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Pyrrhic Victories on Iraq?

President Bush is basking in the glory of getting unanimous U.N. Security Council approval for the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Bush is also on the verge of getting the Congress to approve its request for $87 billion for its reconstruction. The president may regret those victories.

The president has painted himself into a corner, and his domestic and foreign opponents are applying the final coat of acrylic. Bush’s triumph at the United Nations is only a symbolic victory, and one that could cause him future troubles. The back room dealing that enabled Bush to win unanimously at the United Nations is now obvious. The president, taking criticism from Congress and the American public over the exorbitant public funds being dumped into Iraq, is desperate to get foreign donors to defray the costs. Potential contributing countries, many of which opposed Bush’s invasion of Iraq, know they have the president over a barrel. Before they pledge contributions at the upcoming donor conference, they insisted on the creation of new agency, run by the United Nations and World Bank and independent of the American occupation, to decide how to spend financial assistance to Iraq.

So in the long-term, getting the unanimous vote in the United Nations could be the worst of all worlds for the president. The United States and Britain are now formally responsible for Iraq’s future, but some control over that future already has been informally relinquished to the United Nations. Even greater international control, however, does not ensure that the United States will be deluged with huge amounts of new foreign funds or offers to send in peacekeeping troops. In other words, the U.N. ratification of the American occupation symbolically highlights Bush’s responsibility for ensuring a good outcome in Iraq, while at the same time eroding his control over the operation and improving only slightly the amount of help he’ll get from other countries. The international community, perceiving the president to be arrogant and dangerously aggressive, will likely continue to let him sink in self-made Iraqi quicksand.

And the president’s domestic enemies are also sharpening their knives. Reflecting constituent ire about the largesse being poured into Iraq, congressional criticism mounted over this year’s $87 billion to “secure” and reconstruct Iraq. The Senate, in a token revolt, converted some of the reconstruction assistance from grants to loans, which the president opposes. But before Congress finishes, the loans will likely be reconverted to grants. After all, down the road, the president’s opponents don’t want him to blame the likely failure in Iraq on their stinginess in providing the resources needed to succeed.

With all of the efforts by Bush’s opponents—virtually the whole world and increasing numbers even in the United States—to pin responsibility for the failings in Iraq solely on him, one would think that the president would be skillfully trying to parry that threat. Instead, he is helping his opponents. Bush recently removed the option of using Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz at the Department of Defense (DoD) as whipping boys for the continued mayhem in Iraq. The president authorized a transfer of authority over the occupation from DoD to the White House by putting Condoleeza Rice, his National Security Adviser, in charge of the new Iraq Stabilization Group.

Then the president’s own words made matters worse. After public grumbling by Rumsfeld about the transfer of responsibilities and the not-so-veiled criticism by Senator Richard Lugar, the Republican Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, alluding to chaos in the administration over Iraq policy, the president put smiles on the faces of his critics by blurting out, “the person who is in charge is me.” Not as catchy as Harry Truman’s “the buck stops here,” but equally entrapping.

So the president is on the hook to ensure peace, stability and prosperity for Iraq, as he should be. Counterintuitively, the best chance Bush has to achieve that outcome is to accelerate the process of turning Iraq back to the Iraqis. As occupation by a superpower turned to self-determination, anti-U.S. violence—which, ominously, is beginning to spread into the previously docile Shiite community—would likely diminish. Although the Pentagon made serious errors in post-war planning for Iraq, the most grievous blunder was made by the White House in thinking that the U.S. government, with no legitimacy in a faraway land, could socially engineer at gunpoint a large, devastated society back to health. Only the Iraqis themselves can credibly lead that effort.

Turning governance rapidly back to the Iraqis might not give the president what he originally wanted—a compliant government that would sell the West cheap oil and allow the U.S. to station military forces near the Persian Gulf. But Bush now has few choices because he has been tagged with sole responsibility for ensuring success in Iraq. If he wants to better his reelection chances, he needs a stable Iraq, not a puppet government.

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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