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Escaping the Trap: Why the United States Must Leave Iraq, Cato Policy Analysis No. 588

Escaping the Trap: Why the United States Must Leave Iraq, Cato Policy Analysis No. 588

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Published by Cato Institute
Executive Summary

The U.S. military occupation of Iraq has now
lasted longer than U.S. involvement in World War
II. Yet there is no end in sight to the mission.

Staying in Iraq is a fatally flawed policy that has
already cost more than 3,000 American lives and
consumed more than $350 billion. The security situation
in that country grows increasingly chaotic
and bloody as evidence mounts that Iraq has
descended into a sectarian civil war between Sunnis
and Shiites. Approximately 120 Iraqis per day are
perishing in political violence. That bloodshed is
occurring in a country of barely 26 million people.
A comparable rate of carnage in the United States
would produce more than 1,400 fatalities per day.

That reality is a far cry from the optimistic
pronouncements the administration and its supporters
made when the war began. We were supposed
to be able to draw down the number of our
troops to no more than 60,000 before the end of
2003, and Iraqi oil revenues were to pay for the
reconstruction of the country.

Even worse, Iraq has become both a training
ground and a recruiting poster for Islamic extremists.
U.S. occupation of Iraq has become yet another
grievance throughout the Muslim world and has
exacerbated our already worrisome problem with
radical Islamic terrorism.

It is time to admit that the Iraq mission has
failed and cut our losses. The notion that Iraq
would become a stable, united, secular democracy
and be the model for a new Middle East was always
an illusion. We should not ask more Americans to
die for that illusion.

Withdrawal will not be without cost. Radical
Islamic factions will portray a withdrawal as a
victory over the American superpower. We can
minimize that damage by refocusing our efforts
on al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and elsewhere, but
there is no way to eliminate the damage. Even
superpowers have to pay a price for wrongheaded
ventures.

Whatever price we will pay for withdrawing
from Iraq, however, must be measured against
the probable cost in blood and treasure if we stay.
That cost is already excessive. We are losing soldiers
at the rate of more than 800 per year, and
the financial meter is running at some $8 billion
per month. With President Bush's announcement
of a "surge" of 21,500 additional troops, the
pace of both will increase.

Worst of all, there is no reasonable prospect of
success even if we pay the additional cost in
blood and treasure. We need an exit strategy that
is measured in months, not years.
Executive Summary

The U.S. military occupation of Iraq has now
lasted longer than U.S. involvement in World War
II. Yet there is no end in sight to the mission.

Staying in Iraq is a fatally flawed policy that has
already cost more than 3,000 American lives and
consumed more than $350 billion. The security situation
in that country grows increasingly chaotic
and bloody as evidence mounts that Iraq has
descended into a sectarian civil war between Sunnis
and Shiites. Approximately 120 Iraqis per day are
perishing in political violence. That bloodshed is
occurring in a country of barely 26 million people.
A comparable rate of carnage in the United States
would produce more than 1,400 fatalities per day.

That reality is a far cry from the optimistic
pronouncements the administration and its supporters
made when the war began. We were supposed
to be able to draw down the number of our
troops to no more than 60,000 before the end of
2003, and Iraqi oil revenues were to pay for the
reconstruction of the country.

Even worse, Iraq has become both a training
ground and a recruiting poster for Islamic extremists.
U.S. occupation of Iraq has become yet another
grievance throughout the Muslim world and has
exacerbated our already worrisome problem with
radical Islamic terrorism.

It is time to admit that the Iraq mission has
failed and cut our losses. The notion that Iraq
would become a stable, united, secular democracy
and be the model for a new Middle East was always
an illusion. We should not ask more Americans to
die for that illusion.

Withdrawal will not be without cost. Radical
Islamic factions will portray a withdrawal as a
victory over the American superpower. We can
minimize that damage by refocusing our efforts
on al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and elsewhere, but
there is no way to eliminate the damage. Even
superpowers have to pay a price for wrongheaded
ventures.

Whatever price we will pay for withdrawing
from Iraq, however, must be measured against
the probable cost in blood and treasure if we stay.
That cost is already excessive. We are losing soldiers
at the rate of more than 800 per year, and
the financial meter is running at some $8 billion
per month. With President Bush's announcement
of a "surge" of 21,500 additional troops, the
pace of both will increase.

Worst of all, there is no reasonable prospect of
success even if we pay the additional cost in
blood and treasure. We need an exit strategy that
is measured in months, not years.

