Getting Out As Fast As We Got In

5 February 2004

By Stentor Danielson

Back in 2000, then-candidate George W. Bush promised us he wasn't interested in nation-building. In contrast to Al Gore's internationalist position, Bush said he would use American power sparingly, certainly not for projects not vital to our national security like Bill Clinton's war in Kosovo.

That all seemed to change after September 11. The terrorist attacks gave Bush the mandate he needed to attack Afghanistan. Then, through a combination of poor intelligence from the CIA and poor intelligence in the president's brain, he sold us on a war in Iraq. While national security rationales were paramount in both cases, Bush was not hesitant to brag about the US armed forces' contributions to the freedom of Afghan women from the Taliban and of Iraqis from Saddam's reign of terror. Indeed, such explanations are about all he has left for Iraq, since he doesn't have the brazenness that leads vice president Dick Cheney to insist against all evidence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and close ties to al-Qaida.

A few months ago, The Daily Show did a funny bit juxtaposing candidate Bush's disavowal of nation-building with president Bush's insistence that we forcibly democratize Iraq. But we may have laughed too soon. The current plans unfolding in Iraq suggest that in this election, Bush will once again run as the anti-war candidate.

Bush's strategy for getting there goes something like this. Rather than committing to years of reconstruction work, of the kind that turned Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan into capitalist democracies, Bush wants out of Iraq before November. He will declare "mission accomplished," claiming that the removal of Saddam Hussein was the work we went in to do, and the rest is up to the Iraqi people.

The Democratic candidate will, of course, try to hammer Bush for his mistakes in justifying and executing the war. But when asked "where do we go from here?" Bush will take the side of peace. All the Democrats with a realistic chance at the nomination have been boxed into taking a strong stand in favor of nation-building, in order to avoid criticism for being soft on national security. For example, probable nominee John Kerry has called for expanding the US military by 40,000 troops to reinforce our presence in Iraq, cited the reconstruction as an example of America bringing democracy to other societies, and accused Bush of wanting to "cut and run."

Bush, on the other hand, will claim that the Democrat wants to get America bogged down in foreign boondoggles. Unlike his "big government" opponent, Bush will say that he trusts the Iraqi people's readiness for democracy. This is in accord with his optimistic pre-war theory that we merely needed to remove the oppressive ruling regime, and Iraqis would embrace a liberal democratic government.

The people of Iraq did not, as promised, greet American troops with flowers. Attacks on the occupiers have been constant and deadly, even after Saddam himself was captured. On Sunday, deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz said that American presence is a provocation to Iraqis, who understandably don't like the idea of being occupied by a foreign country. Expect to hear this justification more. It's the other side of the "just get rid of Saddam" thesis -- just get rid of the Americans, and the Iraqi insurgents will settle down.

If only it were that simple. Iraq still lacks a security infrastructure competent to police itself. Withdrawing American troops would abandon Iraqis to the mercies of gangs and local strongmen. A struggle against American occupiers would quickly transform into a struggle between rival factions eager to place their leader on Saddam's throne. Already, the rebels have made it clear that the Americans and British aren't their only targets. This weekend, two suicide bombings at the headquarters of Kurdish parties killed 67 people, including several high-ranking party officials. Tensions over ethnicity, religion, and ego run deep in a nation arbitrarily cut out of the Ottoman Empire nearly a century ago and held together by terror for the past few decades.

Nevertheless, the pullback from Iraq is in the works. This weekend, American commanders in Iraq announced that the US army would be pulling out of Baghdad and turning security detail over to the undertrained, understaffed, and resource-short Iraqi police. Security hasn't been established in the capital, but the power legally and morally responsible for it is looking to save its own skin. By mid-April there will be only eight American bases in Baghdad, down from a high of 60.

The full handover of power is slated for July 1, a date the administration is committed to regardless of how prepared Iraq is for the transition. Authorities initially angered the influential cleric Ayatollah Ali Sistani by proposing caucuses rather than elections because the handover deadline didn't give enough time to set up fair elections. Now they may be rushing election preparations in order to appease Sistani without postponing the pullout.

Perhaps the question we should be asking the presidential candidates is not "will you stick it out in Iraq," but "what will you do about an Iraq that has been abandoned by the time you take office?"

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