Exit Strategy

10 June 2004

Exit Strategy

By Gwynne Dyer

President George W. Bush has had a good two weeks on Iraq. A United Nations special envoy helped to choose the members of an Iraqi interim government. A UN Security Council resolution then blessed the deal by which the US will allegedly hand over ‘sovereignty’ to that interim government on 30 June. And at the G-8 summit in Georgia, nobody openly criticised his invasion of Iraq and everybody smiled at the photo-ops.

By the end of the summit, he was so emboldened by all this international cooperation and good will that he wondered aloud if NATO might like to send some troops to help in Iraq. Is it possible that he still doesn’t get it?

The sovereignty deal, the UN resolution and the show of solidarity at the G-8 are all about smoothing the path so that the US can get out of Iraq as fast as possible. None of the other major great powers except Britain approves of what the US has done there, but none of them wants this to end with bitter and humiliated Americans turning their backs on the world, so they swallow their anger and try to help Mr. Bush find his way out. France’s President Jacques Chirac bluntly called it “an exit strategy from a crisis.”

And what about Iraq? Most other governments fear that it has been fatally destabilised by the US intervention and that it is doomed to a prolonged period of turmoil, with civil war and partition both possibilities. The problem was not so much the US invasion itself — that was a frontal assault on international law and the United Nations, but potentially beneficial for Iraqis suffering under Saddam Hussein’s brutal rule — as what happened after. The occupation regime has so consistently made the worst possible choices that it would have done better simply by flipping a coin each time.

It disbanded the Iraqi army and the whole apparatus of the Iraqi state, although it clearly lacked the skills or resources to create adequate replacements. It refused to hold early elections for fear that the Shias would win. It has never had even half the soldiers that conventional military wisdom would dictate for the occupation of such a large country — and as a result, overstretched American troops have relied far too much on firepower, random arrests and intimidation, alienating even the Iraqis who were initially well disposed towards the US.

Those decisions were presumably dictated by the neo-cons in the Pentagon, but Paul Bremer, the outgoing head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, made his own contributions to the mess, like seeking a confrontation in April with Sheikh Moqtada al-Sadr and his radical Shia militia that the CPA could not possibly win without damaging the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, killing thousands, and driving the moderate majority of Shias into revolt.

The US military authorities outdid Bremer by besieging the Sunni insurgents in Falluja at the same time, creating another no-win situation in which the only American options were to back off or to commit a massacre. US forces have now given up trying to control either Falluja or Najaf, and further ‘no-go’ zones for American troops are likely to follow. The myth of American military power has been smashed in the eyes of ordinary Iraqis, just as trust in American motives has been destroyed by the disgusting revelations about the abuses inflicted on Iraqi prisoners.

Yet even this month, when the highest priority for Mr Bremer was obviously to choose an Iraqi interim government with enough credibility to allow an early US withdrawal, he could not resist meddling in the process. The theory was that the new Iraqi government would be chosen by UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, thus making it look less like an American puppet than its US-appointed predecessor, the ‘Iraqi Governing Council’. But Mr Brahimi’s choice for prime minister, an independent technocrat with no crippling US ties called Hussein al-Shahristani, was forced to decline. In his place came Iyad Allawi, a former exile who used to work for the CIA.

In an undiplomatic moment, the UN envoy voiced his anger: “I’m sure he doesn’t mind me saying that Bremer is the dictator of Iraq. He has the money. He has the signatures. Nothing happens without his agreement in this country.” Nothing except an insurgency that continues to grow, and spreading popular anger at the arrogance and incompetence of the occupiers (who have still not restored basic services to pre-war levels), and deepening divisions between the various Iraqi ethnic and religious communities.

“I believe we are absolutely on the brink of failure. We are looking into the abyss,” General Joseph Hoar, former commander of US Central Command, told the Senate foreign relations committee last month. America’s friends and allies think that, too.

The other great powers are not trying to save Iraq with their UN resolution and their pro-Bush mood music; they have pretty much abandoned hope of a happy outcome there. If they were sure that Mr Bush will lose next November’s election, they might just wait him out, but since they are not confident of that, they are actually throwing him a lifeline. They are offering him the political cover that would let him cut and run now, because the worst possible outcome of this mess would a US catastrophe in Iraq, an Arab world in revolt against Western meddling and an embittered and isolated America that is still addicted to military solutions.

The question is whether Mr Bush understands that this is a lifeline and not a blank cheque.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“Yet…communities”)