A Rush to War — Now a Rush Out of One?

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On Oct. 19, 1966, a year after heavy combat in Vietnam began, a 74-year-old Republican Senator from Vermont named George Aiken proposed an immediate solution to the conflict: the U.S. should declare victory and go home. And now, suddenly, there are Aikenesque rumblings about Iraq — from liberals and conservatives, politicians and policy experts alike. There is gathering political, military and diplomatic pressure to find an Iraqi exit strategy by next spring. Given Iraq's fragility, any perceived weakening of American resolve could lead to disaster. Even so, don't be surprised if some modified, fig-leafed version of the Aiken scenario comes to pass.

The political pressures are obvious. There will be a presidential election in November 2004. The public is already weary of the costs of war and skeptical about the reasons George W. Bush chose to fight it. The highest-ranking U.S. general in Iraq, Ricardo Sanchez, last week admitted that the Iraqi guerrillas were growing more effective and predicted even more lethal attacks in the near future. Bush has not helped matters with his continuing spew of stiff-necked platitudes, but he has been resolute, so far, about American postwar responsibilities. "We have a moral responsibility to leave Iraq better than we found it," a high-ranking Administration official told me last week. Morals often take a backseat to practicalities in the heat of an election, though, and one wonders whether the Democrats will resist the easy demagoguery of a Bring 'Em Home Now campaign.

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The military pressures are quite serious. The Army will face a troop-replacement crisis in March, when several units are scheduled to rotate home. A few weeks ago, the Congressional Budget Office found that the Army would be able to maintain a force of only 67,000 to 106,000 troops after that, unless the tours of the 150,000 currently serving in Iraq are extended or significant numbers of National Guards, reservists and Marines are rotated in or significant foreign help is found, which is unlikely. "We'll get it done somehow," a military source told me, with a sigh. But the long-term damage to U.S. military readiness — and national security — could be serious. "We can't sustain these troop levels for more than another year or so," an Administration official told me.

The diplomatic pressure increased dramatically in the past week. It is now clear that the U.N. will not help Iraq so long as the American occupation authority remains in charge. Kofi Annan has said he wants a rapid transfer of power to an Iraqi government of some sort. Everyone agrees this is a good idea — even the U.S. proconsul, Paul Bremer, recently told a congressional committee that already "some Iraqis are beginning to regard us as occupiers and not as liberators"--but no one knows how to get it done anytime soon with any guarantee of success. For one thing, it will be impossible to create a new government without Sunni participation, and the traditional Sunni political party, Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, has been outlawed. "We may have to allow them back, in some form," a U.S. official told me. "But we won't call them Baathists."

In truth, there are three possible paths to an Iraqi provisional government, and each has problems. The easiest and worst would be to simply turn over authority to the current Governing Council, which has too many questionable Iraqi exiles like Ahmed Chalabi and too little input from the Grand Ayatullah Ali Sistani, the most powerful Shi'a cleric, or the general Sunni populace. The Bush Administration's chosen path is more responsible but too slow — write a new constitution, have a referendum on that constitution and then hold general elections. Colin Powell has set a six-month target for the constitution, but nobody believes it can be done that quickly. Political reality may dictate that this second option will be scrapped in favor of the first: a quick and dirty transfer of power to the Governing Council next spring.

A third path is suggested by Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: a snap election to create an interim parliament. "The candidates would run on national lists and be elected by proportional representation. The likely result would be a coalition government, which would then have three years to write a constitution and create a permanent government." The risks of such a scheme are obvious: radicals tend to do best in premature elections, and a large, continuing American military presence and real humanitarian and financial support from the U.N. would still be required. The advantage would be an elected Iraqi government in place by summer. "Ideally, you'd want more time for responsible political leadership to emerge," Ottaway admitted. "But the occupation is politically untenable." Sadly, it seems untenable in both Iraq and Washington. Having rushed to war, we now seem destined to rush out of it.