Step Back

How long is the United States going to be in Iraq? And in whose hands and what shape are we going to leave it? Recent events ought to force us all to re-examine these questions no matter whether we opposed or supported the original invasion.

As this magazine goes to press (April 12), U.S. forces in Iraq are facing battles on two fronts, with a new insurrection in Shia cities in addition to continued resistance in the Sunni heartland. Whether the Shia uprising will be a short-lived episode or the beginning of a protracted struggle is not yet clear. But it is all too plain that we have made no progress in creating an Iraqi political leadership or security force capable of maintaining the authority of a new government.

Before undertaking the simultaneous campaigns against the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his militia and against the Sunni center in Fallujah (where four Americans had been brutally murdered), the U.S. occupation forces reportedly did not consult the Iraqi Governing Council, even though these are presumably the leaders who will form the country's sovereign government in less than three months. Shortly after the attacks began, prominent members of the council called for an end to military action and to "collective punishment" (an allusion to the massive U.S. assault on Fallujah, which left hundreds dead).

The same patterns of unilateralism repeat themselves. Just as the Bush administration undertook the original invasion without international support, so it apparently saw no need (or perhaps no hope) of obtaining the approval and cooperation of our Iraqi allies for these military campaigns. The new Iraqi police and army were nowhere to be seen in putting down the insurrection; one battalion refused to fight, and some police actively supported the rebellion.

And so, a year after the fall of Saddam Hussein, U.S. soldiers find themselves, without indigenous partners, in the tragic and absurd position of fighting in densely populated urban areas against Iraqis who were not our enemies a year ago. America will surely prevail in any contest of arms. But it is a false triumph if, in the process of imposing control, we create more enemies and further undermine the legitimacy of any new government we support. We can conquer cities only to discover that they are lost to insurgents as soon as our troops leave.

Rather than stepping up a military offensive, the United States ought to be stepping back. We need to step back from engaging every "enemy" stronghold and setting off a spiral of conflict and hatred. Any increase in U.S. force commitments ought to be strictly temporary. Although it is now far more difficult than it was earlier, we should be doing everything possible to transfer military and peacekeeping operations in Iraq to an international force.

The June 30 deadline for transferring sovereignty has clearly become a sham. We need a target date, however, not merely for a ceremonial transition but for a genuine end to the U.S. occupation. The prevailing view among many commentators has been that even if the war was wrongly conceived, we have to stay in Iraq for however long it takes to fulfill the promises of democracy. But to Iraqis who do not trust America's good intentions, this kind of commitment seems more like a threat to occupy their country and dictate its political life indefinitely.

Even if we are able to set up a model democracy in the near term, we have no way to ensure its survival unless we police Iraq for years to come. A decade of American supervision might not be enough to transform Iraq's political culture. I do not believe that the American people, much less Iraqis, have the stomach for the violence we will have to inflict in the interim to reach this objective, if it is possible at all.

The U.S. departure from Iraq does not need to be put off indefinitely, nor does it have to be an ignominious retreat. If America—or better yet, an international peacekeeping authority—can leave Iraq under a stable government that is not actively malevolent and brutal toward its own citizens and hostile to the West, we will have done enough. We need to pull back from inflated ambitions as well as from misconceived pacification efforts and extricate ourselves as rapidly as possible from the mess that President Bush has created.

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