- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 20, 2003

BAGHDAD, July 4, 2053 (AP) Iraqi officials today visited the U.S. Command at Camp Franks to commemorate America’s Independence Day and thank the United States for its role in keeping Iraq peaceful for over half a century.

Sound far-fetched? Turn the calendar to 2003, substitute the name Japan, South Korea or Germany for Iraq, and the story is real. America’s postwar efforts to keep peace and help rebuild those countries turned into substantial permanent commitments with no defined end. If the United States’ experience in cleaning up after its wars is any guide, American troops may well be in Iraq 50 years from now.

Might one argue that the circumstances after World War II were different? Let’s see. The U.S. presence began as a force in occupation of Japan and Germany because:

1. The war brought down a threatening regime, and a stable government was then needed to deliver services and help rebuild the economy, so:

2. We rebuilt the infrastructure and created democratic institutions, leading to:

3. An invitation to stay and help keep the country secure against external threats, which we were glad to do because:

4. It gave us a lasting influence in an area of American national interest.

All of those factors also apply to South Korea except the first.

We are now beginning step two in Iraq. This time, before buckling in for a 50-year ride, we should ask many questions. Here are just a few:

m Is it in the United States’ interest to take steps two and three in Iraq? If so, how do we convince the Iraqis that that American presence is also in their interest? If not, when do we leave? And what do we say if the new Iraqi government asks us to stay?

m Would we be willing to defend Iraq against external threats? Which ones? And how much of America’s military and economic power should be committed to doing so?

m Is this properly an American operation? The administration position is that other countries are welcome to participate, but that answer simply reflects today’s de facto situation: Our troops are already there because we just won a war, so we’ll do the job until somebody else shows up. That displays little if any analysis of whether it is in America’s interest to rebuild Iraq solo, as part of a coalition, under United Nations auspices or in some other fashion. Tom Sawyer knew he wanted others to whitewash his fence, and found a way to make that happen. Do we know what we want our friends to help do in Iraq?

m If we don’t stay, is there reason to trust that an Iraq with a revitalized economy and rebuilt military won’t again become a challenge to U.S. interests? How do we keep it friendly?

m How does domestic politics affect the will to build Iraq back up when more traditional allies in the region might not want another power in the neighborhood? How does rebuilding Iraq change the regional balance, and how should we manage that change?

History shows that without thinking about these issues now, we may well find ourselves in a 50-year commitment of American lives, resources and prestige. Any one of these questions demands significant thought, introspection and debate, and one can devise dozens more like them. We succeeded in making prosperous allies of Japan, Germany and South Korea because of careful forethought and plans laid long before any occupation came to pass.

Sad to say, I am not at all optimistic about the prospects for similarly meaningful consideration in today’s case. Long before the latest Iraq war began, I wrote the president two letters discussing the range of possible postwar challenges, and urging that any war plan take into account America’s goals and specific role in the aftermath. We are beginning to repair infrastructure and to try to establish institutions. That’s good for the Iraqi people. But how will these actions be made to fit with America’s long-term interests? I have yet to hear that discussed with any depth of thought.

I do not believe the Bush administration lacks the experienced minds needed to set appropriate goals and roles, yet the chaos of postwar Iraq shows every sign of an occupation being planned on the fly. This occupation is different from those in Japan, Germany and South Korea, where our postwar forces didn’t face the kind of armed opposition we now see every day. That makes planning a clear road ahead even more important. And a proper plan isn’t just a road map; it should include benchmarks by which we can measure whether we’re doing the job we set out to do.

It may well be to America’s advantage to keep military forces in Iraq for the next half-century. It may not. But we shouldn’t just let it happen. The time to ask searching questions is now, lest we find ourselves decades later still managing an accidental occupation. America has proven once again that it is unparalleled at waging war with considered strategy and brilliant execution. Let’s show again that we can do as well at peace.

Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri is ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee and a member of its Tactical Air and Land Subcommittee.

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