Developing A Strategy
To Exit Iraq

By Terrell E. Arnold

When the war ended in Iraq in April, the United States and Britain seemed strangely unready for the peace. That unsettled conditions would follow the collapse of Saddam Hussein's repressive regime was predictable, but force commanders and Pentagon planners proved unready for the chaos that accompanied sudden release. Picking up the pieces from the ensuing mess, including such tasks as restoring power, communications, health services and transportation, have occupied the team of US civil administrator L. Paul (Jerry) Bremer perhaps more than arranging Iraq's political future. While Bremer is not in charge of military operations, he and his team have been bedeviled by violent situations ranging from ordinary crime to insurgency, and it appears touch and go as to whether he and his team will get a new Iraqi system of governance in place before the country flies apart.
One of the most promising features of this situation is the makeup of Bremer 's core team, largely hand-picked by him. He has brought in one of the best administrators in foreign affairs, one of the best experts on terrorism and politically motivated violence, one of the few really experienced American professionals available on Iraqi and Iranian affairs, and a well-placed member of the neo-conservative hawks who started this fray. His overall team, however, numbers only about 600, less than the governments of many American cities. He will need more than that to put the government of a country of 24 million people back together.
While the Iraqis understandably are pressing for a faster handover process than Bremer is likely able to deliver, statements he made during a recent visit to Washington indicate that he has a well-developed plan. To be fair, Bremer is an experienced public administrator, but like virtually all public figures he has worked in systems that are already fully up and running, and his contributions, however important, were usually incremental. In Iraq, however, he has a clean, if sloppily erased, new slate, and he has to do much of everything at once.
As Bremer indicated in a July 20 interview on Fox News, right now his team is (a) nurturing a new governing council (b) restoring basic public services, (c) initiating economic reforms, (d) building a new Iraqi army; (e) starting a police academy, (f) building an Iraqi border guard system, and (g) raising an Iraqi civil defense corps. Any one of these tasks would be a sufficient challenge for a skilled public official in a system that is already running well. He forgot to mention dodging bombs and bullets, but judging from his comments, Bremer appears to harbor no illusions about the complexity or the risks of his mission. Obviously among his major concerns is getting it all done in a timely way.
In recorded times, no one has handled the hostile takeover of a government without conflict. One of the problems is that an established system of governance, even one run by a brutal dictator such as Saddam Hussein, is habitual in many areas of public behavior and expectation. Change therefore does not come easily, even if people are happy to see the tyrant go. The problem is even more complex in Iraq because the whole operating system collapsed and the top-level leadership structure simply vanished. Ability to govern, at least to maintain order, such as it is, appears to have descended on the Iraqi side to tribal, communal, clan, and family levels, and in many respects, that is where it remains, pending creation of a new government.
Bremer has articulated a plan for Iraq's political evolution but without a specific timetable. Two weeks ago he launched a governing council that > tapped into the lower levels of traditional governance in Iraq. That was critical to starting with a level of public acceptance and consensus. Now, states Bremer, the task before the governing council is to facilitate convening of a constitutional conference that will produce a new constitution. Upon the adoption of a new constitution, elections can be held, and a new sovereign Iraqi government installed with a functioning Majlis, meaning parliament, representing the Iraqi people. At this point, as Bremer commented in his Fox News interview, the US civilian administration of Iraq "goes out of business." His job is done.
It is hard to argue with that program of work, despite the many hurdles to cross between now and the establishment of a new government. The real problems are getting the insurgent elements calmed down or contained, and defining and establishing a system of governance that is acceptable to Sunnis, Kurds, and Shiites, as well as a sizeable secular population that was part of the Saddam era legacy. When the Iraqis install a new sovereign government, however, those problems presumably will have been managed one way or another.
As he works the problems in Baghdad, Bremer must be aware of the exit strategy issues to be resolved in Washington. It is still not clear why we went into Iraq. After months of rhetoric, dissimulation, and outright deception, the public can discern no clear-cut rationale; official explanations shift before a collapsing panoply of mis-, dis- and spinformation. The exit strategies depend on why Bush and the neo-conservative hawks insisted upon doing so, and what they plan to do with Iraq will certainly bear upon and may well undercut Bremer's political strategy.
