Iraq Opinion Yankee, Don't Go Home!

The Democrats want to bring the US military home from Iraq. But a hurried withdrawal would surely make the situation in the country even more volitile than it already is. The Yankees should stay.

By Yassin Musharbash


The Democrats want to bring the US military home from Iraq ASAP. But that would be a big mistake.
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The Democrats want to bring the US military home from Iraq ASAP. But that would be a big mistake.

It's a situation that Bertolt Brecht foresaw. In one story, the German poet and playwright writes of a certain Mr. Wirr who is unhappy with the media. "I am a great opponent of newspapers. I don't want any newspapers," Wirr tells Mr. Keuner, a Brecht character well known for his philosophizing. Confronted by Wirr's absolutism, Keuner doesn't disappoint. "I am a greater opponent of newspapers," he says. "I want different newspapers."

Admittedly, it might be overly simplistic to compare the US military with a newspaper. But the situation in Iraq is not dissimilar. The role of Mr. Wirr is being played by the United States Congress. On Wednesday afternoon in Washington, the House of Representatives passed legislation that would require US President George W. Bush to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq by Oct. 1. The Senate will likely pass the bill on Thursday meaning it will land on Bush's desk by the end of the week.

And who is playing the role of Mr. Keuner? Well, no one really. But his wisdom can definitely be applied to Iraq. The solution for the war-torn country as things now stand is not to have no US army, but to have a better US army. Granted a forced withdrawal of a humiliated US military would certainly be a triumph for anyone eager to show the United States and President George W. Bush that they made a mistake. But the consequences would make the current tragedy seem like a walk in the park.

Racing to take credit

The last thing Iraq needs is a US military that clears out leaving the country to its own devices. There is more on the line than the image of the United States -- and the likely fallout of a sudden withdrawal is far from auspicious.

First and foremost, the race to take credit for getting rid of the Americans would consume the country. From Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to other insurgent groups to al-Qaida's Iraqi branch -- every one of them would use a US withdrawal as a justification for their endeavors. And business as usual, likely resulting in a further splintering of the country, would be the outcome.

In short, a hurried US withdrawal would not at the moment create a more democratic, more peaceful, more unified and safer Iraq. Despite the not insignificant role the US military has played in creating the present morass, America's continuing presence remains the lesser evil. Unobstructed by US soldiers, it would be much easier for militants on all sides to slaughter one another and to continue murdering civilians. The current violence would turn into a full-scale civil war. And without pressure from the United States, Maliki's government would give the Shiite militias more latitude for acts of retribution against Sunnis.

But the effects wouldn't just be felt in Iraq. The vacuum left by an ill-timed US withdrawal wouldn't remain for long -- other countries in the region, with not entirely pure motives, would promptly fill it. Out of fear of a Shiite-dominated Iraq allied with Iran, Saudi Arabia would surely get involved to support the Sunni minority. The likelihood that Turkey would finally feel confident enough to torpedo the Kurds' separatist ambitions in northern Iraq would grow. And the Shiite's within Iraq would feel free to throw their elbows around, with the possibility of a de-facto Shiite dictatorship developing. The only possible winner would be Iran.

Yes, the Iraq war was a mistake. But an overly hasty withdrawal doesn't correct the error. The only option at the moment is ongoing and energetic damage control. Which means the US must remain in the country until Iraq can stand on its own two feet.

Too few fingers and not enough material to fix the leak

Unfortunately, the US military doesn't seem to be having much success on the damage control front -- the recipes currently being used are ineffective. The US doesn't have enough fingers to plug all the holes in the dike. Even worse, it doesn't have the right materials to make the necessary repairs.

Policy change has become a necessity. New recipes need to be tried. The US military, as Brecht's Mr. Keuner would have it, must become better.

For the US, doing better means, for example, not allowing itself to be drawn into the civil war -- a likely consequence of the current plan to build walls around certain quarters of Baghdad. At first glance, the plan may seem logical, but it could also quickly turn into a trap of the US's own making. The plan calls for US soldiers to be stationed at fixed checkpoints, where they will monitor everyone who passes through. Of course, they will also be the militants' first targets. "The American reaction will be to use massive firepower, which will destroy the neighborhood that is being protected," a former US officer warned in the Independent recently.

So what is to be done instead? There is no going back to fix the mistakes of the past -- like disbanding the Iraqi army or Abu Ghraib. But a renewed focus on the "new" Iraqi army -- including an increased investment of money, time and energy -- may offer some hope. Until now, the US has seemed content to send poorly trained Iraqi soldiers into battle only to watch them desert.

The US could also ensure that Iraq's oil revenues are fairly distributed, thereby demonstrating to the Sunnis that a "new Iraq" could include a positive economic outlook for them. The US could behave less like a brutal occupation force and take pains to make it clear that the Americans want to help the Iraqis eliminate their worst internal enemies, the terrorists, who have little real concern for Iraq. And it could do its best to ensure that the Iraq conference scheduled for early May is a success -- and not jeopardize that conference with excessively aggressive rhetoric against Iran.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently praised the Democrats and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi for their insistence on a fixed schedule for withdrawal. "Do not underestimate how useful it is for (US commander in Iraq) General Petraeus to be able to say to Iraqi politicians: 'Look guys, Pelosi's mad as hell -- and she has a big following! I don't want to quit, but Americans won't stick with this forever. I only have a few months.'"

Plunge into total darkness

This rhetoric, though, is unconvincing because it would so obviously be a bluff. The United States simply cannot afford to leave behind a ruined Iraq. What would the message be to the Iraqis and the "Arab street"? Sometimes we topple your leaders and sometimes we don't, sometimes we bomb your countries but sometimes we don't, and sometimes we promise you democracy and freedom, even though we couldn't care less about what happens to you afterwards?

There is a simple formula for determining when US forces should withdraw: Iraq cannot be left in a state in which everything is worse than it would have been had the US never invaded and change in Iraq been left to the Iraqis -- either through the natural death of Saddam Hussein or through internal revolt. That is the minimum.

If this goal is achieved by April 2008, then: Yankee, go home! If not: Yankee, please stay! Perhaps it would not be in the interest of the United States, but it would be in the interest of Iraq, which doesn't deserve being left to fend for itself as it plunges headlong into total darkness.

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