The only way out

December 07, 2003|By Paul Kennedy

IT IS DIFFICULT for conservatives in the United States not to concede that things have failed to go according to plan in Iraq, but only a few admit that things are a mess.

Meanwhile, among the critics of the Bush administration's "forward school" - ranging from retired army generals to Middle East experts to anti-war radicals - there seems little satisfaction at having been proved correct in their forecasts that it would be harder to get out of Iraq than to kick one's way in. The situation in Iraq - and perhaps increasingly in Afghanistan - is too serious for schadenfreude.

As President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair consider various options of getting from here to there, they are naturally bombarded with all sorts of ideas from the pundits. Amid all the slogans and vogue-words tossed around in this cacophony, one is beginning to drown out the rest: The term is "exit strategy" (as in, how to find one).

The announcement of some form of handover to some form of Iraqi authority by June has intensified the impression that the Bush team, especially, is looking for a way out. It's going to be difficult, politically, to get through the Christmas season (yellow ribbons on trees, families encountering their first Christmas without their father or son, images of soldiers still on patrol in Baghdad on Christmas night).

One wishes that the term "exit strategy" was not bandied about at all. Although the conservatives deny the comparison, it has deep echoes of Vietnam. Exit strategies from a conflict, such as Napoleon's retreat from Moscow or the British army heading toward Dunkirk, are often desperate, hand-to-mouth affairs. They smell of defeat, and defeatism. Most importantly, the open discussion by one side of various ways of making an exit gives a tremendous morale and propaganda boost to the opposition - all they have to do now is to hang on until the terminus date itself, and sharpen their knives. This is particularly true in the present situation, because there is an image abroad, fueled by memories of Vietnam, Mogadishu and the first Iraq war, that Americans can't stand long and costly wars overseas.

Still, some policies are needed to get us out of the Baghdad quagmire. Perhaps the most important notion is that the steps to recovery cannot follow a rigid Step 1, Step 2, Step 3 "road map." We have to take actions at various levels simultaneously, in a mutually reinforcing manner, while being realistic enough to understand that progress could be harder at one level and move surprisingly swiftly at another. Several components suggest themselves.

First, the recovery of legitimacy, especially through some form of constitutional recognition by the U.N. Security Council of what is to happen. The world body can be amazingly flexible when it wants. The Iraq recovery program could be under a temporary U.N. mandate, but the security system itself need not be a formal U.N. peacekeeping operation run from New York. It might instead be in the hands of a broad U.S.- and British-led coalition of member states plus Iraq's own security forces.

Despite sniffs from American neoconservatives, the placing of the U.N. mantle over Iraq has advantages that the State Department and Foreign Office must long for.

Internationally, it makes it so much easier for countries such as India, Turkey, Japan, Korea - even Pakistan and Russia - to offer police forces and possibly troops; it takes a lot of pressure off pro-Western regimes in the Arab world; and it gives assurances to bodies such as the World Bank and the Red Cross, who have not only worried about the security of their own personnel but also about the propriety of their being in a U.S.-led game at all.

Domestically, the U.N. imprimatur will boost those Iraqis striving to create a normal society. No doubt, though, in the short term it will increase the attempts of Saddam Hussein's gangsters to hurt international forces and their collaborators.

This brings us to the second parallel strand: the improvement of personal security, not just for the allied forces but also, and especially, for the Iraqi people.

It is difficult to think how this can be done, at least in the short term, without increasing the number of troops. Forget the exit strategy. Forget the helicopters. Concentrate on house-to-house and street-to-street visitations, as the British army seems to be doing in Basra. Individual units will be attacked, certainly, but a sense of security has never come though airborne raids alone. Over time, the military patrols may become police patrols; over time, they should be carried out increasingly by the Iraqi forces, though with far better training than the one-week wonders that are being recruited now.

The third strand is rebuilding the infrastructure.

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