries never had to worry about armed insurgents repeatedly attacking American military personnel.

Proponents of the occupation argue that America cannot leave Iraq anytime soon because such a withdrawal would embolden al-Qaeda [al-Qaeda in Iraq, or AQI] and other extremist Islamic elements. Many pro-war types insist that by pulling out of such places as Lebanon and Somalia when U.S. troops suffered fatalities, Washington conveyed a dangerous message of weakness to the terrorists. Indeed, some warhawks are so intent on historical revisionism that they argue that the United States should have remained in Vietnam. Such reasoning is appropriate only for those who embrace a masochistic foreign policy. Pro-war types ought to at least consider the possibility that stubbornly staying in Iraq and continuing to be bled, both financially and literally, plays into the hands of Islamic radicals.

Despite the current lull in violence, it is unlikely that the United States will ever achieve the goals that it had when it invaded Iraq in 2003. The notion of post-Saddam Iraq as a stable, united, secular democratic, pro-Western country was always a chimera. The long-term prospects for even modest unity and stability remain bleak, with or without a U.S. military presence. One must ask how many more Americans should die because political leaders are unwilling to admit that they made a mistake. The United States needs a withdrawal strategy–and one measured in months, not years.

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