- Withdraw immediately or stay the present
course? That is the key question about the war in Iraq today. American
public opinion is now decidedly against the war. From liberal New England,
where citizens pass town-hall resolutions calling for withdrawal, to the
conservative South and West, where more than half of "red state"
citizens oppose the war, 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, U.S. President George W. 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. Any close observer could see that then; today, only the blind deny
it. Even President 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 continued occupation
of Iraq also encourages the killers-precisely because our invasion made
Iraq safe for them. Our occupation also left the surviving Baathists with
one 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 entirely.
- Before U.S. forces stand down, Iraqi
security forces must stand up. The problem in Iraq is not military competency;
it is political consolidation. Iraq has a large officer corps with plenty
of combat experience from the Iran-Iraq war. Moktada al-Sadr's Shiite militia
fights well today without U.S. advisors, as do Kurdish pesh merga units.
The problem is loyalty. To whom can officers and troops afford to give
their loyalty? The political camps in Iraq are still shifting. So every
Iraqi soldier and officer today 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. It should by now be clear that 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 or not
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, with
the largest short-term drop in American history. The United States 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. I served as a military attaché in the U.S.
Embassy in Moscow during Richard Nixon's Watergate crisis. When Nixon resigned,
several Soviet officials who had previously expressed disdain for the United
States told me they were astonished. One diplomat said, "Only your
country is powerful enough to do this. It would destroy my country."
- 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 United States. It was in the interests of Iran
and al Qaeda. For Iran, it avenged a grudge against Saddam for his invasion
of the country in 1980. For al Qaeda, it made it easier to kill Americans.
Second, the war has paralyzed the United States in the world diplomatically
and strategically. Although relations with Europe show signs of marginal
improvement, the trans-Atlantic 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. Getting out of Iraq is the precondition
for any improvement.
- 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
- 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.