Published on Friday, May 7, 2004 by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Time for a Graceful Exit from Iraq
by Helen Thomas
WASHINGTON -- The United States is now at a fork in the road in its Iraq policy.
We can either try to save face for our mistaken military adventure by desperately hanging in there, no matter what.
Or we can try to save lives and gracefully depart -- troops and all -- by the end of the year.
The Bush administration's rhetoric enthusiastically opts for "staying the course," whatever that means.
But there are abundant signs that we are slowly retreating.
Special note should be made of the fact that we are crawling back to the United Nations Security Council, which we so arrogantly shunned a year ago when we were determined to invade Iraq. We were touting our superpower military prowess in going it alone then, remember?
Now we are grateful that the United Nations is willing to help us out of the very tight corner we have embarrassingly trapped ourselves in, by sponsoring a caretaker government for Iraq to take over sovereignty by June 30.
The new governing body is being organized by Lakdar Brahimi, the U.N. envoy for Iraq, with the purpose of paving the way for general elections in January.
Another sign we are retreating is the fact that U.S. policy-makers have decided not to try to capture Falluja and Najaf -- cities controlled by rebel Moslem militias. Apparently, the price in terms of human losses and what little remains of our tattered credibility in the Arab world would be too steep to justify a military invasion of the two cities.
And get this. We are establishing an Iraqi military unit -- the "Falluja Brigade" -- and have called back to arms some of Saddam Hussein's formidable Republican Guard to help secure those cities for us. This is the same military force that we triumphantly disbanded a year ago. Will ironies never cease?
This is the 21st century's rendition of the U.S. policy in Vietnam. When it became apparent that we were helplessly trapped there in an endless war to suppress an indigenous insurgency that had its roots in anti-colonialism, we adopted the policy of "Vietnamization."
That meant turning over the military mission to the South Vietnamese, despite no realistic expectation that they could cope with the Vietcong or the North Vietnamese army. But it allowed the U.S. military to begin its departure.
Now we have "Iraqization" of the security mission in Iraq. Good grief, the Bush administration has even come to the point where it is allowing former member of Iraq's Baath party to regain their government jobs, a belated recognition that the occupation force needs their expertise.
Further proof that we are winding down is the gradual disintegration of the "coalition of the willing," which was an administration fantasy in the first place.
It seems more and more friendly nations are dropping out, among them Spain, Honduras and the Dominican Republic, with others barely hanging in there.
As administration officials like to say, "Those are the facts on the ground."
To celebrate the one-year anniversary of the May 1 proclamation of the end of "major combat" in Iraq, the president stepped into the Rose Garden and spoke of freedom and democracy for the Iraqis and no more of Saddam's "mass graves."
Against this background, the disclosure of American abuse of Iraqi prisoners couldn't have come at a worse time for the Bush administration. The stunning scenes of prison atrocities were being shown by CBS' "60 Minutes-II" prove that old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words, a truth that explains the administration's heavy-handed photo censorship that has barred pictures of military caskets.
As for the prison brutality, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said he was "stunned by it all and it was clearly unhelpful in a fundamental way." That was an understatement.
The deplorable prison abuse and the mounting casualty toll may wake up Americans to ask a question about Iraq, a question that Bush and his administration have never clearly answered: Why are we there?
©1996-2004 Seattle Post-Intelligencer