May 18, 2004

May 18, 2004 | Commentary on Middle East

Washington War Wobbles: Powell's Misplay

Never make a promise you're not willing to keep. Someone just might call your bluff.

Case in point: Last Friday, several Coalition foreign-policy leaders at the Group of Eight pre-summit suggested that - if asked by the post-June 30 Iraqi transitional government to leave Iraq - the Coalition would take its marbles (and soldiers) and go home.

Secretary of State Colin Powell said, "Were this interim government to say to us, 'We really think we can handle this on our own and it will be better if you were to leave,' we will leave." The British, Italian and Japanese foreign ministers quickly followed suit.

Now, this may have been said merely to give credence to the perception of increasing Iraqi sovereignty as we move toward a new interim government there. But it's quite dangerous to even raise this as a possibility.

As much as we all want to see the troops come home as soon as possible, even to suggest the notion of a (premature) departure is a patently bad idea. It might lead some to view our commitment to Iraq as shaky - discouraging our friends (e.g., the Kurds) and encouraging our enemies that victory might be within their grasp after all. In light of yesterday's killing of Iraqi Governing Council leader Izzedine Salim, we should back off of this suggestion immediately.

Even though Secretary Powell and the others expressed confidence that the new Iraqi government wouldn't ask Coalition forces to leave, who's to say the new government might not just take us up on the offer? In fact, some prominent Iraqis are already advocating that course of action.

On Saturday, Governing Council member Ahmed Chalabi called for America to turn over the oil industry and security to Iraqi forces. In Fallujah, the new commander of the 1,800-strong Fallujah brigade, Gen. Muhammed Latif, has suggested that Iraq no longer needs U.S. soldiers, just help with rebuilding.

Not surprisingly, Russia and France have also weighed in on limiting the Coalition's control and influence after June 30, undoubtedly to get their financial claws back into Iraq. Iran must also be pulling its strings with the Shia community (65 percent of Iraq's population) to give the Coalition a shove out the door.

The question is: Will more voices (at home and abroad) join this chorus for the 33-country Coalition to leave Iraq before the job is done?

Make no mistake about it: Iraqi security forces are nowhere near ready to handle the situation. Turning over control would play into the hands of the terrorists, foreign fighters and insurgents by creating a power vacuum. Moreover, Iraq is in no way able to handle its own external defense from the likes of rivals Iran and Syria.

Furthermore, a premature pullout of Coalition forces could:

  • Set the stage for a civil war: With its complicated ethnic and religious make-up, Iraq has the potential to spin out of control quickly, leading to a bloodbath and the country's disintegration. Iran and Syria would welcome a weak, divided Iraq and exploit it for anti-American, anti-Israeli purposes.
  • Create a safe haven for terrorists: Terrorists thrive in chaos. The premature departure of Coalition troops could turn Iraq into a veritable playground for the likes of al Qaeda and its Iraqi cohort, Ansar al Islam.
  • Discourage investment and aid programs: After years of neglect under Saddam Hussein and the war, Iraq must be rebuilt. It also needs foreign investment and assistance in developing civil institutions as it moves toward democracy. Who would invest in Iraq or send humanitarian workers there, thinking the Coalition might precipitously punch out?

Security and stability are critical to Iraq's future. Putting security responsibilities into Iraqi hands at this point is putting the cart before the horse. U.S. troops should stay in Iraq until it can defend itself - and at least until the country holds national elections early next year. Anything short of this invites potential disaster and further delay of full Iraqi sovereignty.

America has been rocked by recent events in Iraq, but this no time to lose our nerve. The Coalition needs to be more steadfast than ever in its willingness to see this through to victory. Success in Iraq remains our only exit strategy.

Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Related Issues: Middle East

First appeared in the New York Post