Withdrawal is the only honorable way out


WASHINGTON -- Iraq has become the central issue in America's presidential campaign, but neither candidate has a solution for a conflict that has cost more than 1,100 American lives. Unfortunately, the killing will continue until the United States and its allies withdraw their forces, leaving Iraq to the Iraqis.

America's dead "have made the ultimate sacrifice defending freedom," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan. They have made the ultimate sacrifice, but, sadly, we know that the war was a mistake.

Rather than admit error when its claims that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction proved false, the administration seamlessly switched rationales. The war, officials said, actually was about spreading democracy.

Hussein's removal was welcome, but sacrificing allied lives to promote democracy was always a dubious justification. After more than a year of occupation the U.S. continues to lose ground.

Administration officials point hopefully toward planned elections in January. But the country might not be secure enough to host a national poll.

Moreover, even if Iraq's designated leader, Ayad Allawi, triumphs over Shiite religious leaders, he seems headed toward a regime centered on personal allies and expatriates. The resulting government might be both unstable and authoritarian.

Anyway, after every past success -- such as the capture of Hussein and transfer of sovereignty -- the situation has deteriorated. The administration even allowed much of the Sunni Triangle to fall under insurgent control.

Bush officials finally took action in early October, retaking Samarra from insurgents. But they left tougher cases, particularly Fallujah, until after Nov. 2, apparently to aid President George W. Bush's re-election.

In the face of catastrophic failure, the administration hired a public-relations firm to generate support for Iraq. It also ended congressional access to contractor reports of spreading insurgent attacks. Administration officials apparently just hope things will get better.

Maybe they will. But then the same officials said Americans would be greeted as liberators, Iraqi oil would pay for the country's reconstruction and U.S. troop levels would rapidly diminish.

The administration's optimistic predictions simply can't be believed. Bush has been "perhaps not as straight as maybe we'd like to see," says Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

Also belying administration spin is a recent classified National Intelligence Estimate that warns of possible civil war. The president says the CIA was "just guessing," but he chose to go to war based on the same kind of guesses.

Alas, Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry offers no alternative, other than claiming "I can do better." His talk about staying four years shows that he shares Bush's fantasy world.

The U.S. does not control its destiny in Iraq. Polls indicate that the vast majority of Iraqis view American forces as occupiers and want them out.

If the Iraqis get a government that truly represents them, it will demand that Washington go home. If elections produce a regime seemingly more responsive to Washington than to Iraqis, the insurgency will grow. Iraqis are likely to defeat those who now kill coalition personnel only when there is no longer a U.S. presence stoking their anger.

Nevertheless, administration acolytes speak of "staying the course" and winning "victory," among other platitudes. But victory, if it means a Western-oriented, liberal democratic regime, looks increasingly distant.

Admittedly, withdrawal is not a good option: jihadis and their acolytes will paint a pullout as a defeat. But a hurried retreat under fire would be worse than one voluntarily undertaken.

Withdrawal also will leave Iraqis who have aided the U.S. vulnerable to retaliation. But they will be at risk whenever America leaves, and even a lengthy U.S. occupation is unlikely to yield the humane system they (and we) want.

The best option is a quick exit, with a willingness to admit any friendly Iraqis who want to come to America.

The administration has blundered; its current Iraq policy is unsustainable. The U.S. must pull out.

The withdrawal can't be immediate, but it must be speedy. Even Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld now says that Iraq need not be "peaceful and perfect before we can reduce coalition and U.S. forces."

Washington should begin pulling out its forces, with the goal of a full withdrawal by mid-2005. The exact time frame is less important than the goal: bringing American troops home, and doing so quickly.

"My promise" to those who've died "is that we will complete the mission so that their child or their husband or wife has not died in vain," said Bush.

It does no honor to those who have died to throw away more lives in a vain attempt to establish Western-style democracy on the Euphrates. The best way to honor America's heroic dead is to never again repeat the Bush administration's misguided rush to war.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of "Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World."

The Japan Times: Nov. 1, 2004
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