It is worth examining the apparent front-running rationales for the Iraq invasion as well as the implications of those scenarios for when, how, and whether the United States exits Iraq. For our purposes, we will borrow a number of popular themes afloat on the Internet, as well as increasingly in print and electronic media.
It was all about oil. On the Internet, this explanation was the front-runner well before the war actually began, and its advocates tended to ignore if not dismiss the weapons of mass destruction argument. As the story went, the United States had been virtually shut out of the Iraqi oil market by French, Russian and other players. Moreover, the United States, already dependant on imported oil for half its requirements, faced declining domestic resources and increasing reliance on oil that was largely in the hands of OPEC member countries. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, formed in Cairo in 1961 as the brainchild of the Arab League Petroleum Bureau, was the opening gun of an effort by Middle Eastern oil exporters and Venezuela to take their oil industries away from foreign oil companies. Initial outsider bets were that it would fail, but it actually succeeded, and OPEC largely determines how oil export markets will be run today, mainly because its members control the bulk of exportable oil.
The neo-conservative hawks in the Bush administration and the Israelis, perhaps others as well, would like to see OPEC supplanted or eliminated, and one of the ways to weaken OPEC is to gain control of Iraqi reserves. Those reserves are now second only to Saudi Arabia and, speculatively at least, could be greater. To put it simply, if this was the rationale for invading Iraq, there will be no US exit strategy anytime soon. Bremer's efforts may be well intended and even successful, but they will be window dressing for a fundamental change in petroleum export ownership and management, one that will perforce require continuing military occupation of Iraq. The US and other Coalition members may pay for it with many more lives.
It is part of the War on Terrorism. Except in a backhanded way, this was not an early entry in the Iraqi sweepstakes. However, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz came back from Iraq last week to tell the Congress that Iraq is now "the central battle in the War on Terrorism." Prior to this sudden revelation, Saddam Hussein had been accused of having close ties to Al Qaida and Osama bin Laden, but those charges, much touted by the Bush administration, had no proven factual basis and the stories had no standing in US or other intelligence communities. Thus the Wolfowitz statement came as a surprise to many analysts. But what he did was create a peg for the War on Terrorism at a time when there was really nowhere else to take it.
Under the Wolfowitz formula, so long as significant numbers of Iraqis dislike the occupation enough to fight back, he can call them terrorists, and the War on Terrorism has a home. Spurious it may be, but keeping US forces on the point for the War on Terrorism in Iraq is a devilishly clever way to sustain the otherwise faltering image of a wartime presidency. That could cause the Defense Department to keep troops in Iraq well beyond any need either Bremer or a new Iraqi government might see for their help.
We need new bases in the Middle East. This argument involves some elements of reality and some of pique. It is certainly not based on economics, because staying with the well-equipped bases the US already had before the Iraq war was the least costly option, short of coming home. Nor was the perceived need based on security, because if US forces can be attacked successfully in Saudi Arabia, they are fair game anywhere. Perhaps the lead argument is that Iraq offers a better platform than Saudi Arabia for watching either Iran or Syria, and the US could perhaps moderate Kurdish behavior to the benefit of the Turks and other Iraqis.
Some reports indicate that out of pique with the Saudis for not joining the coalition of the willing, the Pentagon (meaning most likely Rumsfeld) would like to find other bases. However, if Iraq is the choice, it would mean either negotiating basing arrangements with an as yet unformed Iraqi sovereign government, or simply planning to stay without consent. In his July 20 Fox News interview, Bremer may have hinted at the latter possibility with his suggestion that US forces may stay in Iraq, in the background, to keep the peace.
Under this agenda, the Defense Department would be interested in a long-term entry strategy, not an exit strategy. How that would play with any new Iraqi government is predictably negative, especially if the Iraqis think US forces intend to play an active role in Iraqi affairs. Bremer's efforts to promote formation of a new government would probably be sabotaged by any announcement that US forces intend to stay in Iraq for the long haul. The situation is tricky, because no long-term basing arrangement can be negotiated until that government has been formed. Given a choice, a new Iraqi government may want no part of a US presence.
The Iraqi campaign was to benefit Israel. Closely behind and even sometimes in front of "it was all about oil" theories on the Internet is the charge that Zionists in Israel's Likud Party and their close friends among the neo-conservative hawks in the Bush administration promoted the invasion of Iraq as a way to assure Israel's security domination of the region. Before the war, on paper at least, Saddam posed the most serious Middle East power threat to Israel. Because Bush and Sharon appear so close, this argument has many subscribers.
Other subscribers to this theory believe that Israel's ambition is to create a Greater Israel extending from the Mediterranean to engulf Iraq and acquire the waters of two great rivers of the Fertile Crescent, the Tigris and the Euphrates. In this context, how the US plays its Iraq exit strategy will be closely watched, especially by Arab and other Muslim countries. Any indications that the Israelis benefit especially from the US occupation or post-occupation arrangements in Iraq, say through special oil deals, other contracts or rights to Iraqi water for Israel, will be taken as proof of a > US-Israeli cabal. Bremer's job would not be made easier by such revelations.
The problem of Weapons of Mass Destruction. It may prove tragic that this > excuse of the Bush administration for invading Iraq does not hold water. Had it been the truth of the matter the exit strategy could have been fairly simple. Send US forces in, get rid of Saddam and his coterie, clean up the Iraqi stocks and capabilities to produce weapons of mass destruction, turn the country back over to the Iraqis with some well-arranged UN assistance, and leave. This strategy, focused on a goal that could have withstood international scrutiny, might have gone better with Iraqis in general. To be sure there were risks that, if he had them, Saddam might have used WMDs against the invading forces. That was not the case; no one appears to have asked, "What happens if we are wrong", and the failure to make a case for Iraqi WMDs has undercut the entire Bush presidency.
No exit makes sense unless the country is restored to the Iraqis. In Iraq the Bush team walked into nation building by default. There was no post-war Iraq plan ready on the last day of the formal war, and chaos ensued because of it. Had it been focused on nation building rather than on getting rid of the vestiges of Saddam, what seem after the fact to be obvious and costly mistakes could have been avoided:
The US drove the Baath party members underground, but it should have kept them in the open, prosecuted the criminal element, and begun to work with the rest. Now, aside from the search for Saddam, time and lives are spent chasing Baathist insurgents in the Sunni triangle. Ending insurgency in that region has brutal aspects that daily cost the US casualties and may well prolong the process.
The US disbanded the army as part of the expunge Saddam process, when on reflection it was better to keep them around, pay them and put them to work on civil reconstruction or other community tasks. That error has now been caught, and may be retrievable, but in the meantime a lot of chaos and hurt feelings have ensued.
Keeping the United Nations out of the process is a major error. It is still not clear whether the Bremer team will impose a system of governance rather than accept one of local design. Imposing an American style democracy appears unlikely to be accepted, but in any case an imported governing model will take time. It is likely to take less time and to be more acceptable if the UN has a major role in defining terms and getting a new government installed.
The real exit strategy depends on the Iraqis. The framework for a coalition exit strategy requires the Iraqi people to move as deliberately as possible toward secular governance. That is not necessarily a Western democracy. Under Saddam Iraq was the most secular of Muslim societies. With strong cultural, religious and tribal differences a secular government in which all participate is the only one that will permit each major element of Iraqi society to observe its own practices, provided of course that each gives the others room. Saddam enforced that kind of peace, despite Iraqi tendencies to disintegrate. The Iraqis must enforce a peace themselves; the alternative is civil war and/or political violence on a continuing basis. Bremer's team can perform only a mediating role in this process for as long as the Iraqis need, which could be several years. This process, rather than US policy or preference, should define when and how the exit occurs.
Sorting the debris and exiting will not be easy. Coping with rampant suspicions of US motives for invading will be one of the hardest tasks of executing an exit strategy from Iraq. Every significant action will be subjected to microscopic scrutiny. One way to deal with such suspicions, of course, is not to care and do nothing. However, the US reputation as a great power has been badly sullied by headstrong leadership and flimsy as well as shifty rationale for the US attack. > The means to recoup US standing in world opinion are first to stop making matters worse by generating more off the wall excuses; second to do a good > job of helping the Iraqi people transit as quickly as possible to a government of their own choosing; third to involve the United Nations, that is to internationalize the process as much as possible; and fourth to exit as gracefully and quickly as possible. This is also the only path the US has to legitimate its presence in Iraq.
Bremer's task is to get the Iraqis through this process successfully. Washington's task is to keep it clean.
The writer is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer of the US Department of State. He will welcome your comments at



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