As the security situation deteriorates in Iraq, there is growing support, particularly among political and media elites, for the following argument: that defeat is inevitable, and that it might be preferable for the United States to abandon Iraq and let the situation there descend into all-out civil war.
Unfortunately, while war critics have little difficulty totalling up the costs of remaining in Iraq, they talk as if there will be little or no adverse impact from letting that country descend into an all-out civil war after yanking out U.S. combat forces. They are fooling themselves. One of the few people in Washington who is seriously examining the consequences of abandoning Iraq is Kenneth Pollack, who served on the National Security Council staff during the Clinton administration. Though Mr. Pollack, now at the Brookings Institution, was an early advocate of deposing Saddam Hussein, he has been vociferously critical of the Bush administration’s conduct of the war. But he laments that antiwar Democrats seem to dismiss the fact that there will be serious, damaging consequences if the United States fails in stabilizing Iraq.
In addition to being a humanitarian tragedy, a fullscale civil war in Iraq would likely spread into neighboring countries — something that happened time and over the past century. Mr. Pollack points to the fact that Arab-Jewish fighting broke out in 1929 in British-occupied Palestine. Arab refusal to accept the 1947 U.N.-approved plan to divide Palestine into separate Arab and Jewish states kept the conflict going, and eventually it spilled over into other countries, helping ignite civil wars in Jordan (1970-1971) and Lebanon (1975-1990). A fullscale civil war in Iraq would conservatively speaking create hundreds of thousands of additional refugees — who would become an additional pool of recruitment for jihadists. Indeed, Hezbollah and al Qaeda, arguably the two most dangerous Islamofascist groups today, were born in large part as a result of civil wars.
A worsening civil war in Iraq could pull in neighboring Sunni Muslim countries as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Kuwait and Jordan, to say nothing of the Shi’ite-dominated rogue-state coalition of Iran and Syria. In Lebanon, Palestinian intervention was followed by invasions from Syria and Israel; that conflict continues in constantly mutating form to this day. Iraq could end up following the model of Yugoslavia during the 1990s, where Serbia went to war against Slovenia; Bosnia-Herzegovina; and Croatia; soon the unrest spread to Muslim populations in neighboring Kosovo and Macedonia. Rwanda, where tribal fighting began in 1994 and soon spread to neighboring Congo — and where civil war continues raging to this day, with all of Congo’s neighbors supporting one or more factions — could also prove to be a catastrophic model for what Iraq could look like if the United States leaves prematurely. And then there are the economic costs of a death spiral in Iraq, which could prove staggering, particularly if it triggers a wider Middle East war involving Iraq’s oil-rich neighbors.
It is irresponsible to pretend that abandoning Iraq would have little or no adverse humanitarian consequences — to say nothing of the geopolitical catastrophe it would be for the United States. He is too polite to say this, but Mr. Pollack makes a powerful implicit case that the neo-McGovernite Democrats now dominating public debate are being intellectually dishonest when they suggest that leaving Iraq will somehow leave us in a stronger position to fight the jihadists.