Elections as an Exit Strategy

In central Iraq the United States now has its own West Bank, its own encounter with terrorism as a routine occurrence rather than a rare event. As George W. Bush likes to say, we have carried the fight to the enemy -- and now are conveniently at hand to be shot at and blown up by enemies we might never have had. And because of the failure of diplomacy before the war, our forces are in the heart of Mesopotamia nearly alone, without the benefit of the broad international alliances and institutions that were the cornerstones of American foreign policy for more than half a century until this administration took office and treated those allies and institutions with contempt.

In his televised speech on Sept. 7, the president stopped dissembling about one aspect of the situation. Before the invasion, the administration assured the public that Iraq would be able to finance its own reconstruction. Now Bush finally had to tell Americans that this isn't so. But in asking Congress for $87 billion in emergency funding, the president wasn't owning up to the full cost -- likely to be on the order of $300 billion, if things go reasonably well. And he still wasn't asking Americans to bear higher taxes or suffer cuts in other programs. "We will spend what is necessary," Bush said, but apparently no one will actually have to pay for it.

While partially conceding one fictitous premise of the war, the president's speech perpetuated another deception. Unlike his now-discredited claim about Iraq's nuclear-weapons program, this one isn't a gratuitous falsehood; it's a recurrent distortion that has been critical to selling his entire policy. Bush opened by saying, "Nearly two years ago, following deadly attacks on our country, we began a systematic campaign against terrorism." America, he continued, struck at al-Qaeda, acting "first in Afghanistan," then elsewhere in the world. "And we acted in Iraq, where the former regime sponsored terror ... ." The plain implication is that there is a direct line from the terrorism of September 11 to the Iraq of Saddam Hussein -- a link that, according to surveys, more than two-thirds of Americans believe exists, even though there is no evidence for it. Cultivating this myth has been a vital element in the administration's effort to define the Iraq War as part of the war that terrorists themselves began when they attacked us two years ago.

In these pages, my fellow editors and I supported the war in Afghanistan as a justified response to September 11. Though we saw no imminent need to invade Iraq, we favored coercive inspections and other measures in concert with America's allies to force Hussein to comply with the requirements the international community had properly imposed upon him. The Bush administration seemed to us so bent on war that it was failing to lay the groundwork to establish the legitimacy of American policy in the eyes of the world; as James P. Rubin shows in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, the administration repeatedly blew opportunities for a broader international coalition against Iraq. Even if war had been the eventual result, a different strategy could have prevented the United States from assuming sole responsibility for Iraq and risking an open-ended commitment that may aggravate terrorism rather than reduce it.

Making this case against the administration is more complicated than simply denouncing the war, but it is the right case to make. Democrats in Congress running for president, such as John Kerry, are now getting slammed as inconsistent for criticizing the war after voting to authorize force against Iraq. But Congress voted on the Iraq resolution as Bush was requesting that the United Nations Security Council issue an ultimatum to Saddam Hussein. The timing made it appear that anyone voting against the resolution was undermining the president's chance of obtaining a last-minute diplomatic solution. A vote for the resolution did not imply an endorsement of Bush's rush to war, though Kerry's vote is being represented that way.

Critics in Congress are now in the same spot on the president's request for an emergency appropriation. Most of the money is for the military, and any vote against it will appear to undermine our soldiers' safety. But Democrats need to make clear that a vote for the funds is no endorsement of the administration's overall policy, which has acquired missionary dimensions. In Vietnam, "escalation" referred to an increase in military commitments. In Iraq, Bush has given us another kind of escalation -- this time in political commitments. The same man who opposed nation building as a candidate now says we must do and spend whatever is needed to build up Iraq and make it terrorist-free.

That vision ought to be resisted. The alternative to Bush's policy is, first, to internationalize the security and reconstruction of Iraq through the United Nations and, second, as that transition is accomplished, to move on a rapid timetable to an elected Iraqi government, whether or not the forces antagonistic to our presence are completely subdued. If democracy is truly our aim, elections are the right moment for us to leave. Of course, if we get mired more deeply in Iraq, elections in this country offer the American people an exit strategy of another kind.

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