Time to Be Honest on Iraq

The death toll in Iraq has now exceeded 1,000 U.S. soldiers, more than 640 of whom are combat casualties after President Bush declared “mission accomplished” aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003. Casualties in war are inevitable. And the American public is willing to tolerate such casualties if our troops are defending the country against real threats, such as al-Qaeda or the Taliban regime in Afghanistan that supported and harbored al-Qaeda.

But Iraq was a phantom menace, so 1,000 dead U.S. soldiers is not only tragic – it is needless. The question now is how many more U.S. servicemen and women must die in a quixotic quest to create democracy in Mesopotamia?

According to President Bush, we are “striking the terrorists in Iraq, defeating them there so we will not have to face them in our country.” But the administration has never been able to demonstrate an alliance between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda. The alleged connection between the regime in Baghdad and the Ansar al-Islam group supposedly affiliated with al-Qaeda seemed more like a contradiction. Ansar al-Islam was a group of radical Islamist Iraqi Kurds seeking to establish an independent Islamic state in northern Iraq. In contrast, Hussein sought to exert more control over the independence-minded Iraqi Kurdish population by “Arabacizing” predominantly Kurdish northern Iraq by transplanting loyal Sunnis and giving them positions of power and prestige. And although there were known contacts between al-Qaeda and Iraq over a number of years, even the 9/11 Commission [.pdf] concluded that there was no evidence of collaboration. In fact, Osama bin Laden viewed Hussein as an apostate Muslim ruler and referred to his government as an “infidel regime.”

It is past the time to recognize a simple truth before another thousand U.S. soldiers die: Iraq is not a war of national survival that requires putting U.S. troops in harm’s way. We must acknowledge that the insurgents in Iraq, with the exception of al-Qaeda infiltrators, are not a direct threat to the United States: They are a threat only to U.S. troops occupying Iraq. Ironically, at least some of these insurgents are the same people who cheered America’s overthrow of Saddam’s brutal dictatorship. Now, they are fighting a foreign occupier for control of their own country. In other words, these are not people who would travel thousands of miles to attack the U.S. homeland.

President Bush claims that the sacrifices being made by those serving in the U.S. military in Iraq are necessary because “we are serving a vital and historic cause that will make our country safer. Free societies in the Middle East will be hopeful societies which no longer feed resentments and breed violence for export.”

However noble our intentions, imposing democracy at gunpoint amounts to more U.S. interventionism abroad, which feeds anti-American sentiment in the Arab region and throughout the Muslim world. Like an alcoholic in denial, we refuse to recognize that animosity toward the United States is fueled more by what we do, i.e., our policies in the Islamic world, than who we are – a fact confirmed by numerous polls. And while the president believes “millions in the Middle East plead in silence for their liberty” and that “they will embrace the most honorable form of government ever devised by man,” we should not be surprised if Muslims interpret a U.S. military crusade to implant democracy as simply the latest manifestation of imperialism.

Furthermore, the official goal of democratization highlights the hypocrisy of U.S. support for authoritarian and repressive regimes in Muslim countries, such as Egypt and Pakistan. The result is just more fuel to stoke the fire of anti-American radicalization throughout the Islamic world.

The 1,000 Americans who have lost their lives so far in Iraq are unnecessary deaths in an unnecessary war. But it is not too late to remember their sacrifice with the respect and dignity they deserve. To do so requires the wisdom to end the U.S. military occupation of Iraq and bring home the 140,000 American troops now stationed there. With more than 70 percent of Iraqis viewing U.S. forces as occupiers, not liberators, we have clearly overstayed our welcome. If we insist on staying longer, we run the risk of being forced to leave at a later date under conditions that weaken us militarily and politically. The danger is that – as happened in Vietnam – the U.S. military will be blamed for a war gone bad, even though it was the result of faulty decisions made by U.S. policymakers. That would compound the tragedy.

Anonymous is a well-known author and commentator on U.S. foreign policy in Washington, D.C. He is not Michael Scheuer, the author of Imperial Hubris.