Holding Ourselves Hostage in Iraq

When police found Shawn Hornbeck living with his alleged abductor four years after he was kidnapped, the question arose: Why didn’t the 15-year-old simply run away? But trapped and isolated, a hostage can be scared into thinking that the consequences of leaving — for himself or his loved ones — would be far worse than the consequences of staying. So he passes up opportunities to escape.

That’s roughly our plight in Iraq. Even one of President Bush’s key allies, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., says "the situation in Iraq can now best be described as dire and deteriorating" and "our window of opportunity to reverse momentum may be closing." Hard-core supporters of the war, no longer able to pretend that we are making progress toward a stable, democratic Iraq, have fallen back to their last line of defense — insisting that no matter how bad things are with us in Iraq, things would be far worse with us out.

Pulling out, the argument goes, would destroy our credibility and embolden the terrorists. Neoconservative Robert Kagan of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace is among those confidently predicting a parade of horribles: ethnic slaughter, a regional war and a secure base for al Qaeda to launch attacks on us and our allies.

If we withdraw, he wrote recently in The Washington Post, "the war in Iraq and in the region will not end but will only grow more dangerous." And there is the old argument that if we don’t fight the terrorists in Iraq, we will have to fight them at home.

The first flaw in this line of reasoning is that lamenting the dangers of failure is not the same as finding a formula for success. Bush tells us that his new approach offers a path to victory, but that’s what he said about the old strategy. Why should anyone believe that this time, a) he knows what he’s doing, or b) he’s telling us the truth?

The forecasts of neoconservatives have generally been as reliable as your daily horoscope. In 2004, Robert Kagan derided those who thought the war was lost, declaring that the U.S. was about as likely to fail as Derek Jeter (a career .317 hitter) was to hit below .200.

Consider the other horribles that are envisioned. An emboldened al Qaeda? It’s not as though the terrorists are all sitting home playing checkers, having lost the desire to slaughter infidels. In fact, as they demonstrate daily in Iraq and Afghanistan, they’re emboldened already. Lost credibility? Our credibility crumpled when we invaded on the cheap and proved unable to preserve basic order.

Ethnic and sectarian killing are occurring with us there and doubtless would continue with us gone. But MIT defense scholar Barry Posen notes that mass murder tends to occur when one group is unarmed, and "everyone in Iraq is armed." We could minimize bloodshed on our way out by offering protection to anyone who wants to relocate within Iraq, and by accepting refugees who have put their lives at risk helping us.

A secure base, Posen points out, is unlikely for the Sunni al Qaeda in a country dominated by Shiites, and unlikely in a region where the group has few friends and many enemies — unlike Afghanistan, where it has long gotten help from Pakistan.

There’s also little basis to expect a regional war. Iran has no reason to intervene directly because its Shiite allies are already in the driver’s seat. Saudi Arabia would be asking to get hammered by Iran if it invaded on behalf of the Sunnis. The Turkish army might cross the border to show the Kurds who’s boss, but none of its neighbors would strenuously object, much less fight.

As for the claim that the terrorists would merely follow us back to our shores, history suggests the opposite. Texas A&M political scientist Michael Desch says that during Israel’s 18-year occupation of Lebanon, some 1,200 Israelis were killed there. In the following six years (up to last summer’s invasion), despite Israel’s proximity, only 23 Israelis died in Hezbollah attacks launched from Lebanon. You’re much more likely to get stung by bees if you poke their hive than if you keep your distance.

While our early departure may have many unwelcome effects, it will also have the huge benefit of saving billions of dollars and dozens of American lives every month. To persist in futility because of unreasonable fears is to be hostage to a delusion.