A number of readers of this column have said, in effect, “You are critical of our current policies in Iraq. What would you do instead?” I addressed this in an earlier column, but there are a good number of new readers, so it is probably time to revisit what I said then and perhaps add a few points.
The most important thing we should do is set a date certain for leaving Iraq and make it soon. given the time it will take to get all our troops and stuff out, we might move that to December 25. That way, it would be a Christmas present to our soldiers and to the people of Iraq as well.
Once we have set a date, there will be less reason for Iraqis to attack American soldiers. Those soldiers will be gone soon anyway; why not just wait for them to leave? Further, once it is known when we will leave, Iraqis’ focus will shift to each other and the internal conflicts that will shape the future of Iraq.
Some people will say that we risk chaos by leaving; others will argue that the Shiites will take over and establish an Islamic republic, or that Saddam might come back. All those possibilities are real, plus more that we would not like. But our staying in Iraq does not stop them. At most, it may delay them some months or perhaps a couple years. How many American lives is mere delay worth?
Worse, the longer we remain in Iraq, the more unfortunate the final outcome is likely to be. As the constant friction generated by our presence radicalizes more and more Iraqis, the political center will lose strength and the extreme elements of every variety will gain strength. The battle for legitimacy will revolve increasingly around who can claim to have killed more Americans. And as the center loses strength, the ability of anyone to recreate a state in Mesopotamia will diminish.
Here we encounter the essence of the problem, and of the American failure: those in Washington who brought about this war sought to destroy a regime, but they ended up destroying the Iraqi state. In an era when the most powerful international fact of life is the decline of the state, recreating a state is very difficult. It is not surprising that American efforts to recreate a state in Iraq have thus far failed. Iraqi efforts may also fail, leaving the region in a permanent state of chaos similar to what we find in places like West Africa. Again, by staying longer in Iraq the U.S. does not diminish this possibility, it increases it.
That is my basic answer to the question of what is to be done: promise to have every American soldier out of Iraq by Christmas, and do it. Between now and then, our focus needs to be on keeping the troops who are still in Iraq alive and generally diminishing our role there. We should pull the troops out of cities wherever possible, garrisoning them where they will have little interaction with Iraqis. We should turn every function in Iraq over to any Iraqis who will take it, starting with the puppet Governing Council we set up. The Council will not survive after we are gone, but it can provide some useful cover as we get out. We should welcome the U.N., the Arab League, and anyone else who is willing to come into Iraq as we get out. Leaving someone else holding the bag is what is called skillful diplomacy.
Leaving Iraq will not be a defeat for America, because America never had any interests at stake in Iraq in the first place. There were no weapons of mass destruction, Saddam and Bin Laden hated each other’s guts and the notion that Iraq constituted a threat to American security was pure invention. Genuine threats to American security may arise in a post-state Mesopotamia, but we have already created that monster and we will have to live with it. Folly has its consequences.
An American withdrawal from Iraq will be a defeat for the neocon clique that started the war in the first place. To that I say, “Hurrah!” The sooner the neocons are defeated and driven from power, the less the chance that American soldiers will be sent to die in more unnecessary and strategically counterproductive wars. In fact, to make the punishment fit the crime, we ought to round up every neocon in Washington and make them all “Special Representatives” to Iraq, with orders to get on the next plane to Baghdad and only come back on the last plane out. Then, we should forget to send that last plane.
WILLIAM S. LIND is Director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism.