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Match Iraq Policy to Reality

By Jessica Mathews
Thursday, September 23, 2004; Page A29

One year ago this week, returning from Iraq, I wrote in this space:

To visit Iraq today is to be forcibly reminded of the obvious: There is no military solution to politically inspired violence by locals against foreigners. What was true for the French in Algeria, the British in Northern Ireland, the Russians in Chechnya and the Israelis in the West Bank is proving true for the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Iraq. Notwithstanding a huge and impressive military effort, the security situation, at least for now, is worsening.

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Since then, some 700 Americans and probably at least 10 times as many Iraqis have died. Average daily attacks have climbed from 22 to 87, and crucial parts of the country are no longer under U.S. (or Iraqi government) control.

What was an emerging opposition is now a full-fledged insurgency. The United States is still without a political strategy that recognizes this reality. As a result, the military is forced into a stop-go-stop hesitancy in which soldiers' lives are being wasted and security continues to worsen.

The sobering truth is that a path to a not-awful ending in Iraq is extremely hard to see, and there may not, in fact, be one. The United States cannot use its full power to achieve security without causing so many Iraqi casualties that it would defeat our purpose. We do not have enough additional troops to send to achieve order through an overwhelming presence. Iraqi security forces are nowhere near up to the task and will not be for a long time. Thus the paradox: While achieving a degree of security is the overwhelming priority, a change of political course is the most important step.

What is needed is a policy that takes deadly seriously what Iraqis believe about why the war began and what the United States intends. These beliefs -- that the United States came only to get its hands on Iraq's oil, to benefit Israel's security, and to establish a puppet government and a permanent military presence through which it could control Iraq and the rest of the region -- are wrong. But beliefs passionately held are as important as facts, because they powerfully affect behavior. What we see as a tragic series of American missteps, Iraqis interpret -- with reason when seen through their eyes -- as evidence of evil intent.

If controlling Iraq's oil was not our purpose, they ask, why was the oil ministry the only building (not excluding Baghdad's nuclear complex) that U.S. soldiers had orders to guard against looting? If the United States did not intend to dismember the Iraqi state, why did it dissolve the Iraqi army? If the United States does not mean to stay, why is it building 14 "enduring" military bases? If it did not mean to control Iraq's politics, why would it appoint a prime minister who spent two decades on the CIA payroll? If it is not pursuing a classic policy of imperial divide-and-rule by exacerbating sectarian differences, why does it continue to insist on minutely balancing Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds, Turkmen, Christians and others on every appointed council?

To succeed, the United States needs to do what it can to undermine each of these convictions. The president -- no one less -- needs to state formally and unequivocally that the United States will not maintain a permanent military presence in Iraq, and to repeat it at every opportunity. The phrase "enduring bases" should be erased and the construction of permanent facilities halted. A transparent mechanism that makes clear that no Iraqi oil revenue will touch American fingers should be created, and questions about what happened to that revenue over the past year should be quickly and forthrightly answered. The U.S. Embassy should be drastically cut in size and moved outside the Green Zone (to Camp Victory, for instance) to emphasize that the United States is no longer running the country and that it and the Iraqi government are not one and the same. A statement signed jointly by Iraq's neighbors should pledge the United States and each of them to respect Iraq's territorial integrity within its present borders. And the president needs to address many Iraqis' conviction that elections held under the occupation will be fixed, by saying loudly and often that the United States favors no candidate or party and will accept whatever government Iraqis elect.

Regarding events, there are three priorities. Right now, killing Americans is a good job in a country where the unemployment rate may be 60 percent. Every deal with a non-Iraqi contractor that can be broken, therefore, should be, and the dollars and jobs redirected to Iraqis. This is no time to follow the usual practice of using foreign aid to produce economic benefit at home.

The other economic priority is to secure a quick agreement with Europe and Russia to forgive most of Iraq's debt.

The most difficult and most important step will be to admit as fiction the idea that barely trained and outgunned Iraqi forces, far too few in number and often directed by foreigners to kill compatriots, can control Iraq's spiraling violence anytime soon. More U.S. forces are needed, and needed back in the streets. There is no realistic alternative.

Finally, Americans must recognize that elections are not a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. In circumstances such as Iraq's, they produce chaos as often as progress. And without participation by the northwest third of Iraq -- where a campaign is currently impossible -- the results will be rejected, defeating their purpose. Elections should wait, therefore, until the country is secure enough for robust U.N. supervision and universal voter participation.

It is easy to point to the inadequacies and the dangers of each of these steps. No one can be more than guardedly hopeful that they might work. But they would amount to a drastic change of course -- a course that would match U.S. policy to hard facts and allow U.S. forces to operate in a political context in which their sacrifices might be met with success.

The writer is president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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