Increasingly I hear that even if it were in the West's interests to leave Iraq, al Qaeda would consider it a victory, be emboldened and grow stronger. This is a core part of McCain's message, as if a complicated war against a Wahhabist terror franchise, a Shiite regional power and a myriad other, constantly shifting cross-currents can be reduced in this fashion with any great enlightenment. Obviously, the morale of the enemy matters; and bin Laden himself has cited Iraq as a key battle ground. But it is important not to have our strategy actually dictated by bin Laden. Matt makes a similar point today:
This business about al-Qaeda securing a recruiting boon from us leaving Iraq is bizarre. According to MNF-Iraq, the occupation of Iraq is the main fact driving recruits to join AQI. Absent the occupation, there's no recruiting pitch. Pearl Harbor was a boon to U.S. military recruiting, VJ Day wasn't. And what's this business about them acquiring "an even greater determination to dominate the region and harm America." Does Bush really think they lack determination now?
It's striking how much of conservative thinking about national security these days centers around subjective factors -- determination, emboldening, "claiming victory" -- rather than on objective assessments. Objectively speaking, withdrawing from Iraq would cut off a major line of recruiting for al-Qaeda while simultaneously freeing up vast quantities of American manpower and other resources.
I'm not as sanguine as Matt about the consequences of withdrawal. But I do think there is one force Sunni al Qaeda may hate as much as the West: Shiite Iran. And vice-versa. One classic way to advance our interests in a situation like this is to let them fight each other and get out of the way. Al Qaeda has tended to lose support when it targets other Muslim Arabs. And the Iraq-Iran war kept two monstrous regimes busy with their own battle for quite a long time. Why not fly-trap themselves?