A Korean Strat­egy For Iraq

The Washington Post Sunday - - Letters - Jim Hoagland

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.

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