No Exit Strategy

The cries have begun in earnest. Almost two years into a war that was supposed to last for only a few short months, talk of an exit from Iraq has become commonplace in the arena of public debate.

It was not too long ago, not even as far back as the election, when talk of a pullout from Iraq was tinged with a sense that if we only tried harder, we wouldn’t have to tuck our tail between our legs and run. But it is now hard to ignore the possibility that the Iraq war may be unwinnable. The Bush administration shoulders the bulk of the blame for what at many times has had all the look and feel of a pure debacle. Now that we have stopped our fruitless search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and have tortured our way out of the hearts and minds of many in the Arab world, people in this country are rightfully wondering why we are still continuing to risk American lives in Iraq, now that the supposed primary objective has failed. But one constant in how this war has played out in Washington has been the changing nature of the primary objective.

First it was to stop Saddam from making and storing weapons of mass destruction. Saddam had them, he wouldn’t give them up, we had to go in and take them and the country away from him. He was a threat. No illicit weapons, though. So the primary objective became freeing the Iraqis from the crushing rule of a tyrannical despot. Our noble gift to all Iraqis. Freedom. Democracy.

Only the picture of a society welcoming their American liberators with open arms was as patently and immediately false as our search for weapons of mass destruction. Now our objective seems to be ensuring that a Sunni minority that wants no part of a government in which it is not the majority has fair representation in the new Iraqi government. In addition, we worry that when the Shiites sweep the elections later this week, will they try to remake Iraq as a theocracy?

With no end to the insurgency in sight, many Americans regard the outcome of the elections and whatever strife that may follow as a litmus test of our success and commitment in Iraq. If Iraq begins to slip further into civil war after the elections, the cries for a pullout will undoubtedly become louder still. But the truth is, American troops will not leave Iraq, even after the fighting there has finished.

Iraq will become the site of permanent military bases, possibly half a dozen or more important strategic locations, from which to police the entire region. The United States has a vested interest in securing the region, and helping to bring the wider Arab world and all of its citizens into the 21st century. Military and policy strategists see no end to the war on terror until that happens. With that in mind, Iraq, even after a stable government is in place, because of or in spite of us, will remain on the frontline of the wider conflict, and we will retain a presence.

Eventually the Bush administration is going to have to come clean about its wider aims in the region. President Bush touched on spreading democracy in his inaugural address last week, but it didn’t take very long for the White House to make clear that there were no new policy initiatives contained in his speech, that it had to be taken simply at face value, and not read into too deeply. This is a shame. It is obvious that the Bush administration regards itself in many ways as the sole arbiter and distributor of freedom around the world, and wishes not only to continue this policy but expand on it as well. If the Bush administration is going to continue to ask that Americans die, and that they kill many more who either oppose them or innocently get in the way, it would serve well for the administration to come clean, rather than continually raise the specter of fear and crisis to accomplish its goals.