Magazine article The American Conservative

What If We Leave?

Magazine article The American Conservative

What If We Leave?

Article excerpt

When nightmare scenarios are used to justify endless war, it's time to wake up.

IT IS CONTINUALLY proclaimed that an American withdrawal from Iraq would carry grim consequences. President Bush calls it a "nightmare scenario," and Frederick Kagan predicts "catastrophe." Few Democrats disagree: House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer warns that "precipitous withdrawal ... could lead to disaster, spawning a civil war, fostering a haven for terrorists and damaging our nation's security and credibility."

Indeed, the aftermath of withdrawal would be problematic and messy-like the present war-but it might not be as dire as increasingly desperate war supporters maintain.

The least persuasive scenario-but the one most likely to arrest the attention of Americans-is that Iraq will be taken over by international terrorists who would use it as a "safe haven" to "launch attacks on America," as the president put it in an interview on "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" in January.

Since al-Qaeda already has something of a safe haven in the unruly areas of Pakistan, it is not clear how adding space in Iraq would be of notable help. Moreover, international terrorism is essentially a conspiratorial enterprise carried out by tiny cells of plotters who can operate anywhere. Insofar as the 9/11 planners needed a safe haven, they found it in Hamburg, Germany, while those in London, Indonesia, Morocco, Madrid, and elsewhere were locals whose cells were based in their home countries and whose physical connection to the international jihadist movement was limited at best. Furthermore, in the wake of a U.S. exit, Iraqis are unlikely to tolerate the continued presence of foreign fighters (who make up only a very small portion of the insurgency) because these adventurers have mostly spent their time killing Iraqis and because, for better or worse, their key mission will have been accomplished.

More plausibly, America's exit from Iraq will exhilarate international terrorists because victory over the U.S. will seem even greater to them than victory over the Soviets in Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden's theory that Americans can be defeated, or at least productively inconvenienced, by inflicting comparatively small but continuously draining casualties on them will achieve apparent confirmation.

But that one is already lost almost any exit from Iraq will have this effect. People like bin Laden believe that America invaded Iraq as part of its plan to control the Middle East's oil and dominate the world -a perspective that polls suggest is enormously popular in Muslim countries as well as in such non-Muslim ones as Germany and France. The U.S. does not intend to do that-at least not in the direct sense bin Laden and others allege -nor does it seek to destroy Islam, as many others around the world bitterly assert. Such people will see almost any kind of American withdrawal as a victory for the terrorist insurgents, to whom they will give primary credit for forcing America to leave without accomplishing what they mistakenly take to be its key objectives.

Moreover, jihadists may be inclined to draw a special lesson by comparing the results of 9/11 with those of the Iraq War: it is much more productive to hit the "far enemy" when it comes near than to hit it in its homeland. That is, if their goal is to get the U.S. out of the Middle East, it is better for jihadists to cause it damage in places where its interests are limited rather than in places where its interests are vital. Thus, even if the result of the Iraq War exhilarates some terrorists, it would not necessarily whet their appetites for another 9/11.

After the American venture in Iraq is over, freelancing jihadists who trained there may seek to continue their operations elsewhere, like the jihadists who fought alongside the mujahideen against the Soviets in Afghanistan. If those experiences are any indication, however, the impact of these adventurers may not prove terribly significant. …

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