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Why Conceding Defeat Would Be Good for American Foreign Policy

by Hal Brands

Most analyses of an early American withdrawal from Iraq, whether calling it a “redeployment” or terming it a “cut-and-run” strategy, foresee consequences ranging from unpredictable to difficult to dire. This essay contends that this course of action can produce positive results for American security and enhance America’s diplomatic effectiveness. —Ed.

As progress remains elusive in Iraq, calls to stay the course have assumed a dire tone. Less heard are assertions that victory is probable; more common are warnings of the supposedly calamitous consequences of an American withdrawal. In echoes of the Vietnam hawks 40 years ago, proponents of continuing the war claim that a U.S. retreat would dishearten our allies, embolden our enemies, and imperil our very security.

Such prognostications may be emotionally appealing, but they have little basis in reality. Quite the contrary — just as our eventual exit from Vietnam helped lead to détente and a marked bettering of America’s strategic position, so too will quitting Iraq make us better equipped to deal with the most important international challenges of this era.

In the realm of counter-terrorism, undoubtedly the most immediate preoccupation of American policymakers, there is little evidence to support the dubious — yet often heard — assertion that withdrawal from Iraq will lead to renewed terrorist attacks on the United States. In fact, the Iraq war itself is currently the greatest conceivable boon to the jihadi cause. By placing 160,000 U.S. troops in a guerilla war in the heart of the Middle East, the Bush administration has simply made it easier for al Qaeda’s Iraqi offshoots to kill Americans, attract recruits, and garner an otherwise unattainable global celebrity. Continuing the war does not frustrate or contain our enemies; it plays directly into their hands.

On the home front, too, withdrawal is the correct and necessary course. According to a recent report by the Congressional Research Service, the cost of the Iraq war now totals more than $10 billion per month. While devoting such a massive chunk of the federal budget to the war, Washington simply cannot afford to fill the numerous critical gaps afflicting the agencies directly responsible for America’s domestic security. The Coast Guard has suffered from severe under-funding since 9/11, leaving its fleet badly dilapidated. The Department of Homeland Security is similarly handicapped due to a major manpower shortfall. As a result, port and border security remain seriously lacking. Indeed, due in no small part to its preoccupation with Iraq, the United States remains highly vulnerable to domestic attacks. Until we drastically reduce our commitment to Iraq, these issues are unlikely to receive the attention and resources they badly need.

Within the Middle East, the situation following an American withdrawal would be undeniably difficult. An Iraq in chaos or under Iranian influence would pose major challenges for American leaders. Viewed objectively, however, a pullout need not destroy our ability to contain Iran or preserve stability in the area. Regionally, there is already an anti-Tehran coalition taking shape. The Sunni Arab states, led by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, may be unsavory partners, but they nonetheless constitute natural American allies at the moment. They oppose an expansion of Iranian influence on both religious and strategic grounds, and are already moving to limit Tehran’s regional sway. They initially stayed neutral in the Israel-Hezbollah war of 2006, hoping that Israel would cripple Iran’s ally in Lebanon. Saudi Arabia has recently confirmed its pro-U.S., anti-Tehran alignment by negotiating a $30 billion arms deal with Washington. Even as the United States leaves Iraq, the elements of regional stability thus remain in place.

On a global scale, the consequences of withdrawal from Iraq will be broadly positive. Most of our major allies see this war as immoral, unwinnable, and dangerously destabilizing. A U.S. withdrawal will therefore not lead policymakers in Western Europe and East Asia to doubt American resolve, but will rather remove a persistent irritant from our alliance relationships. By doing so, it will strengthen American bilateral ties around the world, and facilitate greater cooperation on issues like Iran and counter-terrorism.

If our allies will not lose heart, nor will potential enemies gain strength from an American withdrawal. The fact is that U.S. over-commitment in Iraq has not deterred hostile regimes from pursuing aggressive policies, but rather has given them an opportunity to defy Washington. Iran’s nuclear program is one illustration of this trend; North Korea’s is another. Pyongyang exploited the Bush administration’s preoccupation with Iraq to develop its nuclear stockpile and cross a longstanding “red line” by actually testing a bomb. Withdrawal from Iraq will not in itself prevent this type of bad behavior, but it will begin to restore the military capabilities and diplomatic capital necessary to deal with such threats as they do arise.

More important, leaving Iraq will enable the United States to overcome its current Middle Eastern myopia and confront the larger geopolitical shifts that have taken place in the last half-decade. Just as the Vietnam War delayed American recognition that the post-World War II balance of power had shifted fundamentally, so the Iraq war has distracted us from potentially momentous changes in the international order. Since 2002, American policymakers have paid astonishingly little attention to the growing partnership between the world’s two largest autocratic regimes, Russia and China. Beijing and Moscow have cooperated to circumscribe American influence in Central Asia, conducted joint military maneuvers, and tiptoed towards an anti-U.S. coalition. The Iraq war has only encouraged this nascent partnership, giving two traditional rivals an issue upon which to agree.

Again, ending the Iraq war will not cause Beijing and Moscow to part ways, but it will ease the way toward handling this geopolitical problem. An immediate benefit would be to deprive Russian and Chinese leaders of an issue under which they can submerge their mutual suspicions. In the longer term, the end of the Iraq war and its domination of Washington’s attention will allow for a more lucid and forward-looking assessment of the evolving international order. To the extent that American policymakers can see beyond Iraq, they can better evaluate the challenges to U.S. preeminence.

To be sure, withdrawing from Iraq is not an attractive option. Our unsuccessful war there represents the most serious failure of U.S. foreign policy since Vietnam, and a retreat from the area will hardly be remembered as one of this country’s finest hours. Yet if executed in coordination with a clear-eyed approach to the broader strategic picture, getting out of Iraq will open the door to a more effective American diplomacy.


Hal Brands is the author of From Berlin to Baghdad: America’s Search for Purpose in the Post-Cold War World, due out in January 2008. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in History at Yale University.


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