The Wisdom of Cutting and Running

"You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em,
Know when to walk away, and know when to run."

– Kenny Rogers, "The Gambler" (words by Don Schlitz)

Given the fiasco of Iraq – the slide into outright civil war and the inability of the Shi’ite-dominated government to act – the U.S. government must consider withdrawing our troops. Practically no one believes that we can secure a democratic and free state in the next year or so. Why stay?

Opponents make two arguments against pulling our forces out of Iraq. First, if we leave, the U.S. will look weak, emboldening terrorists and rogue states. That argument was made during the Vietnam War and kept us there too long, but after more than a decade of growing conflict we finally arranged an agreement that allowed us to withdraw from Southeast Asia. Later, we pulled out of Lebanon after our Marines were massacred by a suicide bomber; we "cut and ran" from Somalia after 18 of our soldiers were killed. Those were prudent steps and did nothing to diminish the image of our armed forces. Anyone who believes we are weak has never looked at our military. Although we often brag that we have the finest military in the world, it happens to be true. Our armed forces are better equipped and better trained than any other military on this globe. We have demonstrated that we are willing to use the military to protect our interests.

The U.S. has tried for three years to pacify Iraq and has failed. Continuing to try is futile; we should leave before many more Americans are killed. Some pundits have claimed that, in five or 10 years, we can bring stability to Iraq. Even if that were true, would it be worth the lives and the resources that we would have to expend to "stay the course"?

The other argument for staying is that "we broke it, so we own it." In other words, before we arrived there was a nasty dictator, but he provided security to most Iraqis. They could walk out of their houses without fear of being blown up or shot in an episode of random violence. They had no fear that their children or spouses would be kidnapped for ransom or for sectarian reasons. If they lived in Baghdad, they had electricity most of the time; gasoline and clean water were generally available. Now none of that is true. The middle class is fleeing Iraq, resulting in increased shortages of educated and skilled doctors, lawyers, accountants, artisans, and other professionals. Practically no one believes that he or she is better off now than before the war.

Should we stay? True, insurgents are trying and all too often succeeding in killing our soldiers, but can we put Iraq back together? Or are we more of the problem than the solution? Those who think we should "stay the course" assert that were we to leave, Iraq would dissolve into total civil war. That is possible, but that may happen even if we stay. We cannot stop a civil war. Which side should we support? Or should we shoot at both sides?

The best way out is to encourage the breakup of Iraq into three separate states, Kurdistan, Shiastan, and Sunnistan. A great deal of ethnic cleansing has already been going on as Shi’ites have fled Sunni areas and vice versa. In Baghdad, the Shi’ites have taken over the east side of the Tigris River while the Sunnis occupy the west. The major difficulty can be summed up in one word, "oil." Petroleum deposits are unevenly divided among the regions. The south has the most; but the north also contains significant oil reserves, mostly located around Kirkuk, a multiethnic city with Kurds, Arabs (both Sunnis and Shi’ites), and Turkmen. The central region of Iraq appears to have no significant oil deposits. No matter what happens, it is likely that a number of the parties will fight for control of the area around Kirkuk, but this is likely to occur even if we stay.

There are two other red herrings often raised about leaving Iraq. First, President Bush often makes the point that we are fighting the terrorists in Iraq so that we don’t have to fight them in America. Although there may now be some foreign al-Qaeda operatives fighting in the insurgency, locals are behind most of the violence; were we to leave, they would no longer be attacking us. They might turn on each other, but there would be no purpose in their crossing the Atlantic.

The other unwarranted supposition is that neighboring countries would get dragged into an Iraqi civil war. That seems unlikely. We can prevail upon Turkey to stay out, except for the occasional incursion into Kurdistan if Turks are attacked by Kurds. Moreover, we can then freely lean on the Kurds to stop attacking Turkey. We are now so appreciative of the relative calm and peace in Kurdistan that we refrain from pressuring them to keep the peace. Iran has no reason to intervene unless the Shi’ites are in danger of losing a conflict with the Sunnis. Once again, that would appear to be unlikely.

In any case, that the breakup of Iraq will be messy is no reason to stay. The present chaos suggests no alternative. Let us take advantage of what has occurred, declare victory, and go home. We came to eliminate the weapons of mass destruction and they are gone (that they were never there is irrelevant to whether we should stay or leave). We eliminated the nonexistent relationship between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda. We removed the dictator Saddam Hussein from office and created an elected government, which we can call "democratic." So we have won the war and achieved all our aims. Now we can leave.