- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 11, 2004

The prestigious Council on Foreign Relations warned in a report released Tuesday that election politics should not jeopardize U.S. staying power in Iraq.

The council-sponsored Independent Task Force on Post-Conflict Iraq, titled, “Iraq: One Year After,” asked for a bipartisan pledge to reaffirm commitment to security and reconstruction in Iraq.

But asking politicians engaged in a full-swing presidential election campaign to keep a sizzling issue like the Iraq war out of politics would be the equivalent of preaching to the deaf. There is far too much meat on the bone for it to be left alone.

Already, the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon has creeped into the electoral battle with President George W. Bush claiming September 11 as “his,” amid complaints from victims’ families and firefighters saying the president should not have used September 11 in his campaign adds. And John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee, is flirting with the idea of a quick visit to Iraq. Images of Mr. Kerry in Vietnam were good for politics. Images in Iraq will be even better.

But while the council’s report raises a number of important issues, they are, however, not earth-shattering. In short, the Task Force report re-emphasizes what a number of Middle East watchers and analysts have been saying since the start of the Iraqi campaign — that the United States must stay the course and see Iraq through its full transition to democracy, no matter how long that takes. The alternative is just unthinkable.

A premature pullout from Iraq would open the door to all sorts of antidemocratic movements and would jeopardize Iraq’s still wavering and fragile march toward democracy. It would spell a clear victory for al Qaeda and its affiliates, who have been working in Iraq since the downfall of Saddam last March.

At this point, regardless of whether one agreed or disagreed that going to war in Iraq was the right thing to do, there is no going back now. The only way out of the Iraqi dilemma is forward. The United States must see Iraq through this difficult phase and assist it — militarily, politically and financially.

President Bush hopes that by June 30, when Iraq reassumes its sovereignty, the United States will be able to take somewhat of a back seat in Iraq. By moving U.S. troops from the cities and towns where they are currently bivouacked to more secure back bases in the countryside, Pentagon planners hope to reduce the number of casualties sustained on a quasi-daily basis. This, of course, will look good for the administration, leading up to the November elections. And of course, Mr. Kerry will also jump onto the Iraq bandwagon if he feels it will win him votes.

However, it should be pointed out that the time of the transition of power in Iraq — June 30 — will be one of the most critical stages in postwar Iraq. If party politics can be put aside momentarily, the Iraqis must be given full confidence they will not be let down.

U.S. foreign policy does not have a very good track record in that part of the world, and is often accused of suffering of attention deficit. “Uncertainty about long-term U.S. funding has created doubts about U.S. staying power,” says the council’s report. Such doubts should be laid to rest.

The report urges Mr. Bush, the Democrats and Congress that to avoid demoralizing Iraqis they should “declare that coalition forces will continue to provide essential security in Iraq until the Iraqi security forces can do so on their own.”

They should emphasize the transfer of sovereignty does not signal a diminished U.S. commitment to supporting stability, reconstruction and a peaceful political transition.

They should affirm that the United States is prepared to sustain a multibillion-dollar commitment to Iraq for at least the next several years.

They should ensure broad involvement of Iraqis, and promote a leading role for the United Nations in the political transition process.

As the Council on Foreign Relations Task Force report points out, the United Nations must be invited to play a leading role in rebuilding Iraq’s shattered infrastructures.

Improved relations between the Bush administration and the United Nations should be taken advantage of, the Task Force recommends, so the U.N. can play “a leading role in creating a transitional authority for Iraq to ensure a more credible exercise that is accepted by most, if not all, important Iraqi actors.”

According to the Task Force, U.N. involvement in creating a transitional authority also will expand the possibilities for U.N. assistance in other important areas, such as the administration of justice, human rights and economic reconstruction, areas that badly need attention.

In its report, the Task Force includes a long sundry list of steps that still need to be undertaken to help Iraq on its path toward democracy. These include increasing incentives for U.S. government service in Iraq; improving management of U.S. assistance efforts; moving quickly to structure the administration and staffing of a new U.S. Embassy; promoting job creation; advancing the status of women; implementing a more effective public diplomacy effort; and ensuring transparent and accountable monitoring procedures for the oil industry.

Who ever said the road to democracy was easy? Let’s hope electioneering does not make it more difficult.

Claude Salhani is international editor of United Press International.

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