A Korean Strategy For Iraq
President Bush believes that his job is to convince the American people that the war in Iraq is not a replay of Vietnam. He is failing spectacularly in that self-described mission. The president’s best hope now is to convince Americans that with continuing U.S. help, Iraq may still become Korea.
All historical analogies are imperfect. Treating Korea or Vietnam as archetypes for Iraq is problematic on many levels. But the nature of American choices in ending unpopular wars remains surprisingly constant. History suggests that alternatives in Iraq come down to three: disorderly flight, providing a decent interval for local forces to determine their own fate or sustaining a static shield behind which positive change occurs over the long run.
Korea evolved into that third approach, while the U.S. endgame in Vietnam became a disastrous combination of the first two as a Democratic-controlled Congress battled and bested a Republican White House over war strategy and funding. It is no surprise, then, that Bush emphasizes, as he has to recent White House visitors, his desire to avoid that outcome becoming a model for Iraq.
But the president must now enunciate a realistic alternative that justifies to the electorate the continuing sacrifice of American life and treasure in what has become a sectarian war fueled by neighboring states. GOP losses in last November’s congressional elections demonstrate that Bush can no longer rely on partisan appeals to patriotism or on the argument that American lives must be spent to prevent an even greater loss of life among Iraq’s Shiites and Sunnis.
That calculation has been discounted in the political markets of the United States, Iraq and the Middle East. “There are plenty of Iraqis who want the United States to leave because they believe their group will win in the bigger war to come,” says an Arab diplomat who deals with Iraq. Adds an Iraqi politician: “Americans say they will leave? Is that a threat or a promise? We are ready.”
Such comments suggest two paradoxical realities: One is that there is little chance that a U.S. withdrawal will be as rapid, as easy or as cost-free for American troops and for Iraqis as war critics assume — or pretend to assume. And there is little chance that this Iraqi government will be willing or able to carry out the “benchmark” political and economic reforms within the deadlines that Congress and the administration are, in separate ways, trying to impose on Baghdad.
The government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Bush’s White House and the Democratic leadership in Congress are all pretending otherwise, for their own purposes. That gives them the cover not to have to grapple publicly with this fundamental question: Is Iraq recoverable in any meaningful way after three decades of selfimposed turmoil and decimation and four years of botched occupation?
If the answer is yes, then providing a static shield to enable change in the Iraqi heartlands is a worthy objective. Such a goal will require a shifting of time horizons and of conceptual models as well as the more immediate change in battlefield tactics that Gen. David Petraeus has undertaken, with some initial success, in and around Baghdad.
A promising example of a new long-term approach is being pursued by the Treasury Department, which has in the midst of the war reshaped Iraq’s finances, in part by conditioning aid to be provided by a new International Compact on Iraqi reforms. A regional diplomatic framework that engages Saudi Arabia and Iran in containing Sunni-Shiite tensions is also a needed component for longer-term stability. Maliki won agreement from the United States on Friday to hold a regional conference that will include International Compact donors in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, on May 2-3.
Bush cannot ignore the fact that in polls, a majority of Americans now say Iraq is not worth the effort. Democratic leaders have begun to declare the war not only unwon but unwinnable, as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid unmistakably did last week in decrying “this failed war” and then threatening to seek a cutoff of funding for U.S. troops in Iraq.
The Democrats balance on a knife’s edge: As a party, they are not willing to take the political responsibility for ending the war now, as they should be if they truly believe it is unwinnable. But they also are not willing to commit to the kind of sustained effort and resources that will be required if the limited progress in transforming Iraq that has been made — the “benchmarks” already met — can be protected and expanded.
Technically, Congress never cut off funds for U.S. forces fighting in Vietnam. Combat troops had been withdrawn by the time the 1973 ban on U.S. funding for combat in Indochina went into effect, crippling any lingering chance for a “decent interval” between the U.S. exit and the collapse of the Saigon government.
The nasty quarrel between Bush and Congress over war funds that erupted last week gives new currency to the Vietnam analogy. Both the White House and Congress need to ask if there is not a better way forward this time.