The postwar chaos in Iraq that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld dismissed as "untidiness" is serious enough to threaten the political benefits of our military victory. Some U.S. officials estimate that the postwar looting and violent crime have caused more physical damage than the war itself. Businesses, banks and hospitals have been gutted. Street crime and sectarian violence are rampant in many areas of Iraq nominally under U.S. control, and citizens are resorting to vigilantism to protect their homes and neighborhoods.
Some of the damage done in the wave of postwar lawlessness is incalculable. Hundreds of priceless artifacts were stolen from the National Museum of Iraq, depriving the world of irreplaceable works from the dawn of civilization. Those thefts apparently were the work of professionals. U.S. authorities can win friends around the world by aggressively pursuing those who try to profit from those treasures on the international black market.
It would have been unrealistic to expect a relatively small U.S. military force to establish immediate order throughout a country the size of California. In most wars, invading armies do the raping, pillaging and looting. In this war, American forces are accused only of doing an inadequate job of preventing Iraqis from trashing their own country. Yet American planners were warned beforehand of the danger of leaving vital assets such as the national museum and major banks vulnerable to postwar attack. Strategic sites such as oil fields, dams and bridges were effectively protected. Institutions that are essential for the rebuilding of Iraqi society should have been protected, too.
The whole world is watching. If U.S.-led forces succeed in re-establishing order, restoring electricity and other basic government services, providing adequate food and water and assisting in the creation of a functioning Iraqi leadership, the world will see that we have lived up to our promises.
But we are a long way from reaching that point. And even if those short-term goals are met, many pitfalls remain in the long-term process of building a humane, representative Iraqi government from scratch.
Major Iraqi constituencies, including representatives of the Shiite majority, have boycotted preliminary meetings intended to build a broad-based governing structure. Some object to the dominant role that Americans, led by retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, intend to play in the interim government. Others object to the special status being afforded would-be Iraqi leaders hand-picked by Washington, such as exile leader Ahmed Chalabi. Others are unhappy that politically connected U.S. firms such as Bechtel are monopolizing lucrative contracts for projects to rebuild Iraq. Lesser disputes, such as the role of U.S.-based Christian charity groups with a history of proselytizing Islamic populations, have added to the tensions.
It is in U.S. interests to establish order as quickly as possible -- and then begin lowering the American profile in Iraq as quickly as possible. The Bush administration should be actively soliciting the world's help in rebuilding Iraq. Our troops should not be trapped in an extended postwar mission of peacekeeping and nation-building. The development of legitimate Iraqi political leaders should not be tainted by undue American influence.
Advocates for this war argued that a post-Hussein Iraq could become a model for political reform throughout the Islamic world. No one ever doubted an American-led military victory, but many continue to doubt our government's motives for going to war. By helping to build a strong, independent Iraq, we can begin to erase those doubts in neighboring Islamic countries and around the world.
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