- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 9, 2004

The election is over. With a 3.5 million popular-vote margin of victory and Republican gains in Congress behind him, President Bush must now turn to the problems and crises put on hold by the campaign. Iraq and what to do next are atop that list. Realistically, the United States has only two basic choices: stay or leave.

Staying means staying the course, if not to full democratization of Iraq then certainly to a point where that country is sufficiently stable, viable and ready for a legitimately elected Iraqi government to take over the reins of power and full security responsibilities. Senior American officials privately predict that this could take eight to 10 years. In that context, the offensive in Fallujah is seen as a step to dent the insurgency, thus creating breathing space for the Allawi government to recruit, train and deploy Iraqi security forces, as well as send the signal that the insurgents will not win.

Getting out means finding or creating a center of power to keep Iraq progressing toward a more peaceful place or cynically assuming that eliminating Saddam Hussein was a significantly good enough deed that, no matter who takes over, that leadership will prove better for Iraqis. Withdrawal would come sooner, not later. Obviously, both choices have variants. But determining which proves better rests on two, thus far, unanswerable questions.

No.1 is whether the United States, Iraq and the region will be better or worse off if America withdraws or if it stays until its objectives have been achieved. No. 2 concerns the inscrutable Shia cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and whether he will emerge as an Iraqi democrat, autocrat or demagogue/radical leader Iranian style. With no reported contacts between the ayatollah and U.S. officials, the second answer cannot even be guessed. So, what should be done? First, how does the nation move an administration that believes its Iraq policies are working and demeaned all criticism to re-evaluate its assessment? Given Mr. Bush’s reluctance to accept second-guessing, the chances of that happening by itself are not good. Hence senior administration officials who think that we are not on the right track in Iraq must seize the opportunity of the transition to convince the Oval Office of the need for this review. And a few of the braver and more outspoken members of Congress must come forward along with Prime Minister Tony Blair (who is under considerable pressure after two Black Watch soldiers were killed near Fallujah) to lobby for an objective and realistic assessment of the situation in Iraq.

Second, provided that an objective re-evaluation occurs, all options from staying to leaving must be considered. Alternative military tactics and strategies range from increasing or decreasing the number of U.S. (or allied) forces to, with British help, convincing Arab and Islamic states to deploy their troops — no doubt at great expense to Uncle Sam, who most likely would foot the bill. U.S. forces could also be employed differently, say with Iraqi forces directly integrated into U.S. units as during the Korean War, or by using the Combined Action Platoons of the Vietnam War, where small U.S. Marine units were integrated into Vietnamese forces.

Success will not come from military operations alone, no matter how many insurgents are killed or captured. “Winning” means achieving political, economic and social successes. In that light, there is no alternative except to move forcefully to reduce both under- and unemployment in Iraq. For reasons that escape logic, the agrarian sector was ignored in the reconstruction effort. Here, agricultural employment can be boosted in regions where there is an acceptable level of safety. Similarly, Depression era WPA-type work to get potable water, sewers and basic services on track would be high priorities, especially in cities such as Baghdad. And Mr. Sistani must be part of any conversation.

Money is available. Of the $18.4 billion appropriated by Congress last year on an urgent basis for Iraqi reconstruction, shockingly, about $18 billion is still unspent. That funding should be used immediately, even at the risk of waste fraud and abuse by suspending U.S. procurement regulations and armies of lawyers and accountants that prevent timely expenditure of funds. A collapsed Iraq or a civil war will prove far more expensive than any money that is misappropriated or squandered.

Mr. Bush may believe he has a public mandate for his second term. Even if true, that will not make the choices for Iraq easier. Unless the administration is prepared to take a very hard look at Iraq and then consider means to overcome what surely is a more desperate situation than it recognizes, the lessons of Vietnam and earlier failed presidencies will come to haunt this White House.

Harlan Ullman is a columnist for The Washington Times.

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