Archive for Friday, July 18, 2003

U.S. must face Iraq reality

July 18, 2003


L. Paul Bremer may be the best thing Americans have going for them in Iraq. Unlike the administration he works for, the U.S. viceroy in Baghdad is willing to confront mistakes.

Bremer is ready to reverse decisions that were bloopers. After sacking the whole Iraqi army without pay -- leaving 500,000 men armed, angry and jobless -- he reinstated severance and pensions.

After planning to set up a puppet Iraqi political council, Bremer has ushered in an interim government with teeth because he learned a crucial lesson: if Americans run Iraq alone they get blamed for everything that goes wrong.

But neither Bremer nor the new governing council can succeed unless the Bush administration confronts its own Iraq delusions. The council won't get chaos under control unless the administration provides adequate resources. And that can't happen until the White House finally admits just how costly the Iraq project has become.

Instead, the process of extracting Iraq facts from administration officials is tougher than pulling teeth. Witness White House quibbling over its inflated claims about Saddam's nuclear program, or Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's reluctance to admit that estimated troop costs for Iraq have doubled to around $4 billion a month.

The bizarre thing is that the president could rally most of the country behind him -- even those who questioned the case for an Iraq war -- if he were honest about the situation.

Now that the United States has taken Iraq over, it can't afford to exit prematurely. Down that path lies the worst-case scenario that war foes predicted: an unstable nation into which surge Wahabi cash and terrorists eager to link up with Iraqi Islamists and ex-Baathists who flourish in disorder. In the words of Zaim Mohan Khairallah, an Iraqi-American from a prominent Iraqi Shiite family: "If there is a disaster for us, it would be a disaster for the whole area and for the West."

This scenario doesn't have to happen: The bulk of Iraqis don't want Saddam to return, nor do they want a state ruled by Islamists or undermined by terrorists. But to preclude this scenario, the United States must commit more resources to Iraq in the short term, until an Iraqi government is elected and U.S. forces can be drawn down.

In the short term, chaos, heat, and unemployment are turning Iraqis against U.S. troops and will undermine the new governing council from its start.

There are immediate steps that the administration can take to help the council. First, Bush officials must invest whatever military resources it takes to find Saddam and his sons. This would undercut, but not end, resistance by ex-Baathists and foreign fighters. To stabilize the country will take something more.

Such stability can't be achieved by bringing in international police or peacekeeping troops from other nations while reducing U.S. forces. International police would flounder in Iraq. And after the bitter global debate over the Iraq war, too few allies are willing to offer peacekeeping troops. Nor is there time to wait for a retrained Iraqi police force.

Iraqis tell me the best short-term course is for U.S. officials to help the new governing council quickly build a national security force. This could mean recruiting former Iraqi soldiers and finding mid-level Iraqi officers with clean hands. "Select some of the old Iraqi forces, who were not part of the killing machine," says Zuhair Humadi, an Iraqi-American whose father was a pre-Saddam member of parliament.

But this will cost money. So would increasing the number of U.S. forces. So will reconstructing Iraq's infrastructure, a prerequisite to getting the economy going again.

And so will helping the governing council set up a functioning TV station in order to communicate with Iraqis, and a cell phone network to communicate with ministries. Nothing has undercut U.S. occupation authorities more than their inability to let Iraqis know what they are doing, a failure that has fed all kinds of ugly rumors about U.S. behavior and intentions. The council must not be put in the same untenable position.

But the administration is caught in a bind of its own making when it comes to providing the resources for Bremer and the council to function.

The Bush team never planned for a tough occupation, nor for the cost -- nor did it prepare the American public for such fiscal pain. It banked on Iraqi oil revenues to pay reconstruction costs -- though sufficient revenues may not be available for years. It banked on international donors who are reluctant to finance a U.S. military occupation unless they have a larger say in running Iraq.

As the U.S. budget deficit soars, the president remains reluctant to face the fiscal realities of occupation (let alone reconsider the tax cut). Until he does, the situation in Iraq won't improve.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He e-mail address is

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