November 17, 2003

November 17, 2003 | Commentary on Middle East

A U.S. Retreat?

Is Uncle Sam getting a bit weak in the knees after hitting a rough patch in Iraq? The abrupt recall of Coalition Provisional Authority czar Paul Bremer to Washington for emergency consultations must have left jihadists cheering and Ba'athists guerrillas high-fiving each other.

From Vietnam (1973) to Lebanon (1983) to Somalia (1993), America's enemies have come to believe the United States has no stomach for casualties - that we are nothing more than a paper tiger.

Now they wonder if the Americans are looking to cut and run from Iraq (2003) by turning over power to the Iraqis as soon as possible - perhaps even prematurely.

Handing over the reins of government before Iraq is stabilized - and before the Iraqis are ready to run it - would be a mistake. No matter how politically expedient it may be to bring U.S. troops home quickly, we can't allow ourselves to hurry so much that we fall short of our real goal: an open, free Iraq.

Doing anything less than assuring Iraq's transition to a fully-functioning, stable democracy in the heart of the troubled Middle East would be a major strategic blunder in the long term.

Of course, we want to return sovereignty to the Iraqis as soon as possible. But turning power over to an incompetent authority is a recipe for disaster.

From all accounts, the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) is not ready for prime time: For now, at least, it's incapable of administering Iraq and dealing with the growing insurgency.

A rapid collapse of America's commitment to Iraq would:

  • Create a power vacuum in the region. Ba'athist loyalists, terrorists (al Qaeda and others), Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Syria would rush to fill the void.
  • Likely precipitate an Iraqi civil war between the Sunnis, the Shi'a and the Kurds. Iraq could be come another Bosnia, a country fractured by ethnic and religious civil war that has now been a ward of the international community for eight long years.
  • Shatter American credibility worldwide, but especially in the Middle East.

Not to mention its effect on the War on Terror. Leaving before the job is done could also produce a new terrorist breeding ground: As in pre-9/11 Afghanistan, an abandoned Iraq could beget the likes of the Taliban and al Qaeda.

We can't afford ever again to cede terrorists a safe haven where they can gather, train, plan and operate. That is not what we want for the Iraqis, for ourselves or for the Free World.

Just the perception of a weakening of America's long-haul commitment to Iraq is already having a ripple effect. For example, despite Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's first trip to Tokyo, the Japanese seem to have gotten cold feet - they've put off until next year making good on their promise to send support troops to Iraq.

Perhaps more important: South Korea - Rumsfeld's second whistle-stop - is wavering on the U.S. request to send up to 5,000 combat troops to Iraq.

The Bush administration must follow through on its commitment to bring peace and stability to Iraq. There can be no perception of wavering. In fact, this should start with ending the use of the term "Iraqification."

This expression smacks of "Vietnamization," under which U.S. forces withdrew from Vietnam in 1973, turning over defense to the South Vietnamese. We all know how that one ended.

The United States must continue to train fully functional Iraqi security forces. Although it seems the majority of the 5,000 insurgents are Iraqi, the Coalition must also find ways to stem the inflow of foreign jihadists from Syria and elsewhere. We also have to secure the numerous ammunition depots around the country, ensuring that these weapons don't fall into the hands of the enemy.

And despite initial rebuffs, America must continue efforts to get additional contributions of combat soldiers into Iraq. One option: Expanding NATO's role in Afghanistan beyond Kabul could free up some American special forces to fight the terrorists in Iraq.

The United States will have to stay in harm's way until the mantle of leadership for governance and security can be turned over to a competent Iraqi authority - not a day sooner. Every other option boils down to wishful thinking.

Success is the only sound exit strategy.

Peter Brookes is a Senior Fellow for National Security Affairs for the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Related Issues: Middle East

Reprinted with permission of The New York Post