It is clear how we got into the mess we face in Iraq. Lofty ambitions…true believers who had all the answers before they asked any of the questions…an unshakable conviction that other nations would follow us, whether they liked it or not, because of our power…a naive acceptance of the exile narrative, which promised that we would be embraced as liberators and the exiles would be crowned with power by a population largely born after they left Iraq…a stubborn refusal to listen to people such as Gen. Eric Shinseki who said the peace would be harder than the war. It is tempting for those who opposed the enterprise in the first place — or who watched with dismay as we pivoted from a brilliant military campaign to an uncertain peace without a discernible plan or strategy — to throw up their hands and say: Cut our losses.
Questions must be answered. But we don’t have the simple luxury of recrimination and retreat. Both for those of us who thought this enterprise worthy if done right and for those who opposed it, we have too much at stake to fail. If we succeed, we can create a stable, tolerant, modernizing society in Iraq, which could have a profound effect throughout that turbulent and critical region. If we fail, Iraq could easily descend into turmoil and radicalism, with severe consequences in the region and for us for a generation or more.
The administration has embarked on a high-risk strategy — that we can fix Iraq better and faster by ourselves than with others — in the hope that we will win the race between dramatic improvement on the ground and the American people’s loss of patience as they come to realize that we are in this largely alone. But to succeed, we need a strategy that is sustainable. As others have said, reconstructing Iraq is a marathon, not the sprint the administration assumed.
Such a strategy must start with an honest, clear-eyed appreciation of the challenges. The security situation in Iraq, especially in the Sunni-dominated areas, is serious. Resistance may be centered among Saddam Hussein loyalists and foreign terrorists, but increasingly it is tolerated if not supported by ordinary Iraqis fed up with occupation, personal insecurity and a lack of basic services. American and British military officials on the ground are warning that we may have only a month or two to turn the situation around before the opposition metastasizes into a popular insurgency.
The essential starting point for preventing this outcome is to reduce the American face on Iraq’s occupation. Most agree that on the military side, we need to shift to a U.S.-commanded multinational force, endorsed by the United Nations. But on the civilian side, we must give up control for greater burden-sharing as well as greater legitimacy in Iraq. We must dissolve the Coalition Provisional Authority, which now rules Iraq, and fold it into an international operation, headed by a respected and capable non-American. Six months is too long for an American proconsul to preside. We will continue to play a substantial — even leading — role, but this should no longer be an “American” occupation. There will be a U.N. mandate, even though, as the Balkans and Afghanistan demonstrate, it need not be a U.N. operation.
The United Nations’ decision to pull out of Iraq suggests to some it is neither willing nor able to take on this task. Yet, that decision reflects a calculation that so long as it is only asked to play at the edges — training civil servants, helping to write a constitution, supervising elections — the risks of staying outweigh its potential contribution.
Right now we are asking our partners abroad for their money, their troops and their participation, as long as it is on our terms. This is a non-starter. By ceding exclusive control on the civilian side, we would gain leverage to press the Europeans, the Arab world and others to step up to the plate. Even if few can field large military formations suitable for hunting down the killers in Iraq, they can provide troops to help guard borders against terrorist infiltration and protect the critical infrastructure. Many of our allies and friends can field the police, monitors and trainers absolutely crucial for establishing law and order in Iraq’s metropolitan areas. And all of them can help defray the significant cost of reconstruction.
But internationalization is not enough. Just as important is enhancing the ability of Iraqis to control their own affairs. The current debate about when to return sovereignty to the Iraqis offers a false choice. France insists that complete sovereignty be turned over immediately, to be followed by drafting of a constitution and election of a new government. The administration argues that constitutional drafting and elections should precede the restoration of sovereignty.
In fact, these two processes should move in parallel. Drafting a constitution takes time, not least to find the right balance among the many competing interests. Time also is needed to make the proper preparations for national elections.
But none of this means that Iraqis must wait to take greater control. There are many things they can do better and cheaper than we can. We must shift control to Iraqis sequentially and conspicuously — function by function, week by week — giving them a measure of sovereignty, even if not everything at once, before a constitution is written and elections are held. Only when Iraqis feel ownership of their future will they take responsibility for stopping those who seek to destroy it.
Unless we quickly reorganize this mission for the long haul, we will face an unpleasant choice: to endure mounting daily casualties and an increasingly resented and dangerous American occupation or — as some in the administration are contemplating — to take a page from the late Sen. George D. Aiken on Vietnam: Declare victory and come home, whether the Iraqis are ready or not.
The wiser course, if it is not too late, is to end our occupation and share power, risk and truth with our allies, Iraqis and the American people.