A sensible, honorable exit strategy

April 14, 2004|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - How does a proud and powerful nation extricate itself from a terrible mistake in foreign policy? And how does it do that in a presidential election year?

These are emerging as central questions in the wake of a reckless and foolish adventure in Iraq that increasingly is going sour.

An equally proud, if not arrogant, U.S. president cannot be expected, after launching a pre-emptive invasion of another country, simply to cut and run. Nor should he, considering the commitment in American honor and the high cost in lives already paid by U.S. troops as well as the people of Iraq.

But blind perseverance on a disastrous course is not the answer, either. The Bush administration has already indicated by some of its actions, if not its rhetoric, that it recognizes it must look to the United Nations, whose relevance in the world it so recently challenged, to bail out this country in Iraq.

It has become abundantly clear in the wake of the chaotic situation there that the American occupation must be replaced by at least the semblance of international oversight, even as U.S. muscle strives for the necessary military security.

If the man who got the United States into this mess is not willing or able to take this sharp turn in his policy toward Iraq, there is a ready mechanism for the voters to achieve it. It is called a presidential election, and one is scheduled for less than seven months from now.

Some angry and impatient Americans, including the politically mischievous Ralph Nader, are calling for impeachment of the president. Beyond being impractical in this time frame, such a divisive step is unnecessary with a regular Election Day so close at hand.

Calling for an election to achieve a basic change in President Bush's foreign policy, and specifically in Iraq, is not necessarily a call for the election of the prospective Democratic nominee, Sen. John Kerry. While Mr. Kerry is now emphatically urging that a U.N. face be put on the effort to reconstruct Iraq, putting him in the White House is not the only way for that to happen.

Growing public disaffection with Mr. Bush's war, as reflected in public opinion polls closely examined by White House political strategists, can bring them to a new reality: that by November, Mr. Bush may be turned out of office by the voters if he persists in his destructive course.

First, however, the troublesome military situation in Iraq must be resolved with the restoration of internal order, achieved with superior power but also with more political sensitivity than recently demonstrated by the bombing of a mosque. Then, by introducing an international presence recognized by Iraqis as more than an American puppet, the conditions may be created to permit an eventual American withdrawal with honor, enabling the United States to turn its full attention to the broader war on terrorism.

The U.S.-established deadline of June 30 for a political turnover in Iraq seems starkly unrealistic at this time, but the sooner the better, followed as soon as practically possible by the removal of American troops. The Bush administration has already achieved its primary goal of driving Saddam Hussein from power. The United States has no residual obligation to impose a new Iraqi government to its precise liking, as long as the Iraqi people have a genuine means to establish whatever self-government they want under U.N. oversight.

Vermont Sen. George Aiken's ignored exit strategy for the Vietnam War -"Declare victory and go home" - remains a good and justifiable one for Iraq once stability there is established.

Unfortunately, there is no strong indication that the Bush administration will be satisfied with anything short of a new regime that meets its own specifications. But it already seems to be soft-pedaling its grandiose notions of bringing democracy to the entire Middle East. Maybe some reality is at last settling in.

If not, the November election is the legitimate means for the American people to extricate their nation from the grave foreign policy misadventure of its president, begun and continued with the acquiescence of a weak and pliant Congress, including many timid Democrats in its minority.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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