Robert Farley picks apart
the idea that the United States should ever go to war in order to show the world its "resolve". It's a great post. But the flip-side here is the oft-cited notion that, say, withdrawing from Iraq would show the world we lack
resolve and hence "embolden" al-Qaeda, or whoever we're worrying about emboldening. As it happens, I think there's a weak version of this "emboldening" theory, a sort of questionable version, and then a legitimate version.
The weak version says that pulling out of Iraq—"retreating," if you prefer—would only make al-Qaeda's fighters braver and bolder; as if the main thing people who risk death on a daily basis are lacking is a bit of personal bravery and resolve. Eh, seems dubious. The questionable
version of the theory holds that al-Qaeda would interpret an American retreat from Iraq just like bin Laden allegedly did
our withdrawal from Somalia—as an indication that the U.S. can be easily evicted from a foreign country after sufficient casualties. Well, maybe. The problem with this version, as Farley would point out, is that it's impossible to tell how anyone will interpret a large geopolitical event. Perhaps bin Laden would conclude, if we withdrew, that the United States isn't stupid enough to stay mired forever in a losing situation. Or perhaps he'll think something else entirely. But if bin Laden, Zarqawi, et. al., really are as mad and irrational as everyone says, then trying to second-guess their possible reactions seems like a pretty futile thing to do.
In at least one non-crazy sense, however, a withdrawal from Iraq really could strengthen al-Qaeda, especially if the organization can claim credit for driving out the Americans. (And given that Zarqawi's group has a far more effective media apparatus than the United States, this seems entirely likely.) To draw a parallel, Hezbollah saw its popularity surge around the Middle East after Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, for which the group claimed sole credit. Zarqawi's organization—and al-Qaeda in general—could parlay a similar post-withdrawal rise in popularity into legitimacy around the region, an increase in fundraising, a boost in recruitment, etc. Even if al-Qaeda couldn't maintain extensive bases and training camps in Iraq after the U.S. withdrew (another, more concrete concern), they could still come out ahead. This isn't necessarily inevitable, and the parallel with Hezbollah may not work perfectly, and it's hardly a decisive argument against withdrawing, but it's at least plausible and worth considering.