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David L. Mack is vice president of the Middle East Institute. He served as deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs and U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, and also held diplomatic postings in Iraq, Jordan, Jerusalem, Lebanon, Libya and Tunisia. This piece originally appeared in the October 31, 2005 edition of the Newark Star-Ledger.
The United States has stumbled into a quagmire in Iraq. No matter what kind of a positive spin the government tries to put on the occupation, prolonging it won’t change that reality. It’s time to stop arguing about why U.S. troops went in and start figuring out a coherent strategy for getting them out and replacing them with competent Iraqis.
Without excusing the shortcomings of strategic thinking and policy implementation that led to this situation, critics of the Bush administration must acknowledge that the way we leave Iraq could make matters worse for Iraqis, and be laden with future threats to vital U.S. interests and even greater demands on U.S. resources.
The risks are daunting. Iraq could become a failed state, like Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal in the 1980s. That would offer safe haven to international terrorists and a vast pool of embittered and desperate recruits from among the Iraqi population. Iraqis, including the majority Shi’a population, are highly nationalistic. But without minimal stability and prosperity, they could fall under the influence of neighboring Iran, which is increasingly anti-American and linked to radical groups bent on destroying the peace process.
U.S. policy must help Iraqis structure a sovereign and independent political environment that does not threaten the security of the neighborhood.
The road out of Iraq begins by shedding our illusions. An abrupt end to the U.S. military presence would probably lead to an upsurge of violence, but so would staying too long. The administration needs to embrace modest, but achievable, expectations for Iraq that envisage an orderly departure.
Forget what would be nice but not essential. Focus on the “red lines.” Iraq must be minimally cooperative in the war against terrorism. And, Iraq needs to adhere to United Nations’ resolutions prohibiting future efforts to reconstitute weapons of mass destruction.
Here are some ideas for U.S. disengagement that will leave Iraqis in charge of their own destiny, but not abandoned.
Work with the Iraqi leadership on benchmarks for the gradual, orderly withdrawal of U.S. and other foreign military from policing responsibilities in cities and along transport lines across the country. The administration should continue providing training, logistics, air cover and back up for Iraqi forces in their fight against insurgents and their efforts to regain control over borders. At the same time, we need to encourage Iraq to seek more assistance from other governments, especially NATO allies.
The U.S. administration also needs to make clear—both in public and private—its willingness to maintain minimal force levels but only as agreed with the Iraqi government. Deadlines cannot be artificial or unrealistic. The reduction in U.S. troops should not jeopardize Iraq’s own efforts to ensure national security.
Iraq can be stabilized. But without a broad international consensus, U.S. diplomatic and economic influence will be inadequate to help Iraqis complete the task.
It is time to truly internationalize that support, to move from a futile unilateral effort to control events to a multilateral partnership. The U.N. or an ad hoc international coalition should be asked to set up an Iraqi contact group of its neighbors and other governments to support Iraq’s reconstruction. A non-American should take charge of the group to demonstrate the international community’s commitment. To encourage more donors for Iraq’s reconstruction program, the U.S. government should wrap its own assistance program into a multilateral process.
The political storm over Iraq continues to undermine U.S. credibility in the region and at home. The latest Harris public opinion poll shows a steady decline in the American public’s support for troops to stay in Iraq. With the American and Iraqi death tolls mounting, more than 60 percent of respondents say they have lost confidence in U.S. policies toward Iraq and question the positive effect of continued U.S. military involvement.
The time has come for damage control and a gradual reduction of an already overextended and under-resourced adventure into the political quicksand of Iraq.
There are no silver bullets or failsafe parachutes. We only mislead Iraqis and ourselves by placing too much weight on timetables and milestones. The political leaders of the Bush administration may be slowly learning this reality, long argued by career experts in the military, intelligence agencies and State Department. Critics of the administration should also avoid the trap of easy answers.