Leaving Iraq Is Not Enough

Like many of her Democratic colleagues, Sen. Dianne Feinstein is calling for a timetable to exit Iraq. That is not enough. The longer we stay, the more Americans will be killed and the greater will be the burden on the American taxpayer and the U.S. military. As we have seen recently, with the recall of former Marines to active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military is stretched too thin. Were the U.S. to face a genuine crisis, not the made-up one of Iran, we would not have the resources needed to deal with it adequately. The sooner the U.S. leaves Iraq, the more secure the American public will be from an attack on American soil. The only purpose in staying in Iraq is to postpone admitting that we have lost the war. How many of our soldiers have to die before we inevitably face the truth?

Even if we were to pull out before the end of this year, our departure would not be enough. Feinstein and others have argued that we must keep troops in the area, in Kuwait and elsewhere. The Bush administration still has not given up on the idea of maintaining military bases in Iraq indefinitely. Leaving our soldiers in the area is asking for trouble. As long as our troops are stationed in Muslim countries, we will be subject to assault. In Lebanon in 1983, 241 U.S. servicemen died when Hezbollah staged a suicide bombing. Even though our Marines were in Somalia in the early ’90s to bring humanitarian supplies to the people, they were waylaid and forced out. In 1996, Osama bin Laden called for Muslims to drive the Americans out of the holy lands of Saudi Arabia. His express purpose for 9/11 was to force our retreat from the land of Mecca, the holiest site in Islam.

Although it is especially important to remove our forces from Muslim countries, it would be advantageous to bring them home from other overseas bases as well. Why do we need troops in Germany? The Cold War is over. Why do we need troops in Japan? Is it to intimidate the Chinese or the North Koreans? In Okinawa, among other places, the local population strongly objects to the presence of our military, which also breeds resentment in neighboring countries, many of whom feel threatened.

Terrorists have not attacked Switzerland, Sweden, Canada, New Zealand, or many other nations that have no military presence in the Muslim world. The fable that Muslims are attacking us because they don’t like our democracy or our freedoms implies that they should also be bombing Stockholm and Geneva, which are less protected and easier to attack than New York City or London. Clearly those cities and nations have little to fear from al-Qaeda.

This does not mean that the U.S. should become an isolationist state. Isolationism was originally embodied in the U.S. rejection of the League of Nations. Pulling back our troops to our own land would not preclude our participation in such international bodies as the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization. Moreover, with the budget savings that a less aggressive foreign policy would make possible, we could provide greater help to poor countries and those suffering from AIDS or natural catastrophes. Having a smaller military budget would strengthen our economy, already the globe’s strongest, while giving us a great deal of influence in the world. In fact, posing no threat to other nations would likely increase our sway over them.

Unfortunately, there is a tendency for powerful countries to want to exercise their power. As we all know, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. In the late 18th century and early 19th century, Britain became the world’s major power and created a huge empire. The U.S. today has close to absolute power. As a result, the temptation is compelling to impose our will on others, always in the name of freedom or democracy. Historical precedents abound. As Stephen Kinzer outlined in Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change From Hawaii to Iraq, the U.S., starting in the last decades of the 19th century, began to exert its power over weaker countries. The U.S. has also built much of its empire without direct rule: we just put "our sons-of-bitches" in power.

Regrettably, many people feel a patriotic urge to "fly the flag" around the world. Resisting the temptation to interfere militarily in other countries would be difficult. Can it be done? From an optimist’s point of view it seems likely that, if the U.S. scaled back its military to a level that would allow us simply to defend our shores, this nation might become the "city upon a hill." We could even wind up with more influence than we can achieve through military might. We would certainly have a more peaceful globe.