No end

February 13, 2005

TURNING POINTS come and go in Iraq. Some are hopeful, others less so: the capture of Saddam Hussein, the transfer of sovereignty, the end of hostilities in Najaf, the recapture of Fallujah, the realization in America that the Army Reserve is near the breaking point, the elections. What each turning point has in common is that it raises the hope that now - finally - the United States can or must begin working out a plan for a sensible withdrawal. Various options are discussed in the press, timetables implicit or explicit are proposed, and it begins to seem that some sort of solution is close at hand.

And then the moment passes. The troops remain. The deaths continue.

It is becoming more and more obvious that the Bush administration in fact has no intention of leaving Iraq. The number of troops may come down some, especially if the violence subsides, or if pressure to reduce U.S. casualties increases, but don't look for an exit strategy anytime soon.

In his State of the Union address, the president said the United States would leave Iraq when it is "representative of all its people," able to defend itself, and at peace with its neighbors. Given the unwillingness of the Sunni minority to participate in elections, the ever increasing estimates of the number of insurgents, the futility of the new Iraqi security forces in the face of continuing deadly attacks, and the American hostility to Iran and Syria, that effectively means never.

What, then, are we fighting for?

Mr. Bush talks a lot these days about freedom, but it's worth remembering that freedom was a side dish - and a late-arriving one - in the buffet of reasons to go to war in Iraq. That's not to disparage freedom - it's the best thing that can come out of this war. But it's hardly what got us into it.

The Middle East is an area of intense interest to the United States because it has oil. That interest has in turn given rise to resentment and jihadist terrorism. Even before 9/11, the Bush administration realized that the U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia were stirring deep anger in the Muslim world. After 9/11, it appears that the administration decided to make an example of Iraq in order to encourage every other regime in the neighborhood not to make trouble. The weapons of mass destruction - which, even if they had existed, were not a critical problem - simply provided a handy pretext.

The project got more complicated than expected, but the troops are gone now from Saudi Arabia. They're in Iraq, and in some sense their mission won't be accomplished until the threat of violent anti-Americanism, from within and from without, has been subdued - or until the last drop of oil is pumped from beneath the desert sands.

The administration's goal, of course, is to foster the development of a genuinely popular government - in itself, an impressive feat for that part of the world - and one that would at the same time be friendly toward the developed nations. Surely that's not impossible, and it does have something to do with freedom. But no government that fails to deliver desperately needed electricity, gasoline and law and order can expect to be popular for long.

Somehow, Washington has to find a way to prop up such a government in the early going without turning Iraqis against it, or turning it against the U.S. occupation. The next trick is to keep that military presence intact - in order to maintain a watchful eye on Syria, Iran and perhaps Saudi Arabia as well - without wearing out the welcome.

The jihadists, naturally, have a different outcome in mind. It would be unrealistic to suppose that the United States can maintain its troops in Iraq without continuing to pay a price - and perhaps a steep one.

But the president says they won't come home until he's ushered a new Middle East into existence. It's important to understand that that's what he means. Think tanks and editorial pages can busy themselves with scenarios and contingencies, with political calculations and international solutions. But the Pentagon is planning permanent bases in Iraq. And listen to President Bush; by his account, America is in it for the duration. Americans who hoped for something else should stop fooling themselves.

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