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The exit sign at the end of the tunnel

By DAVID BALLINGRUD
Published August 31, 2003

With problems mounting in postwar Iraq, and polls showing that nearly half of Americans think things are going badly there, people have begun to think about an exit strategy - a way to bring the troops home.

The news out of Iraq lately has been bad. The military occupation is costing U.S. taxpayers $1-billion a week with no end in sight, and the rebuilding costs will be billions more. More U.S. soldiers have been killed since May 1, when President Bush pronounced the war all but over, than died in the actual war. Friendships with many nations are damaged and the United Nations' credibility is at risk.

A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released Thursday shows that Americans have taken note.

The number of Americans saying things are going "very or moderately badly" for the United States in Iraq is now 49 percent, up from 14 percent in April.

Furthermore, the number of Americans saying things are going "very or moderately well" has fallen from 85 percent to 50 percent in the same period.

Many Iraqis would like to have their country back. Is it time to give it to them? Time to bring the troops home?

"We have to get out at some point," said Ivan Eland, senior fellow for foreign policy at the Independent Institute's Center On Peace & Liberty in California. "The Iraqis won't accept being ruled. No one would."

But the when and the how are the tough questions. Furthermore, Bush is getting pressure from some quarters to add troops, despite assurances from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that they are not needed.

The public has what Gallup calls "dispersed" views on troop withdrawal, but almost half - 46 percent - favor withdrawal of some or all U.S. troops.

Despite this, the number of Americans saying the situation in Iraq was worth going to war over - 63 percent - has not declined in the last month, and Bush's approval rating of 59 percent has changed little during the summer.

The United States could be out of Iraq within months, some experts say, if Bush is willing to let other nations share control of the rebuilding, and if he is willing to accept something other than an American-style democracy there. But is he?

Speaking to an American Legion audience at midweek, following successful fundraising for his 2004 re-election campaign, the president sounded defiant. He pledged "no retreat" in the war on terrorism and defended his decision to go to war.

Yet if Iraq does not stabilize as the 2004 election approaches, the president will be under increasing pressure to demonstrate that he has not mired the nation in a no-win situation.

For Bush, the only thing more difficult than staying in Iraq might be getting out.

Difficult to just walk away

"There is no victory in sight, not even a definition of victory," William Pfaff of the International Herald Tribune wrote recently. "What is the exit strategy? There never was one."

If that's true, what now?

It is not realistic to think of just pulling up stakes and leaving Iraq to an uncertain and perhaps chaotic future, said Judith Kipper, director of the Middle East Forum at the Council on Foreign Relations. "It's virtually impossible to think about leaving due to failure or frustration. We don't see ourselves as a country that will cut and run, but the fact is we have not been very good at this kind of thing. We're good at fighting, but we not very good at the smaller and more subtle kinds of conflicts that deal with nonmilitary threats." "Iraqis need a civilian address for their problems and grievances," she said. "The U.S. is totally in control. We run everything, and that is the first thing that has to change. Iraqis are a gifted and talented people. They have run their country well in the past and they can do it again."

The United Nations, NATO and the European Union will help, she said, if offered real roles in the rebuilding process. "It will depend on how they are asked," she said. "At some point the administration has to come to terms with how they got in this mess in the first place."

Others made similar points last week, as the discussion of an exit strategy seemed to pick up momentum.

* Henry Kissinger, in the Financial Times: "It will not be possible to keep asking for assistance (from Europe) without giving them some role. . . . Whatever the previous debates, there is no exit now in the form of a retreat that would not cause a catastrophe for the West in the Islamic world."

* Charles V. Pena of the Cato Institute in USA Today: "The cruel irony is that the longer the United States stays . . . the more Iraqis will come to resent a foreign occupier. The guerrilla-style tactics being used to pick off U.S. and British troops may only be the tip of the iceberg. The lesson should be clear: The United States must leave Iraq at the earliest possible opportunity."

But to do that, Pena argued, the United States must give up "the unrealistic goal of building a perfect democracy in Iraq. U.S. national security demands only that any new government not harbor or support terrorists who would harm the United States."

Eland, of the Independent Institute, said he believes the Bush administration will increase its effort in Iraq before it reduces it.

"You can't just turn tail this close to an election. Iraq is central to the Bush foreign policy and running would scar his presidency. National prestige is on the line. I'm inclined to think they will do in Iraq what they have started to do in Afghanistan - commit more resources and troops to pacify the situation until after the election."

Meanwhile, the Aug. 19 bombing of the U.N. headquarters and Friday's explosion in Najaf are reminders of how dangerous the situation has become.

"Bombings are almost impossible to stop, unless you can nip them in the bud with good intelligence," said Marcus Corbin, senior analyst for the Center for Defense Information, an independent think tank focusing on security matters.

An immediate U.S. exit "probably" would result in chaos throughout the country, Corbin said. "But if we say we are turning it over within six months, so let's get moving, I think that's a feasible time frame. A middle ground might be to leave some small U.S. force there as a backer of whatever Iraqi government is established.

"The real trick is getting the Iraqis to look after themselves, police themselves. So the question is how quickly can we pass on real authority to some form of Iraqi government. But the bottom line is that the U.S. is not ready to hand over enough authority at this time."

Why?

"Because the Bush administration doesn't want just a democracy in Iraq. They could have that tomorrow. They want a democracy they like, and the two are not the same."

There is also the matter of the missing evildoer, Saddam Hussein. Must he be captured or killed before the United States can contemplate leaving Iraq?

Corbin thinks not. "We could leave without accounting for Saddam. There is no realistic comeback scenario for him, and as long as that's true, then producing him is not all that important."

But Pfaff, writing in the International Herald Tribune, thinks Saddam might give Bush an opportunity to declare a victory, which in turn could make it easier to disengage. "Find and kill Saddam, and simply leave Iraq - whose turbulent and ungrateful people, Bush might announce, had shown themselves unworthy of America's efforts.

"Does this today seem unthinkable?" he asks. "If Iraq is still going badly in 2004, when the president is looking for re-election, it will be considered."

[Last modified August 31, 2003, 01:47:13]

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