Meanwhile, in Other Wars

Sunday, July 16, 2006

THE WORLD last week seemed almost to be spinning out of control. From Lebanon to North Korea to Darfur, from Baghdad to Bombay, the news was frightening or depressing or both. Hundreds of innocent people died. Oil prices soared, stock prices fell. It's been some time since global affairs seemed so bleak.

The events served as reminders of a couple of painful truths beyond the reach of the wisest policymaking (even assuming such were available). The world's tolerant democracies face a resilient and merciless enemy in fundamentalist Islamic terrorists. And even the world's superpower cannot bend to its will dictatorial regimes in North Korea or Syria with very different agendas.

Would Iran and North Korea give up their nuclear programs, as some critics of President Bush suggest, if only the U.S. president would talk to the leaders of those nations face to face? If Mr. Bush had been more "engaged," would everything be okay in Gaza or Somalia? Would global trade talks have stayed on track? Maybe, in each case, but probably not.

This is not an argument against engagement in any of these troubled areas, of course. A superpower has to be able to do many things at once, and U.S. leadership is urgently needed on Israel, Korea, Iran and Darfur -- and, we would argue, in a dozen other spots where embattled democrats count on America for moral support at least, from Burma to Zimbabwe.

But in the press of cascading crises, it is crucial that the administration not lose focus on the two wars it started and has yet to win. In Afghanistan, the security situation is deteriorating. Local officials worry that a handover from U.S. to NATO troops will mean a lessening of commitment. Surely the West does not need to relearn the danger of abandoning that impoverished nation. More reconstruction aid is needed; European troops must fight the Taliban as robustly as the GIs do, and their arrival cannot signal a slackening of U.S. effort.

In Iraq, sectarian strife has intensified. True, there have been positive steps over the past year: Sunni leaders have joined the political process; Iraq's Shiite prime minister is more willing to go after Shiite militias than was his predecessor; al-Qaeda in Iraq may have been weakened. But none of that will matter if the government, with U.S. help, cannot provide security for its people, especially in Baghdad. If it cannot, Iraqis will turn to brutal militias on all sides, and civil war will be unleashed.

U.S. and Iraqi officials agree that the government has only months to show that it can begin to move in the right direction. Yet Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), just back from one of his frequent trips to Iraq, said he found an inexplicable lack of urgency in U.S. efforts in key areas, including encouraging constitutional reform to assure Sunni inclusion and economic recovery to reduce unemployment. While there is still a chance, U.S. forces should be looking for ways to improve safety in Baghdad, not to draw down forces.

It may well be that North Korea is behaving provocatively and Iran is stirring up its terrorist proxies in part because they feel confident that the United States, bogged down in Iraq, cannot respond. The tempting answer, heard frequently in Washington, is to pull out of Iraq: presto, no more bog. But that is a mirage. Americans and Iraqis alike want U.S. troops out as soon as possible, but a withdrawal that leaves Iraq in chaos and at the mercy of terrorists would not strengthen America's position in the world. On the contrary, it would embolden America's foes, dishearten its friends and provide sanctuary to groups that could, in time, make last week's events seem tractable. The better course in Iraq is to intensify the daunting effort to succeed.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company