Is President Bush just postponing the inevitable in Iraq?

November 07, 2003|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO - Faced with escalating turmoil in Iraq, George W. Bush spurns any talk of pulling out. "America will never run," he vows. Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination, disagrees: "This disastrous mission must be ended before any more lives are lost. It is time to bring our troops home."

Given that Mr. Bush is president and Mr. Kucinich is not, American troops will be staying in Iraq for the foreseeable future. Most likely, though, Mr. Kucinich's mistake is not being wrong but being prematurely right.

The administration's supporters think critics are overwrought when they raise parallels to Vietnam, and that's partly true. The scale of the U.S. commitment and the volume of American casualties are far smaller today than they were then.

But the parallel also diverges in a way that should alarm the hawks. Even before the attack Sunday that killed 16 soldiers, 38 percent of Americans favored withdrawal. Broad opposition to this war has emerged far more quickly than during Vietnam.

Americans are not severely allergic to combat fatalities, if they advance a crucial purpose. Hardly anyone remembers how many soldiers died in Afghanistan - a war the United States had to fight and had to win. But the public won't support endless bloodshed to underwrite a faulty policy.

If the American people conclude that we can't establish order and democracy in Iraq at a reasonable cost, their patience will evaporate. Losing soldiers in a worthy and winning cause is one thing. Throwing away lives on a mistake is another.

A mistake is what Iraq looks more like each day. Six months after the victory was won, security is deteriorating and attacks on U.S. troops are on the rise.

The Bush administration bungled the job of establishing order after the war. But correcting its mistakes is only part of the challenge. As foreign policy scholar David Edelstein of Georgetown University explains in a paper presented recently at the University of Chicago, the United States is bucking long odds to think it can succeed at occupation.

Mr. Edelstein looked at 25 occupations that have taken place since 1815 and found that only five accomplished their purposes. The vexing paradox, he says, is that "occupations succeed only if they are lengthy, but lengthy occupations elicit nationalist reactions that impede successful occupations. ... To succeed, therefore, occupiers must both maintain their own interest in a long occupation and convince an occupied population to accept extended control by a foreign power."

That requirement conflicts with the notorious impatience of Americans, a trait that is not limited to critics of the war. The Pentagon predicted before the Iraq war that our troops would be there for a maximum of six months. The administration has suggested it could duplicate the transformation of Germany and Japan after World War II. But those occupations lasted several years, and few Americans are looking forward to staying that long in Iraq.

Not only that, but the conditions that helped those occupations work are absent this time. Both countries were defeated and conquered, rather than merely liberated from a tyrant. "Liberated populations are likely to desire independence, not further occupation," says Mr. Edelstein. In both cases, the occupied people perceived an external threat - the Soviet Union - that gave them a stake in the occupation. The Iraqis, lacking that worry, can focus their ire on us.

Mr. Edelstein says that failing occupations typically have three stages. In the first, "occupying powers belatedly recognize the difficulty of the occupation tasks confronting them." In the next, "despite the growing commitment of the occupying power, the challenges of the occupation only multiply instead of diminish." Sound familiar?

Finally, the occupier faces a choice: to leave with its goals unmet or, as Mr. Bush puts it, "stay the course." This show of resolve may impress voters and other nations. Unfortunately, notes Mr. Edelstein, history suggests that this option "is only likely to generate more resentment, more cost, and less success. Stay or go, the occupying power has failed."

During the Vietnam War, President Lyndon B. Johnson's national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, once asked whether it was better politically "to `lose' now or to `lose' after committing 100,000 men. Tentative answer: the latter." But we shouldn't sacrifice American soldiers to postpone the inevitable.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper, and appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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