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The U.S. military occupation of Iraq has now lasted longer than U.S. involvement in World WarII. Yet there is no end in sight to the mission.Staying in Iraq is a fatally flawed policy that hasalready cost more than 3,000 American lives andconsumed more than $350 billion. The security sit-uation in that country grows increasingly chaoticand bloody as evidence mounts that Iraq hasdescended into a sectarian civil war between Sunnisand Shiites. Approximately 120 Iraqis per day areperishing in political violence. That bloodshed isoccurring in a country of barely 26 million people. A comparable rate of carnage in the United Stateswould produce more than 1,400 fatalities per day.That reality is a far cry from the optimisticpronouncements the administration and its sup-porters made when the war began. We were sup-posed to be able to draw down the number of ourtroops to no more than 60,000 before the end of 2003, and Iraqi oil revenues were to pay for thereconstruction of the country.Even worse, Iraq has become both a trainingground and a recruiting poster for Islamic extrem-ists. U.S. occupation of Iraq has become yet anoth-er grievance throughout the Muslim world and hasexacerbated our already worrisome problem withradical Islamic terrorism.It is time to admit that the Iraq mission hasfailed and cut our losses. The notion that Iraqwould become a stable, united, secular democracy and be the model for a new Middle East was alwaysan illusion. We should not ask more Americans todie for that illusion.Withdrawal will not be without cost. RadicalIslamic factions will portray a withdrawal as a  victory over the American superpower. We canminimize that damage by refocusing our effortson al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and elsewhere, butthere is no way to eliminate the damage. Evensuperpowers have to pay a price for wronghead-ed ventures.Whatever price we will pay for withdrawingfrom Iraq, however, must be measured againstthe probable cost in blood and treasure if we stay.That cost is already excessive. We are losing sol-diers at the rate of more than 800 per year, andthe financial meter is running at some $8 billionper month. With President Bush’s announce-ment of a “surge” of 21,500 additional troops, thepace of both will increase.Worst of all, there is no reasonable prospect of success even if we pay the additional cost inblood and treasure. We need an exit strategy thatis measured in months, not years.
 Escaping the Trap
Why the United States Must Leave Iraq
by Ted Galen Carpenter
_____________________________________________________________________________________________________
Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of sevenbooks on international affairs and a coauthor of 
Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War against Al Qaeda 
(2004).
Executive Summary 
No. 588February 14, 2007
� 
 
Introduction
Optimism about the U.S. mission in Iraqhas faded dramatically in the past few months.Even President George W. Bush now says thathe is “not satisfied” with developments in thatcountry. The report released on December 6,2006, by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group,chaired by former secretary of state JamesBaker and former congressman Lee Hamilton,conceded that the situation in Iraq was “graveand deteriorating.”
1
The Pentagon’s report toCongress in November 2006 paints a similarly dismal picture, with attacks on U.S. troops,Iraqi security forces, and Iraqi civilians atrecord levels.
2
 Yet neither the Bush administration northe Iraq Study Group contemplates anythingmore than a modest course correction. Sup-porters of the war cling stubbornly to thenotion that “victory” in Iraq can still be sal- vaged. They remain strongly resistant to any suggestion of a definite timetable for the with-drawal of U.S. troops. More strident hawkseven call for escalation, and they inducedPresident Bush to send an additional 21,500troops in January 2007.The Bush administration and much of the American foreign policy community are sim-ply in a state of denial. Proponents of the warrefuse to admit what is becoming increasingly obvious: Washington’s Iraq occupation anddemocratization mission is failing, and thereis little realistic prospect that its fortunes willimprove. Something much more dramaticthan a modest course correction is needed.The adoption of different tactics on behalf of the same old strategy will not suffice.
We Were Promised aRose Garden
It is clear in retrospect that the administra-tion and its supporters miscalculated badly about the Iraq intervention.
3
President Bush’sMay 1, 2003, speech aboard the aircraft carrierUSS
 Abraham Lincoln
beneath a large “Mission Accomplished” banner was the perfect symbolfor the misplaced optimism about Iraq thatpervaded the administration and its hawkishpolitical allies. Kenneth Adelman, a memberof the Defense Policy Board, an informal advi-sory group to Secretary of Defense DonaldRumsfeld, famously predicted that the mis-sion would be “a cakewalk.” Other advocatesof the war were equally ebullient. It would belike Paris in 1944, with the Iraqis greeting American troops as liberators, not occupiers.In December 2003 pro-war syndicated colum-nist Mark Steyn predicted that “in a year’stime Baghdad and Basra will have a lowercrime rate than most London boroughs.”Furthermore, there would be “no widespreadresentment at or resistance of the Western mil-itary presence.”
4
Warnings about the deep ethno-religiousdivisions in Iraq were summarily dismissed.On April 1, 2003,
Weekly Standard
editorWilliam Kristol opined that “there’s been a cer-tain amount of pop sociology in America. . . .that the Shi’a can’t get along with the Sunni,and the Shi’a in Iraq just want to establishsome kind of Islamic fundamentalist regime.There’s almost no evidence of that at all.”
5
 Amonth later,
Washington Post 
columnist CharlesKrauthammer stated confidently that “theUnited States is in a position to bring about a unique and potentially revolutionary develop-ment in the Arab world: a genuinely pluralistic,open and free society.”
6
Other proponents of the war assumed not only that Iraq would be a collegial democracy at home but that it wouldhave an extremely friendly policy toward boththe United States and Israel. Some proponentsof the mission, citing the Bush administra-tion’s favorite Iraqi exile figure, AhmedChalabi, even predicted that the new Iraqi gov-ernment would construct an oil pipeline with a terminus in Israel.
7
 According to that rosy scenario, the transi-tion to a democratic Iraqi government would beswift and easy. Defense Department plannersassumed that U.S. troop levels would be downto 60,000 or perhaps even fewer by the end of 2003.
Washington Pos
reporter Tom Ricks notedthat some Pentagon officials had hoped to havetroop levels down to perhaps 25,000 to 30,000
2
The adoption of different tacticson behalf of thesame old strategy will not suffice.
 
