Here's one Presidential campaign issue Republicans and Democrats can agree on (the only exception: failed Democratic candidate Dennis Kucinich of Ohio). Stay the course, they say. As the motivations and wisdom of the invasion are still hotly debated, leaving Iraq early, the argument goes, would be a dangerous sign of weakness that would embolden terrorists, abort the drive for political reform in the Arab world, and undermine U.S. credibility around the globe.
Yet at least one veteran geopolitical thinker, Century Foundation Senior Fellow Morton Abramowitz, wonders if all of this is just taken on faith, without adequate examination. He questions whether an early exit would be the disaster so widely assumed. It's one man's opinion, but it's worth pondering.
FAILURE OF WILL? In an article in the spring issue of The National Interest, the former president of the liberal Carnegie Endowment for International Peace weighs the costs and benefits of both staying and leaving. Of course success with a policy is always better than failing. But he concludes that a U.S. pullout wouldn't be crippling, partly because it's so uncertain that staying would achieve any of the goals the Bush Administration has laid out. Here's his argument:
The costs of staying are clear. More lives will be lost, of American soldiers, coalition soldiers, private contractors, and Iraqis. Billions more will be spent. Relations with allies will likely remain strained. Top American officials' focus and energy will be diverted from other national priorities. And already low public opinion abroad about America -- or at least the Bush Administration -- will probably drop further.
So what about the costs of leaving within, say, a year? Abramowitz argues that America's clout would remain. The world depends on the U.S. for its economic might and security blanket. And a withdrawal could actually bolster overstretched American forces. Leaving, he writes, "might enhance our overall power position and our capacity to do more about Osama bin Laden and other terrorist groups." He worries, though, that the will to use that power could be diminished.
NO DOMINO EFFECT. Would leaving dash the Bush or Kerry Administration's goals in the region? That may be the wrong question to ask, Abramowitz argues, because it's far from clear that staying is necessary to achieve them.
Take the terrorist threat. Abramowitz argues that how America fares against terrorists has more to do with how the U.S. manages its relations with such countries as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, where the terrorism threat has always been greater than it was in Iraq. And it's hard to imagine that leaving would energize terrorists more than they have been already by U.S. military presence in Iraq.
Nor does the U.S. intervention seem to be fostering a democratic renaissance in the region. If it happens, it will come because of changes already under way in many Middle East countries -- all quite independent of Iraq. The face of the region may be quite different in a decade or two, but not because of any Iraqi domino effect, Abramowitz argues. That theory, he says, "is more prayer than analysis."
MESSY AND COSTLY. The greatest impact of U.S. intervention -- and the only certain one -- already has been achieved: the ouster of the brutal tyrant Saddam Hussein. That, Abramowitz says, was an "unmitigated blessing." The Administration's broader goals, he suggests, will be as achievable if it leaves.
Either staying or leaving would be messy and costly, he concedes, in different ways. But the question his article raises is whether removing Saddam is, in itself, enough reason to declare victory and come home. Crock covers national security and foreign affairs for BusinessWeek from Washington. Follow his views in Affairs of State twice a month, only on BusinessWeek Online