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The Best Alternative for Iraq

Continuing the Bush administration’s Orwellian rhetoric on post-war Iraq, Secretary of State Colin Powell recently informed the world that turning Iraq back to the Iraqis too quickly would lack legitimacy. That self-serving view is preposterous since most of the world believes that the U.S. invasion and occupation of a sovereign nation without a legitimate self-defense rationale is a violation of international norms, including the U.N. Charter. The Bush administration should stop believing its own spin long enough to realize that rapidly allowing Iraqi governance of their own country is the best of many bad alternatives. In fact, declaring victory and getting out may be the only option that can save George W. Bush’s presidency.

After the September 11 attacks, the central focus of the Bush presidency became national security. Unfortunately, Bush’s advisors used the tragedy for their own ends. Administration hawks convinced the president that he should oust Saddam Hussein-a petty tyrant who had no demonstrated connection to those attacks. Karl Rove, the president’s political advisor, foolishly agreed to that strategy because war and a smashing victory would make the president’s popularity soar. That victory was guaranteed because the world-dominant U.S. military was sure to crush a country that spent 223 times less than America on defense and that had a military decimated by two previous wars and years of economic sanctions. In the short-term, Rove was right; in the long-term, he may well have committed a massive blunder.

The Herculean task was never destroying a decrepit Iraqi military, but that of rebuilding, from the ground up, a society shattered by years of war and embargoes. During the 2000 campaign, Bush criticized the Clinton administration for simple-minded optimism about nation building in the developing world-Bosnia, Kosovo, Haiti and Somalia-and then fell victim to its own intoxicating neo-conservative version of Wilsonian naivete.

Complicating the monumental task of building a free market democracy at gunpoint is return fire from the Iraqis. The losing side in any war is usually the one that learns the most lessons. Apparently, the Iraqis learned from the first Persian Gulf War that defeating the technologically superior U.S. military in a head-to-head fight was almost impossible and that a Palestinian-style guerilla war aimed at the will of the American public had better prospects for success. Compounding that problem were the armchair commanders of the Bush administration who ridiculed the Army’s top general when he estimated that hundreds of thousands of U.S. forces at the outset would be needed to subdue a post-war Iraq.

Those same commanders now strangely acknowledge that more troops-but not U.S. forces-are needed to quell the chaos. But they also recently admitted that even if the United States was able to get still-angry Security Council members to pass another U.N. resolution, they were likely to get a maximum of only 15,000 additional foreign troops.

The disconnect between the mayhem in Iraq and administration rhetoric that things are getting better could make an eventual decision to commit more U.S. troops an alarm bell to the American public that the emperor’s policy has no clothes. Although the Vietcong’s Tet Offensive in 1968 was actually a military failure, it exposed the lie that the United States was actually winning the Vietnam War and fueled fatal domestic opposition to the effort. Deploying more American troops to Iraq could trigger a similar domestic firestorm.

So, if attracting enough additional foreign troops is unlikely and adding U.S. forces could be politically explosive, what is an administration seeking reelection to do? If U.S. forces are still in Iraq next summer, the violence needs to have subsided or George W. Bush could go down in history as another Lyndon Johnson or Jimmy Carter-presidents ruining their reelection chances with overseas debacles.

With an anemic economic recovery, the only chance that Bush has to save his presidency is to withdraw U.S. forces rapidly and do what Secretary Powell claims the United States can’t do-allow the Iraqis to govern themselves soon. In contrast, U.S. forces remaining indefinitely in Iraq would mainly be to ensure that a reliable client government is installed. Withdrawing American forces soon would make that outcome less likely. The United States might have to accept a less friendly government, a loose confederation of autonomous Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish cantons or even three or more separate states, such as the new republics of the former Soviet Union.

Early withdrawal also could somewhat diminish U.S. prestige. However, that outcome is more palatable than a massive loss of American honor by a U.S. withdrawal from a chaotic quagmire next year under the pressure of an imminent election. The same "loss of face" argument prevented the United States from withdrawing earlier from Vietnam-only to lose even more prestige when the withdrawal finally came years later. As now, the United States would have been better to declare victory, withdraw U.S. forces and cut its losses-both in human and financial terms. Also, American public opinion has finally realized that the war in Iraq acts as a magnet for terrorist attacks against U.S. targets. If the president fails to take heed, Democratic attacks next year may make him a one-term wonder.

Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at the Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office.

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