U.S. Needs Iraqis to Come Forward in Support of Policy

Posted May 28, 2004 at 5:30pm

Polls indicate that the public increasingly thinks that Democrat John Kerry could handle Iraq as well or better than President Bush. Speeches by the two of them last week won’t change that trend. [IMGCAP(1)]

In his speech Thursday in Seattle, Kerry both went on the offensive against Bush and offered hope — dubious though it may be — that he can get other nations to share the burden of bringing stability to Iraq.

President Bush’s address at the Army War College last Monday basically was a reiteration of his past timetable — this time fashioned into a list of five objectives.

Bush’s Democratic critics blasted Bush because his speech didn’t contain answers to some crucial questions, notably: “Who calls the military shots after Iraqis gain sovereignty July 1?”

That was a forgivable omission. The answer is that decision-making authority is still being worked out in negotiations between Americans and Iraqis.

Rather, what I thought was missing from Bush’s speech was anything that could arrest the rapid decline in public confidence that his Iraq policy is capable of controlling violence and establishing a stable government.

It would have been — and it still can be — enormously helpful if Bush can bring to his side a high-ranking Iraqi who can tell the American people, “We’re grateful that you liberated us from the horrors of Saddam Hussein. We do want your troops to leave our country eventually, but we realize that the only hope for our future depends upon your staying. America, stick with us.”

There obviously are Iraqis who think this. Members of the Iraqi Governing Council daily risk their lives to participate in the American-led endeavor to transform their country. Some of them have lost their lives, as have Iraqi police and government administrators.

The American public rarely hears from Iraqi heroes, and the U.S. media convey the impression that the entire Iraqi population is in rebellion against coalition forces, when in fact the opposition mainly consists of Hussein loyalists, foreign jihadists and followers of the radical Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr.

After the May 17 killing of Ezzadine Salim, the president of the governing council, another council member, Mowaffak al-Rabai, told National Public Radio that “these gangsters and terrorists will have to kill 25 million Iraqis who are longing for freedom, democracy and prosperity.”

Rabai, the council’s national security adviser, is considered close to Iraq’s most influential figure, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. The Bush administration should be making the point publicly — as officials already do in private — that Sistani believes a U.S. presence is vital to eventual peace in Iraq.

In fact, much of what looks like confusion in coalition activity in Iraq is the result of attempts to placate Sistani, including the speedup of the sovereignty handover, the involvement of the United Nations and the latest stand-down from combat with Sadr’s forces in Najaf.

Ideally, the United States should elicit from Sistani himself a statement that a continuing U.S. presence is essential. Sistani undoubtedly is reluctant to be seen as too close to the United States, but the United States needs to convince him that his endorsement would significantly bolster public support in the United States and worldwide for the only course that can prevent Iraq’s descent into total chaos or civil war.

Polls indicate decreasing public support for the war in the United States — a fact that has to be demoralizing to Iraqis standing with us. They must be made to understand that they can help influence U.S. opinion.

The latest Gallup poll, conducted May 21-23, shows that a majority of voters — 52 percent — believe that going to war in Iraq was “not worth it.” And 57 percent believe that it is going “badly.”

Moreover, 69 percent now think it’s unlikely that peace and internal security will be established in Iraq within the next year, while 55 percent think it unlikely that a democratic form of government will be established.

Politically, testimonials by Iraqis would aid Bush the most. But they’d also ultimately help Kerry if he were to win the presidency and attempted — as he’s pledged — to maintain a U.S. presence in Iraq.

A Fox News poll published May 21 showed — for the first time — that voters think Kerry would handle Iraq better than Bush, by a margin of 39 percent to 34 percent.

In other polls, including those by Gallup and the Pew Research Center, Bush retains a three-point edge. But that’s dramatically down from the 20-point leads Bush amassed in 2003.

As long as the news from Iraq remains dismal, Kerry is in the enviable position of being able to whack Bush and propose alternatives regardless of whether they are likely to work.

In his speech last Thursday, Kerry obscured the fact that, had he been president, Saddam Hussein would still be in power, saying he would have “assembled a whole team” before going to war and have “prepared for the worst.”

Kerry actually would not have gone to war without French approval, which no U.S. president would have acquired. Now, he wants NATO to take over military authority in Iraq, but German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has said he will oppose that at this month’s NATO summit in Istanbul.

In his speech, Kerry promised U.S. forces that “you will never be sent into harm’s way without enough troops for the task, and you will never be asked to fight a war without a plan to win the peace.”

On the other hand, he told the worldwide terrorist network that, “as commander in chief, I will bring the full force of our nation’s power to bear on finding and crushing your networks. We’ll use every resource of our power to destroy you.”

But suppose the government of Pakistan was toppled by Islamic fundamentalists who suddenly took possession of that country’s nuclear arsenal. Would Kerry really wait until he had formed an international “team” and “a plan to win the peace” before acting? Would he act at all?

Events have robbed Bush of his foreign policy advantage over Kerry, leaving Kerry able to make resolute-sounding speeches without having to deliver. Now, Bush not only has to make better speeches — and get some help from Iraqis, if he can — but he has to produce progress. And soon.