U.S. still can steer clear of Iraq quagmire

Iraq is not Vietnam.

Not yet.

The historical differences are obvious. There’s no unified Iraqi national resistance, no Soviet Union to resupply the insurgents.

Most Iraqis don’t support the goals of insurgent leaders — be they radical Islamists or former Baathists. Very unlike Vietnam. And U.S. casualties are in the hundreds, not thousands. So far.

Most important, it’s still possible to envision a way the United States can avoid a quagmire. But to bypass the bogs, the administration has to know where it’s heading.

President Bush says that America will “stay the course.” But he doesn’t say what course.

He calls for Iraqi democracy yet admits he doesn’t know to whom the United States will hand sovereignty on June 30. He’s left the shaping of that transition to a U.N. official, Lakhdar Brahimi — a sign of desperation. U.S. generals have called for more troops, but no one knows how long they will be needed.

It is this vagueness that fuels talk of quagmires. The president says such talk comforts the enemy. But what comforts the enemy is the administration’s confusion. If the president wants to dampen talk of quagmires, he should address such questions as these:

1. Is the United States really ready to give real power to Iraqis? The answer will define whether Iraq’s insurgency expands into a broader nationalist rebellion — as in Vietnam. Many Iraqis, especially Shiite religious leaders, have come to distrust U.S. intentions, despite Bush’s fine talk about Iraq as a model for the region. They want to hold elections sooner than the Bush team will permit.

U.S. officials pushed through an interim constitution that will tie the hands of a future elected constitutional assembly and that limits majority Shiite power. On Friday, President Bush said this document shows “how civilized people should live.” But if Iraqi leaders don’t have the same ideas about civilization, can Americans impose their ideas?

2. Will the Bush team really let Brahimi shape the political transition? U.S. officials treated Brahimi’s predecessor, Sergio Vieira de Mello, shabbily. (He later died in a Baghdad car bombing.) U.N. officials fear the Bush team may use Brahimi as window dressing then undermine him. He can succeed only if the United States cedes him some real power.

3. Does the Bush team aim to run Iraq from behind the scenes after June 30, and even after promised elections in 2005? The United States will retain 130,000 troops and have an embassy of more than 1,000 people, along with an aid budget of billions. The embassy will remain in Saddam’s palace, the same building that now houses the occupation authority.

Already, Iraqis are making comparisons with the legendary U.S. Embassy in Saigon. Will this embassy (or officials in Washington) try to control Iraqi political decisions? If the U.S. military wants to besiege an Iraqi town like Fallujah and Iraqi officials prefer negotiations, who will have the final say?

The potential for future conflict between U.S. and Iraqi officials is already visible in ongoing negotiations between Shiite leaders and the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. He is holed up in the holy Shiite city of Najaf, which is surrounded by U.S. troops.

An adviser to Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani e-mailed me angrily on Friday: “Whenever we are led to understand that an agreement has been reached to defuse the situation, a U.S. military commander announces that they are going to capture or kill … Muqtada.”

4. Will the United States let sovereign Iraqi officials play a major role in fighting terrorism? So far, the Iraqi security forces trained by the Bush administration are designed only to help American forces, meaning U.S. soldiers must shoulder the burden. Will the administration let Iraqis have a serious army of their own?

The list could go on. But the question of the day is whether the Bush team will let Iraqis determine their future or try to control it. The president says he knows Iraqis aren’t happy with occupation. But will the United States try to perpetuate occupation by another name?

If so, I believe Americans will indeed drift into an Iraqi quagmire. Terrorism has flourished inside Iraq to a far greater extent than under Saddam, leaving us no choice other than to fight it. But if we alienate Iraqis, a nationalist insurgency could flourish, aimed at expelling U.S. forces. In that climate, attacks on Americans will soar. It won’t be Vietnam, but the parallels will be painful.

This doesn’t have to happen. If Iraqis believe the United States is acting in their interest, they will tolerate the U.S. presence in the short run. Iraqis could still be our allies. It all depends on the course our president charts.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.