Friday, August 22, 2003

Rubin on Iraq
Foreign affairs enthusiasts who don't live in Philadelphia are probably unacquainted with the Philadelphia Inquirer's indispensable international relations columnist Trudy Rubin. Today Rubin has a column about the mess in Iraq and what needs to be done to clean it up. She writes:

The blast that toppled the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad ought to smash the Bush team's la-la-land illusions about Iraq. Time is running out to salvage a decent result from the Iraq war.

The window could shut within a very few months.

Unless the Bush team drops its pretense that Iraq is doing fine, the country could soon deteriorate into what it never was under Saddam Hussein: a terrorist haven where Arab Islamists link up with secular ex-Baathists to pool funds and explosives. Bush's taunt to Iraqi militants - "bring 'em on" - may come to look like the last hurrah.

Rubin recommends dispensing with the "illusion" that peace and democracy in Iraq can be had on the cheap, and telling the American people the truth about what the occupation is going to cost. There is an interesting split developing on the left, between those who recommend ending the occupation now and turning the whole festering disaster over to the Iraqis themselves, and those who argue for a full internationalization of the reconstruction, including a new UN resolution and French soldiers roaming the streets with their American comrades. A few thoughts:

First, the UN bombing does demonstrate that it will take more than blue helmets to end the guerilla uprising in the so-called Sunni Triangle (I say so-called because I doubt that's where Tikritis tell people they're from). Multi-national forces can be attacked, harrassed, and suicide-bombed too. Just ask the French and the Italians, whose troops died along with Americans in the Lebanese civil war. Hezbollah guerillas didn't make such fine distinctions.

The Anglo-American occupation is becoming increasingly untenable, however. With Bush trying to put a happy face on the sour economic outlook while dropping $4 billion a month on the occupation, the dissonance between official U.S. pronouncements and the facts on the ground is difficult to ignore. A brigade of Honduran and Dominican peacekeepers is not the answer. Unlike some, I refuse to sneer at these nations for sending their troops, but at the same time we have to realize that a brigade of experienced French peacekeepers would be worth a whole division of troops from the Caribbean. Bush's refusal to contemplate mending the necessary fences with his allies is emblematic of his entire foreign policy strategy.

At the same time, I think simply turning tail and running away would also be a disaster -- not because our "credibility" is on the line, but because we would leave Iraq in much worse shape, and much more susceptible to terror, than we found it. The sensible option is to set a firm departure date, get our traditional allies in on the action (even if it means kissing a little you-know-what), and do our best to build institutions and infrastructure in the limited time that we do have. We should also probably at least double our financial allocation for rebuilding Iraq (and Afghanistan). As my father always said to me, "If you're going to do a job half-assed, you shouldn't bother doing it at all." He was talking about dusting the dining room table, but the lesson, I think, travels pretty well.


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