"W" Stands for Withdrawal

It’s done. Or rather, the first step has been taken on what may be the path to withdrawing from Iraq. On January 30, an estimated eight million Iraqis cast ballots in what UN observers called a free and fair election. (But, because the UN was “observing” from Jordon and not Iraq, they were relying on second-hand accounts, at best.) European Union officials and national leaders are congratulating the Iraqis on their courage and determination in the face of threats and attempted intimidation. As it is, at least 44 Iraqis are known to have died in election-related violence. The praise is warranted if both the process and the result of the process–a representative 275-member interim national assembly–are accepted by both the politicians and the populace at large: Sunni, Shi’ite, Christian, Arab, Kurd, Turkomen, Assyrian, nationalist, communist, etc. January 30 was and is Iraq’s day. Even so, as the scale of participation in the election became apparent, what was almost as striking as the turnout was the nearly complete absence of any public reference to, let alone praise of, Washington’s role in restoring to Iraqis the opportunity to vote their consciences. Such reticence actually is well warranted for a number of reasons.

-One election does not a democracy make. Iraq has not seen an open election since January 1953, when Faisal II assumed the throne five years before General Karim Kassem led a coup that destroyed the old order. Even the two remaining ballots scheduled this year–a referendum on the new constitution scheduled for October and election in December of a permanent government–will not guarantee democracy. Only the peaceful transition of power from one administration to another holds this promise. -On the very day Iraq voted, a page one Washington Post headline reported that the Bush administration was sticking to its opposition to any timetable for withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq–this even as military commanders in the field were saying they hoped to cut back by 15,000 (to 135,000) “boots on the ground” by spring 2005. – Iraqis, even as they voted, expressed doubt that the election would make any difference in the real–as opposed to the façade–distribution of power in their country. One individual who had been a government minister in the 1950s under Faisal II said: “We thank the Americans for destroying the regime of Saddam. But often, they were not careful for the people; they did many wrong things. Now, we know what they are looking for. They are looking for oil, and military bases, and domination of the new regime. They will have their military headquarters for the region in Iraq, and when they will leave, nobody knows” (New York Times).

-President Bush, known to many friends and opponents as “W,” stated in his weekly radio address on January 29, that “As democracy takes hold in Iraq, America’s mission there will continue”–which doesn’t sound like withdrawal is even being considered in the White House.

Well, it’s time for the Congress and the people of the United States to make it clear that “W” stands for “withdrawal.”

-In Washington, Congress should state unambiguously that U.S. policy is to withdraw all forces and leave no bases in Iraq. This would remove the motive of Iraqi nationalists, those who would rather fight and die than live in an occupied country, to attack U.S. forces. -In Iraq, U.S. troops should withdraw from urban areas and let Iraqi security forces assume the main burden. Indeed, in the last weeks before January 30, neighborhood “militias” emerged to help protect polling places in a number of locations. U.S. troops would act initially as “cavalry” to assist Iraqi forces in the event of a sustained attack by remaining insurgents, help secure Iraq’s border, and continue training Iraqis over the next few months. -“Reconstruction” needs to be turned over to the transitional Iraqi government–with a parallel rethinking of what is intended to be accomplished in a pot-election Iraq. It is less a change in the society–what happened during the Union’s occupation of the U.S. Confederacy after the Civil War–and more a rebuilding and modernization of infrastructure and the provision of jobs. -Decrease the size and influence of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad so that the policies pursued by the transitional Iraqi government are in Iraq’s best interests, not that of the U.S.

The only way the U.S. can extricate itself from Iraq is to leave the country completely. No half measures, no covert links, no false invitations. If done wisely and in a timely manner, “W” can stand not only for withdrawal but for winning.

Col. Daniel Smith, a West Point graduate and Vietnam veteran, is Senior Fellow on Military Affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker lobby in the public interest. He can be reached at: dan@fcnl.org