From bad to worse

September 21, 2004|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO - The situation in Iraq brings to mind the scene in Six Days Seven Nights, after Harrison Ford and Anne Heche have crash-landed their plane on a deserted island and she asks for an assessment. "You want it sugar-coated or right between the eyes?" he asks. "You pick," she replies.

Mr. Ford lays out the grim facts - the plane is too damaged to take off, the radio is shot, and any rescuers will have no way of locating them. "Is it too late to get it sugar-coated?" asks Ms. Heche. "That was sugar-coated," he replies.

The real debate about our mission in Iraq is no longer between those who say it's succeeding and those who think it's failing, but between those who think it's failing and those who think the word "failure" grossly understates the scope of the catastrophe. The same CIA that found ways to rationalize the invasion beforehand has lately had to acknowledge that things are going badly - though not so badly that they can't get worse.

A new National Intelligence Estimate furnished to the president, reports The New York Times, "outlines three possibilities for Iraq through the end of 2005, with the worst case being developments that could lead to civil war," and the best scenario "an Iraq whose stability would remain tenuous in political, economic and security terms."

And here's the bad news: That report was prepared back in the carefree days of July. August was the worst month of the occupation in terms of U.S. casualties. The number of American war dead has passed the 1,000 mark. Bombings, kidnappings and other mayhem have multiplied.

The number of insurgents, previously believed to be 5,000, is now estimated at 20,000. American forces have been killing enemy fighters, but that achievement seems to be akin to cutting the head off a hydra: With each one we eliminate, several replacements appear.

Much of western Iraq is now outside the control of the central government. Fallujah, which our military spared rather than antagonize the locals, has become a rebel stronghold. The rampaging violence has forced the United States to shift money from reconstruction to security, while raising doubts whether the national elections scheduled for January can even be held.

Supporters of the war complain that the news media overlook positive developments in Iraq. But they're the exception. A recent report by researchers at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington found that in all five of the categories they examined - security, governance, economic opportunity, services and social well-being - "we saw backward movement in recent months."

It's not entirely fair to blame the Bush administration for everything that has gone wrong. Even the most far-sighted plan probably wouldn't have worked much better. What the United States is trying to do in Iraq - suppress a widespread insurgency in another country - is a task that borders on the impossible. As University of Chicago security scholar John Mearsheimer notes, the closest parallels are Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the Soviets' 1979 invasion of Afghanistan and our 1965 buildup in Vietnam. In each case, the outside power boasted a huge advantage in military capability as well as a strong commitment to prevail. Yet all failed miserably.

What reason do Americans have to think we'll do better in Iraq? Even in the first days of its liberation from Saddam Hussein, Iraqis showed only limited enthusiasm for the presence of large numbers of armed infidels. The chaos that emerged shortly afterward only sowed disappointment, suspicion and anger in the citizenry.

Now, we face the classic dilemma of counterinsurgency: If you focus on defeating the enemy militarily, the collateral damage in property and innocent lives will turn the populace against you. But if you hold back in the hope of placating civilians, you give the rebels the upper hand in the fight. We can't gain the support of the Iraqi people until we ensure security, and we can't assure security without alienating the Iraqi people.

That's why President Bush, Sen. John Kerry and the American people need to start considering how to get out with the least possible damage to ourselves and Iraqis. We've already squandered the lives of more than 1,000 soldiers on this ill-starred venture. Do we have to sacrifice another 1,000 or 5,000 before we face reality?

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

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