U.S. forces will "stay as long as necessary in Iraq," says President Bush; but Exiting Iraq, the product of a ten-man CATO Institute study group that includes Boston University military historian Andrew Bacevich, CATO vice president Ted Galen Carpenter, and Texas A&M University political scientist Michael Desch, asks at what cost. And is such an open-ended commitment in U.S. interests?
In a well-written, concise, and serious study, the authors argue that the U.S. should withdraw all its forces from Iraq by January 31, 2005, when the Iraqi government is slated to hold elections. "The United States must end the military occupation of Iraq because, regardless of what we do, our effort to remake Iraq in our image will fail." Instead, they maintain, U.S. soldiers should focus on the fight against Al-Qaeda.
What would become of Iraq? Exiting Iraq trumpets a realist line. Perhaps a Baath-style dictatorship or Iranian-style theocracy might fill the void left behind by U.S. forces. Such an outcome might indeed be "unpalatable from a humanitarian perspective" but they assert that it would not "pose a direct threat to American security interests." Instead, Exiting Iraq argues that the only lasting U.S. concern should be that any successor government does not produce weapons of mass destruction (WMD), threaten the United States, or sponsor anti-American terrorism.
While persuasive in theory, such sentiment ignores the lessons of September 11, 2001, when the extent of the Taliban threat only became apparent after its terrorists brought down the World Trade Center. Also, Exiting Iraq argues that links between Al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein were tenuous at best. Even if one accepts this faulty argument, the book pays short shift to the matter of whether a unilateral U.S. withdrawal would enhance terrorist recruitment even more. After all, the 1983 withdrawal from Lebanon and the retreat from Somalia a decade later emboldened Islamists who saw the United States as a paper tiger. If the U.S. army flees Iraq, what Middle Eastern country would bother to heed U.S. redlines, let alone risk alliance with such an ephemeral power?
While extensively footnoted, the book's argument is too often based on newspaper articles of questionable accuracy. Unnamed intelligence sources, too, can play politics. For example, the authors draw information from both Knight-Ridder and The Guardian, whose correspondents have repeatedly drawn their Iraq reporting from two former government officials, one associated with the Lyndon LaRouche movement and the other listed as a foreign agent working for a Lebanese politician.
The authors' argument that U.S. commitment in Iraq distracts from combating WMD proliferation in countries such as Iran, Libya, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia bears consideration. However, if the entire U.S. national security apparatus is unable to focus on more than one threat simultaneously, then this raises serious questions (left unaddressed) about the country's defenses.
The authors maintain that democracy in the Arab world is a pipe dream, but they suffer from a lack of historical perspective. Their thesis mirrors arguments made decades ago about the prospects of German, Japanese, and Korean democracy.