Friday, November 18, 2005

AJC: Why plans to withdraw should take shape

Keep one eye on exit |

"Trying to peer into Iraq's future has been difficult, but the picture might have become a little clearer Tuesday thanks to two news events, one in Baghdad and one in Washington. Unfortunately, it isn't pretty.

Here at home, the Senate approved a resolution 79-19 urging the Bush administration to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq by next year. It did not call for estimated dates of withdrawal, as a Democratic version had, but it made clear the Senate's wishes.

The Senate resolution sent messages to two other important audiences as well.

First, it was meant to reassure American voters that their dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq had been noted in their nation's capital. In recent polls, roughly 65 percent of Americans say they disapprove of how President Bush is handling the war, and only 40 percent still believe that going to war was worthwhile. Numbers like that are unlikely to improve, and will make it impossible to sustain a long-term American deployment in Iraq.

That was the message sent to the Bush administration as well. The president continues to talk as if withdrawal were not an option, but the Senate vote — joined by a majority of Bush's fellow Republicans — is far from the only indication to the contrary. U.S. generals have talked openly of troop reductions next year, as have top Iraqi officials; the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Bush appointee Zalmay Khalilzad, said recently that "we are on the right track to start significant reductions in the coming year." Our British allies are talking about heading home as well next year.

On Thursday, U.S. Rep. John Murtha, a Democrat, a former Marine and a man respected by both parties on defense issues, even called for immediate withdrawal, echoing statements earlier by retired Army Lt. Gen. William Odom, who headed the National Security Agency during the Reagan administration.

"The U.S. will not leave behind a liberal, constitutional democracy in Iraq no matter how long it stays," Odom noted. "Holding elections is easy. It is impossible to make it a constitutional democracy in a hurry."

What seems to be taking shape is not a cut-and-run policy, but a policy of cut and walk briskly to the exit. And unfortunately, a revealing glimpse into what we will leave behind came Tuesday when news broke of a weekend raid by U.S. and Iraqi soldiers of an Iraqi government building in Baghdad.

The raid freed 173 malnourished Iraqi men being held in secret in a former bomb shelter. Many of the men had been subjected to torture just like that perpetrated under the deposed Saddam Hussein, but what made the event so ominous is that they were being held by captors who were at least nominally employees of Iraq's democratically elected government.

The parallels with the Iraq of Saddam, the Iraq we had supposedly destroyed, are sobering. The only difference is that this time, the torturers were Iraqi Shiites while the victims were largely Sunni, a role reversal from Saddam's time.

The dream of transforming Iraq from a cruel and repressive tyranny into a shining model of Western-style democracy was admittedly a beautiful thing. But like many a beautiful thing, it may also have been unattainable, particularly after our bungling of the post-war occupation.

Now we are left to accomplish what we can, in the time we have, with the resources we have, and then deal with the consequences, which will be significant. Our alliances and our reputation are in tatters; our military is showing signs of strain and our enemies are emboldened.

The good news is, we've recovered from a lot worse. But it didn't have to be this hard."


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