As coalition policy reaches a crisis, may I resurrect an idea I have been flogging since April 2003? It offers a way out of the current debate over staying the course (as President George W. Bush has long advocated) or withdrawing troops on a short timetable (as his critics demand).
My solution splits the difference, "Stay the course – but change the course." I suggest pulling coalition forces out of the inhabited areas of Iraq and redeploying them to the desert.
This way, the troops remain indefinitely in Iraq, but remote from the urban carnage. It permits the American-led troops to carry out essential tasks (protecting borders, keeping the oil and gas flowing, ensuring that no Saddam-like monster takes power) while ending their non-essential work (maintaining street-level order, guarding their own barracks).
Beyond these specifics, such a troop redeployment would imply a profound and improved change of course. It means:
Letting Iraqis run Iraq: Wish the Iraqis well but recognize that they are responsible for their own country. Or, in the words of a Times of London headline, "Bush to Iraqis: you take over." The coalition can help but Iraqis are adults, not wards, and need to assume responsibility for their country, from internal security to writing their constitution, with all due urgency.
Seeing violence in Iraq as an Iraqi problem: The now-constant violence verging on civil war is a humanitarian tragedy but not a strategic one, an Iraqi problem, not a coalition one. The coalition should realize it has no more responsibility for keeping the peace between Iraqis than it does among Liberians or Somalis.
Terminating the mammoth U.S. embassy in Baghdad: The American-created "Green Zone" in Baghdad is too high profile already, but work now underway to build the biggest embassy in the history of mankind, a 4,000-employee fortress in the heart of Baghdad, will make matters significantly worse. Its looming centrality will antagonize Iraqis for years or decades to come, even as it offers a vulnerable target for rocket-wielding enemies. Scheduled to open in June 2007, this gargantuan complex should be handed back to Iraqis, the over US$1 billion spent on it written off as a mistake of war, and a new, normal-sized, embassy built in its stead.
Ending the coddle: The inept, corrupt, and Islamist leadership in Baghdad discredits the Bush administration's integrity; conversely, Washington's embrace makes it look like a stooge. Other Iraqi institutions – my pet peeve is the National Symphony Orchestra in Baghdad – also suffer from the patronizing embrace of American politicians. Muslim sensitivities about rule by non-Muslims makes these rankling offenses.
Reducing coalition ambitions for Iraq: From the start, "Operation Iraqi Freedom" was too ambitious and too remote from American interests ("Operation Coalition Security" would have been a better moniker). Give up on the unattainable goal of a democratic, free, and prosperous Iraq, a beacon to the region, and instead accept a stable and decent Iraq, one where conditions are comparable to Egypt or Tunisia.
The situation in Iraq has become a source of deep domestic antagonism in the coalition countries, especially the United States and Great Britain, but it can be finessed by noting that the stakes there are actually quite minor, then adjusting means and goals on this basis. Do you, dear non-Iraqi reader, have strong feelings about the future of Iraq? I strongly suspect not.
Iraqis want possession of their country; and peoples in countries providing troops serving in Iraq have wearied of the hopeless effort to transform it into something better than it is. Both aspirations can be satisfied by redeploying coalition troops to the desert, where they can focus on the essential tasks of maintaining Iraq's territorial integrity, keeping the fossil fuels flowing, and preventing humanitarian disasters.
The idea has developed since World War II that when the United States protects its interests by invading a country, it then has a moral obligation to rehabilitate it. This "mouse that roared" or "Pottery Barn rule" assumption is wrong and needs to be re-evaluated. Yes, there are times and places where rehabilitation is appropriate, but this needs to be decided on a case-by-case basis, keeping feasibility and American interests strictly in mind. Iraq – an endemically violent country – fails on both counts.
Oct. 24, 2006 update: Rhetorically, at least, the president is taking a step in the right direction: "Bush, Facing Dissent on Iraq, Jettisons ‘Stay the Course'." Jim Rutenberg and David S. Cloud report:
The White House said Monday that President Bush was no longer using the phrase "stay the course" when speaking about the Iraq war, in a new effort to emphasize flexibility in the face of some of the bloodiest violence there since the 2003 invasion. "He stopped using it," said Tony Snow, the White House press secretary. "It left the wrong impression about what was going on and it allowed critics to say, ‘Well, here's an administration that's just embarked upon a policy and not looking at what the situation is,' when, in fact, it is the opposite."
Oct. 25, 2006 update: "President Bush Replies to My Iraq Critique" presents my analysis of a presidential press conference.