Exit strategy


Published: Wednesday, January 12, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 11, 2005 at 10:19 p.m.
President Bush was wildly off the mark when, immediately upon the fall of Saddam's Iraq, he landed via jet fighter on an aircraft carrier to announce triumphantly, "Mission accomplished."
That seems so long ago - nearly two years ago. And there are still 150,000 American troops occupying Iraq. The number of Americans who have died there, now fighting a stubborn insurgency, is approaching 1,400. Thousands of Iraqis are dead. Some cities, such as Falluja, have been reduced to rubble. And even conservative stalwarts, like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, worry aloud about "digging ourselves out of a hole" in Iraq.
All of which begs a question that ought to hang heavy over Washington as the Jan. 30 Iraqi elections approach: How will we know when the mission is truly accomplished?
How long must Americans continue to pay a price both fiscally, $4.5 billion a month, and in human lives, trying to turn Iraq into a functioning democracy?
Will the mission be accomplished after the elections are over? Or when the elected assembly begins to run the country?
Will it be over when the back of the insurgency has been broken? Or when Iraq has managed to recruit and adequately train sufficient police and soldiers to safeguard itself?
Will it be in six weeks? Six months? Six years?
What is the Bush administration's exit strategy for Iraq? What is the timetable to stop America's participation in this blood bath?
Brent Scowcroft, former national security adviser to the current president's father, seemed to throw down a gauntlet recently. He suggested that when President Bush visits Europe next month he should tell leaders there, "I can't keep the American people doing this alone. What do you think would happen if we pulled American troops out right now?"
For the record, President Bush remains "incredibly hopeful" about the pending elections. But this week, Prime Minister Ayad Allawi acknowledged that some "pockets" of the country "will not be able to participate in the elections" because of the ongoing violence.
One influential group of Sunni clerics, the Association of Muslim Scholars, has been threatening a boycott of the elections. Reportedly, it has offered to withdraw that boycott if a clear timetable for the withdrawal of American troops is laid out.
Would the American people consider an expedient withdrawal a "cut and run" strategy? Not likely.
A survey of 1,608 voters conducted by the nonpartisan Civil Society Institute indicated this week that fewer than one in 10 voters believe the United States should be involved in "democracy building" in Iraq. Two-thirds of those polled oppose long-term occupation of Iraq or Afghanistan. And 71 percent think the U.S. occupation of Iraq makes us more, not less, vulnerable to terrorist attacks.
"The Iraq experience clearly has been a sobering one for Americans," Institute President Pam Solo said upon release of the survey results. "Voters are embracing a 'new realism' in foreign policy and security matters that puts more emphasis on safer U.S. borders, intelligence gathering, diplomatic initiative, multi-national interventions when necessary and greater energy efficiency in order to decrease America's dependence on Middle Eastern oil . . . voters want to de-emphasize such current strategies as nation building, unilateral military invasions and the direct or indirect use of torture."
It is time for a cohesive exit strategy for Iraq. And a realistic timetable to go along with it. At the very least the administration owes the American people some explanation as to exactly what has to happen before they can expect to see a significant withdrawal of occupation forces from Iraq.
Otherwise, how will we even know when or if the mission is truly accomplished?

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