by September 2003.
8
Some military experts,though, warned that such optimism wasunwarranted.
9
Gen. Eric Shinseki, the Army chief of staff, predicted that the occupationwould require “several hundred thousandtroops” for a period of “many years.” Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz flatly rejected Shinseki’s assessment in congressionaltestimony. For his pains, Shinseki was rendereda lame duck when reports of his retirementwere leaked to the press.Wolfowitz also scoffed at notions that theoccupation would be a financial drain. He pre-dicted that Iraq’s oil revenues would pay forthe entire costs of reconstruction.
10
 Andrew Natsios, the administrator of the Agency forInternational Development, stated that costsof the reconstruction effort to the UnitedStates “will be $1.7 billion. We have no plansfor any further-on funding for this.”
11
 Again,officials who dared sound discordant noteswere shown the door. Lawrence Lindsey, chair-man of the Council of Economic Advisers,warned that the cost could exceed $200 bil-lion. He was pressured out of his post soonthereafter. Of course, in one sense, Lindsey waswrong. The Iraq war did not cost $200 billion;it has cost $350 billion and counting.Uneasy officials were not the only ones towarn that the administration’s optimisticscenario was unwarranted. In January 2002,more than a year before U.S. troops enteredIraq, I cautioned that “no matter how emo-tionally satisfying removing a thug likeSaddam may seem, Americans would be wiseto consider whether that step is worth theprice. The inevitable U.S. military victory would not be the end of America’s troubles inIraq. Indeed, it would mark the start of a new round of headaches. Ousting Saddam wouldmake Washington responsible for Iraq’spolitical future and entangle the UnitedStates in an endless nation-building missionbeset by intractable problems.”
12
 As war grew nearer, other experts echoedsuch warnings.
13
On September 26, 2002, 33prominent foreign affairs scholars publishedan advertisement in the
 New York Times
withthe headline “War in Iraq Is
 Not 
in America’sNational Interest.” Among the points they made was that the administration of George H.W. Bush “did not try to conquer Iraq in 1991because it was understood that doing so couldspread instability in the Middle East. . . . Thisremains a valid concern today.” They added:“Even if we win easily, we have no plausible exitstrategy. Iraq is a deeply divided society that theUnited States would have to occupy and policefor many years to create a viable state.” Expertswho signed that ad included University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer, MITprofessor Barry Posen, Columbia University professors Richard K. Betts and KennethWaltz, and the dean of Harvard University’sKennedy School of Government, Stephen M.Walt.
14
In February and March 2003, BostonUniversity’s Andrew Bacevich and Texas A&MUniversity’s Christopher Layne added their voices to the chorus warning of disaster, withLayne correctly predicting a “post-Saddamquagmire.”
15
Not only did the administration and otherproponents of war ignore warnings fromexperts before the United States launched itsinvasion, they refused to recognize growingevidence later on that the mission was goingbadly.
16
Even as the security environment dete-riorated, the chorus of optimism scarcely diminished.
17
In May 2005 Vice PresidentDick Cheney asserted confidently that theinsurgency was in its “last throes.”
18
When theIraqi parliament approved the Islamist-lean-ing government of Nouri al-Maliki in April2006, the editors of 
 National Review
hailed thedevelopment as the triumph of democracy and stated that the “purveyors of doom now have some explaining to do.”
19
By late 2006, though, it was clear to all butthe most obtuse individuals that the Iraq mis-sion was not going well. By virtually every measure, the Bush administration’s expecta-tions for Iraq were being dashed. On the eco-nomic front, reconstruction programs werefar behind schedule and riddled with corrup-tion. On the legal and social front, Iraqappeared to regress, with religious zealotsrunning roughshod over their fellow citizens,enforcing edicts on such matters as alcohol
3
The administra-tion and otherproponents of war ignoredwarnings fromexperts before theUnited Stateslaunched itsinvasion, andthey refused torecognizegrowing evidencelater on that themission wasgoing badly.

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