New York Times | An Unsustainable Policy on Iraq

Sunday, 14 September 2003 00:45 by: Anonymous

    An Unsustainable Policy on Iraq
    The New York Times

    Sunday 14 September 2003

    After a summer of worsening news from Iraq, it is time to rethink America's postwar strategy.

    President Bush is right to refuse to be pushed by guerrilla violence and political pressure into leaving Iraq prematurely. But avoiding that will require more than proclaiming victory over a tyrant who remains at large and asking Americans to remain resolute against terrorism, as Mr. Bush did most recently in a campaign commercial of a speech on Friday at Fort Stewart in Georgia.

    Mr. Bush has so far failed to explain satisfactorily how he plans to secure Iraq without a crippling, indefinite American military commitment; speedily achieve Iraqi self-government; and share the burden of rebuilding Iraq's industries and society so the United States can leave on its own terms. And his maneuvering room may soon shrink, since the Democratic challengers are desperate to break out of the herd on Iraq. If Mr. Bush does not demonstrate a clear and convincing strategy soon, he may face political pressure to bring home American troops under conditions that would be embarrassing for America and perilous for the Middle East. Of all the possible scenarios, the most important one to avoid is a poll-driven scramble to bring the troops home that suffers the same lack of preparation the administration showed at the end of major combat.

    Moving forward will require new thinking from an administration that has shown little inclination to learn from its mistakes. The United States needs help from its allies in Europe, but those countries are unlikely to provide it unless Mr. Bush abandons his "my way or the highway" approach. Simply saying it's time to pay up, as Mr. Bush did last Sunday, does not begin to address the concerns of economically stressed allies who felt trampled before the war. The lingering strains were evident on Friday in Geneva, where Secretary of State Colin Powell quickly rejected France's proposal for an unrealistically rapid buildup to Iraqi elections in the spring.

    The administration is going to have to tackle the controversy over security. The arithmetic on this point is disturbing. There are now roughly 180,000 American troops in Iraq and Kuwait, some 20,000 of them from Army Reserve and National Guard units. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld insists no more American troops are needed. The violence makes us wonder about that, but it's not clear how long the American military can sustain even the present strains of occupying Iraq. Sixteen of the Army's 33 combat brigades are now there and five more are on other foreign assignments. The remaining 12 are needed for rotation in Iraq or standby duty related to North Korea. The Army is considering back-to-back combat tours for the first time since Vietnam.

    The reserves are stretched to the breaking point. Some units have been mobilized since shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Last week, tens of thousands of reservists learned that their tours were being extended into next year.

    Yet it is hard to see relief. Mr. Rumsfeld places great hope in an Iraqi takeover of security. That would indeed be the best option, but it's tough to imagine that he can quickly orchestrate the leap from what is little more than about 40,000 newly minted policemen to the kind of modern army needed to fight terrorism. And Washington will need to do something about its intelligence to weed out old-regime loyalists and other unreliable elements.

    In the shorter run, if Washington softens its stubborn resistance to broader U.N. involvement, peacekeeping troops from countries like Pakistan, India, Turkey and Egypt could be useful. Unfortunately, that shift cannot really get under way until things become a lot less dangerous than they are right now. Besides the American military, the only other forces potent enough to help make that happen are those of some Western European countries. The most optimistic assessment of what the United States could expect from these modest-sized militaries, many of them with commitments elsewhere, is probably about 30,000 additional troops.

    The other critical key to an exit strategy is to adopt a faster timetable for restoring Iraqi self-government. That will require the United States, which lacks Middle East experts and Arabic speakers in its policy-making ranks, to win support from Iraq's majority Shiite Muslim population, some of whose leaders have already denounced Mr. Bush's democratization vision. Washington must do so without alienating the minority Sunni Muslims, who represent a major security threat to the occupation forces. To accomplish this delicate feat, the administration should consider working quietly with Iraq's neighbors, like Iran and Syria.

    Finally, getting help with the huge cost of rebuilding Iraq will mean sharing lucrative reconstruction and oil contracts with foreign companies, even though that means less of the pie for well-connected American companies, like Halliburton, once headed by Vice President Dick Cheney.

    One wild card is that while administration officials like to refer to the "post-Saddam era," Saddam Hussein apparently is still alive and still a political threat. Capturing or killing Mr. Hussein would be a major victory for the president. But we hope that he would not use it as a distraction from the bigger picture. The American people will face up to their responsibilities not to leave Iraq a broken and dangerous mess, but only if Mr. Bush presents a workable plan, with its full financial and human costs honestly acknowledged.

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