"Bush Needs a Mideast Exit Plan"
Op-Ed, Financial Times
September 11, 2003
Author: Stephen M. Walt, Robert and Renée Belfer Professor of International Affairs; Faculty Chair, International Security Program
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security
The US is in deep trouble in Iraq. Resistance to the occupation is becoming more widespread and effective, and efforts to improve the lives of weary Iraqis are proceeding too slowly to win hearts and minds. Foreign jihadis are flocking to this fresh battleground, where America now struggles to secure a "failed state" of its own making. Having gone to war to oust Saddam Hussein and "transform" the Middle East, the US now stands on the brink of a costly quagmire. So what should it do now?
President George W. Bush should start by asking for the resignations of the people who got us into this mess — beginning with Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, his deputy, and national security advisor Condoleezza Rice. The architects of this war have been proven wrong on almost every count. There were no weapons of mass destruction. The Iraqi people did not welcome US forces with open arms and garlands of flowers. There were no significant links between the Ba'ath party and al-Qaeda — although the invasion seems to have forced them into cahoots.
The presence of 140,000 US troops in Iraq is not enough to pacify the country. Instead, former army chief-of-staff Eric Shinseki's estimate that more than 200,000 troops would be needed — a figure that Mr Rumsfeld derided as "wildly off the mark" — now looks like an absolute minimum.
Overthrowing Mr Hussein did not cause other rogue states to run up the white flag: North Korea remains defiant, Iran's nuclear programme is still active and Syria is once again permitting Hezbollah to use its territory as a base from which to attack Israel. Conquering Iraq did not help the administration's "road-map" for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. And there is no sign of an emerging "democratic transformation" elsewhere in the region.
The president, in short, went to war on the basis of very bad advice. He should, therefore, get rid of the people who gave it to him and bring in a new team with a fresh perspective. The president did not hesitate to replace his top economic team when they were not up to the job, and he should expect no less from his foreign policy team. When you get something this important this wrong, heads should roll.
Second, Mr Bush, who prides himself on plain speaking, should drop the false optimism and tell us exactly what we now face. He could begin by noting a key lesson of 20th century history: that it is extremely difficult for great powers to occupy foreign countries and govern their populations by force.
Democracy may be a powerful trend in many parts of the world, but nationalism and the desire for self-determination are even stronger. The urge to throw off foreign domination eventually destroyed the Soviet, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, British and French empires, and it continues to inspire resistance movements around the world. Occupations and post-war reconstructions are always difficult and rarely successful, and the US should be under no illusions about the size of the hole into which it has dug itself.
Third, and most important, the Bush administration should abandon its grandiose plans for "transforming" the Middle East and concentrate instead on devising an effective exit strategy. The US cannot just cut and run, both for humanitarian reasons and because doing so would tarnish its global reputation even more than the invasion did. Most of the world opposed this war from the very beginning, and anti-Americanism will increase if the US leaves only destruction and chaos in its wake. But it must still get out as quickly as it can, before Iraq becomes America's Chechnya.
The most promising "exit strategy" would begin by creating a true multinational force. To do this will require a new United Nations resolution, which is the price that other states have put on sending their own troops into a war zone. The Bush administration is now pursuinging this option, but still seems intent on retaining full control. This approach will not work because the countries whose help the US needs have made it clear that they will not bail it out unless they are given a voice in Iraq's future.
The Bush administration has been loath to share authority because it could not admit that the US might need help, did not want to share future benefits with those countries (read France) that opposed the war, and had hopes of establishing new US military bases in a pro-American Iraq. Given the deteriorating situation, however, the smart strategy for the US is to abandon these imperial dreams, swallow its pride, and get help. Instead of trying to monopolise control — as it has done since the invasion — it must share authority so it can share the burden.
The US should also accelerate its efforts to prepare Iraqi forces that can take over from it. The goal should not be to create democracy: that is up to the Iraqi people and is likely to take decades. All that is required is a minimally effective government that can hold the place together after the US leaves. Sadly, this will probably be an authoritarian regime because that is what it will take to keep Iraq from disintegrating.
Looking for the exit sign is not heroic and it will not be appealing to many Americans. But the cruel fact is that the US simply does not have attractive options at this point. When you make a big mistake, bad choices are usually all that remain.
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