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Failure in Iraq

Perhaps because Iraq will define his legacy in history, he has proven reluctant to let go at a point when his policy appears to be a disastrous failure.
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Shortly after the election, the Iraq Study Group, co-chaired by James Baker and Lee Hamilton, suggested a bipartisan formula for the gradual withdrawal of American troops. But the president rejected this recipe for a graceful exit, and has substituted an escalation plan partly devised at the neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute. We should beware. Perhaps because Iraq will define his legacy in history, he has proven reluctant to let go at a point when his policy appears to be a disastrous failure. After spending 3000 American lives and nearly $450 billion, he is far from success.

Bush has long claimed that the number of troops in Iraq was a military decision and that he simply followed the advice of his generals, but now this is clearly not the case. Ironically, there may once have been a point at which a large increase in troops might have made a difference. In April and May 2003, polls showed a majority of Iraqis welcoming the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. But the Bush Administration failed to control rioting, disbanded the Iraqi army, and allowed the security situation to deteriorate. In such chaotic circumstances, it was difficult to do the reconstruction and development work that could have made Iraqi lives better and attracted support. In that sense, soft power depended upon more hard power. It is difficult for a marine or soldier to construct a school or clinic when he is being fired upon, or for Iraqi moderates to risk their lives by being supportive when they have no protection against insurgents.

Many military professionals foresaw this problem. Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki warned that although it would be possible to win the three week war with the 160,000 troops that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld used, it would take at least double that number to win the peace. Because Rumsfeld wanted to prove a point about transforming American military strategy, and his neo-conservative advisors had ideological blinders that distorted their appraisal of Iraqi reality, Shinseki's advice was rejected. The neo-conservative Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz testified to Congress that Shinseki's estimate of the number of troops required was "wildly off the mark." In fact, it turned out the Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld were the ones wildly off the mark. Now both are gone, and Bush is turning to troop increases.

This is a case of too late and too little. Is there any reason to believe that an additional five brigades will succeed in stabilizing Baghdad when similar efforts have failed in the past? The new American operational commander in Iraq, Lt. General Raymond Odierno has said that the new efforts will be more even handed among Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods, and American troops will stay alongside Iraqi troops in areas that have been cleared. He hopes that with a few months, he can then draw American troops back to the periphery of Baghdad and leave the policing of the capital to Iraqi forces. But this assumes that Iraqi forces will be up to the task, and that the government of Prime Minister Maliki, which rests heavily upon Shiite militia support, will be able to play a competent and even handed role in the midst of sectarian violence.

Bush administration officials have argued that the new plan is "not an open-ended commitment: we are putting real specific requirements and expectations on the Iraqi government." Among the political benchmarks are provincial elections, enactment of an oil law that would distribute oil wealth in a way that would benefit Sunnis, and reform of the de-Baathifcation policy which has been so costly to those who had worked in the Iraqi government under Saddam Hussein. But it may be too late for these necessary political compromises, and the Maliki government may not be capable of pursuing and implementing a broad non-sectarian policy.

Perhaps Bush's new military plan is a temporary step to buy time to move in the direction of the Baker-Hamilton proposals of training Iraqi forces and gradually withdrawing American forces, but that will work only if it is accompanied by the diplomatic advice that the Iraq Study Group also suggested. It is too late to create a democracy in Iraq. At best, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein removed a threatening dictator, and substituted a tyranny of the majority for the tyranny of a minority. But the price has been high in terms of Iraqi lives lost in sectarian fighting. The goal now should be regional stability. Each of Iraq's neighbors has its own interests, but none will benefit from chaotic violence that would reduce Iran's influence, encourage Kurdish separatism to the worry of Turkey, and support Sunni terrorist movements that could spill back into Jordan, Kuwait, Syria and Saudi Arabia. The United States cannot leave Iraq precipitously, but neither can it solve the problem on its own. Establishing a contact group of Iraq's neighbors to help set rules of the road for stabilization and containment will be an important step. Iraq is not susceptible to a military solution, but will require more politics and diplomacy.