Bush and Kerry Must Tell Voters: U.S. Can’t Quit Iraq for Years

Posted October 8, 2004 at 1:37pm

Bush and Kerry Must Tell Voters: U.S. Can’t Quit Iraq for Years One of the most despicable acts in U.S. history was then-President George H.W. Bush’s encouraging of a Shiite and Kurdish rebellion in Iraq in 1991 — and then abandoning the rebels to destruction by Saddam Hussein. It can’t be repeated.[IMGCAP(1)]

Or can it? Hussein will never return to power, to be sure, but premature withdrawal of American forces from Iraq easily could lead to a bloodbath — most likely with democratic moderates decimated by Islamic jihadists and Saddam loyalists.

Neither Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) nor the current President Bush has a stated policy of “bugging out.” Both — though Kerry, only lately — talk of “victory” and “staying the course.”

But the Democrat has criticized Bush for not having an “exit strategy,” has set as a goal full U.S. withdrawal in four years and has said troop reductions might begin six months after he becomes president.

Bush has denounced Kerry’s deadline-setting and alleged “strategy of retreat,” but disturbing columns by the intrepid Robert Novak cite “well-placed sources in the administration” as being “confident” that “Bush’s decision will be to get out” shortly after he’s re-elected.

Administration and Bush campaign officials stoutly deny any such intent and, admittedly, a single columnist is a thin reed on which to hang a conspiracy theory.

Still, outside Mideast experts confirm to me what Novak reported: that U.S. military brass will tell Bush early next year that they can’t sustain current troop levels in Iraq without wearing out our armed forces.

The administration is banking on quickly replacing U.S. forces with trained Iraqis. The administration claims that 100,000 have been trained so far and that some units are engaged in combat operations in Baghdad’s Sadr City, Samarra and elsewhere.

In his first debate with Kerry, when Bush was asked what criteria he’d use for bringing U.S. troops home, he said, “we’ll never succeed in Iraq if the Iraqi citizens do not want to take matters into their own hands to protect themselves. I believe they want to. Prime Minister [Ayad] Allawi believes that they want to.”

He continued, “the answer to your question is, when our generals on the ground and Ambassador [John] Negroponte tells me that Iraq is ready to defend herself from these terrorists, that elections will have been held by then, that … they’re on their way to being free. That’s when.”

It’s a reassuring answer, but what if Iraqi security forces prove not to be up to the job of defeating insurgents by themselves? Or if an Iraqi government is elected that’s ambivalent about the U.S. presence?

Of course, if an elected Iraqi government declared it wanted U.S. troops out, we would have to leave, but to avoid such a government’s coming to power, the United States has to do a better job of providing security and rebuilding the country — so that the citizenry views the American presence as a net asset.

The danger inherent in both Kerry’s comments and the Novak columns is that the Untied States would contrive to declare that its mission is accomplished and leave before the mission of permanent stability really is accomplished.

Given the difficulties facing Iraq, that is likely to take years — which neither Kerry nor Bush is preparing U.S. voters to accept.

A premature withdrawal and a chaotic Iraq would be a catastrophe for the Iraqis, probably leading to civil war and terrorist control of parts of the country. It would be a catastrophe for America’s reputation as a world leader.

And it would be a moral catastrophe for whichever president presides over it. George H.W. Bush deserves to be condemned by history for encouraging Iraqis to rise up against Hussein after the 1991 Persian Gulf War — and then allowing the Iraqi army to decimate the rebels.

The United States even allowed Iraq to use helicopter gunships against the rebels when it would have been simple to use U.S. aircraft to protect them. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died before the United States imposed a no-fly zone over northern and southern Iraq in 1992.

How the current president led the United States to invade Iraq this time is a legitimate subject for election debate. Kerry alleges that Bush “deceived” the nation to invade “for ideological reasons,” but doesn’t explain what he thinks those reasons were.

Bush’s primary justification — that Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction he could pass on to terrorist groups for use against the United States — has been decisively exploded, most recently by weapons inspector Charles Duelfer.

On the other hand, there’s no proof that Bush knew no weapons existed and lied to the country. Foreign intelligence services as well as the CIA believed Iraq possessed stores of chemical and biological weapons.

Duelfer’s report makes it clear that Hussein had a strategy to undermine international sanctions and inspections and then resume production of WMD, so the chances are that the United States would have had to confront Iraq sometime, if not in 2003.

Regardless of how the United States came to be in Iraq, however, we’re there now. The country’s reputation is on the line. It’s fair comment for Kerry to say that Bush miscalculated the aftermath of the war, and Bush’s former Iraq reconstruction czar, Paul Bremer, agrees that there weren’t enough troops to secure the country. It’s fair to say that the situation there is now “a mess.”

But for Kerry to use the old Vietnam word, “quagmire,” implies that getting out ought to be America’s primary priority. In fact, there is no getting out with honor except by defeating the insurgency, securing Iraq and making it stable, friendly to the United States and as close to democratic as possible.

That’s not going to be done quickly. It will take years, as it did in Germany and Japan and as it is doing in Bosnia and Kosovo right now. It will be costly, too — at least the $200 billion that Kerry estimates (and complains of) and Bush denies.

So both candidates need to level with the American people and not even imply there’s a knowable exit date. And neither candidate, if elected, should even consider repeating the shameful example of President Bush’s father.