Bush Vows to Stay in Iraq, But Iraqis Have Cause to Doubt

Posted November 12, 2003 at 3:09pm

If you were an Iraqi facing a decision whether to risk your life and your family’s by siding with the United States, would you?

If you consider recent U.S. history, you would not. If you listen to President Bush, you might. However, if you listen to other voices coming out of the administration and consider the security situation outside your door, no one could blame you for hesitating. [IMGCAP(1)]

On the crucial question of whether the United States will “stay the course” until Iraqi freedom is secure, the president sounds eloquent, idealistic and determined.

As he said at the Heritage Foundation on Veterans Day, “Two years into the war on terror, the will and resolve of America are being tested, in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

He referred to cases in which America had successfully stayed the course — the 1948 Berlin airlift, Ronald Reagan’s determination to win the Cold War — and said, “Again, the world is watching. Again we will be steadfast. We will finish the mission we have begun. Period.”

Bush demonstrated that he understands the stakes involved. “The failure of democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq will condemn every advocate of freedom in those two countries to prison and death, and would extinguish the democratic hopes of millions in the Middle East.

“The failure of democracy in those two countries would provide new basis for the terrorist network and embolden terrorists and their allies around the world.”

And, he said, failure “would convince terrorists that America backs down under attack and more attacks on America would surely follow.”

On the other hand, since Vietnam, America has a record of not staying the course, of abandoning its allies and encouraging its enemies.

Moreover, some Americans — notably, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) — are worried that they hear noises emanating from the Bush administration that the president’s firm expressions of resolve are not the last word on policy.

In Vietnam, to be sure, the United States stuck with the task to the tune of 55,000 lost lives, but the country lost its will to fight after a well-timed election-year enemy offensive in 1968 — Tet — and elected a president, Richard Nixon, who effected a U.S. withdrawal under the rubric of “Vietnamization.”

Nixon’s secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, negotiated a “peace treaty” that allowed North Vietnamese forces to stay in South Vietnam. Then, in one of the most disgraceful actions in U.S. history, Congress voted in 1975 to deny financial support as South Vietnam was facing its final battle of life and death. It died.

In the popular American mind — and in much of the government, too, civilian and military — all ambiguous and difficult military conflicts are “Vietnam” and “quagmires.”

In one of the other most disgraceful episodes in U.S. history, President Bush’s father in 1991 encouraged Iraqis to rise up against Saddam Hussein in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War. And then he allowed them to be butchered and tortured by the thousands — all to avoid the “quagmire” involved in going to their aid.

In between Vietnam and Iraq, the United States was terror-bombed out of Lebanon in 1983. Afterward, in 1993, Somali thugs forced a U.S. withdrawal by downing a Blackhawk helicopter and killing most of its crew.

Even now, in Afghanistan, it’s not clear that the United States is devoting the resources, military and financial, to securing freedom outside Kabul. Certainly, Bush has not delivered on a promised “Marshall Plan” for Afghanistan.

Iraq, as McCain said in a speech last week, is not Vietnam — because the enemy is a hated oppressor, not a liberator — and must not become another Vietnam because America loses its will.

But aides say that McCain hears worrisome echoes of Nixon-style “Vietnamization” in administration talk of swift “Iraqiization” of the conflict — especially in an election year.

“When our secretary of Defense says that it is up to the Iraqi people to defeat the Baathists and terrorists,” McCain said at the Council on Foreign Relations, “we send a message that America’s exit is ultimately more important than the achievement of American goals.

“We send a signal to every Iraqi ally, neutral and adversary that the United States is more interested in leaving than we are in winning.”

Specifically, he said, “when the United States announces a schedule for training and deploying Iraqi security forces, then announces an acceleration of that schedule, then accelerates it again, it sends a signal of desperation, not certitude.”

And, he said, when the United States increases “by thousands our estimates of the numbers of Iraqis trained, it sounds like somebody is cooking the books.”

Indeed, on Veterans Day, Bush announced that 118,000 Iraqis were doing security duty. Two weeks ago, the Pentagon was touting 90,000. And two weeks before that, 70,000. Persistent news reports suggest that the Iraqis are ill-trained and not adequately vetted for past Saddamist ties.

Moreover, the Pentagon has announced that U.S. forces will be lowered from 130,000 to 105,000, and then below 100,000 sometime next year. That sounds suspiciously like an election-year deployment schedule, not a winning one.

As McCain said, the number of American fighting troops on patrol at any one time in all of Iraq is only 30,000. Military expert Edward Luttwak points out that New York City has 38,000 police officers. Clearly, for a while anyway, we need more troops, not less.