WASHINGTON - President Bush invaded Iraq hoping to spread democracy across the Middle East, but after the worst week of violence since Saddam Hussein was overthrown, he's now struggling to avoid a costly, humiliating defeat.
"It was going to transform the Middle East, remember? Now all we want to do is save our butts," said former U.S. ambassador David Mack, vice president of the Washington-based Middle East Institute, a nonpartisan research center that concentrates on Arab states.
The president, like many of his predecessors in the White House, faces competing pressures over the course of a war. Polls show that Americans, while not demanding immediate withdrawal, are growing discontented with Bush's handling of Iraq and the rising tide of casualties. At least 45 U.S. soldiers were killed this week in spreading rebellions by a Shi'ia militia and Sunni Muslims.
Bush's credibility to sell such solutions to Americans has been damaged by prewar claims from Vice President Dick Cheney and others that U.S. troops would be welcomed in Iraq.
Yet backing away now could leave Iraq worse off than it was before, many government officials and private experts believe. They fear a failed state, like Afghanistan was in the early 1990s, would spawn terrorism and destabilize its neighbors. Those neighbors could include pivotal U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf, such as oil-rich Saudi Arabia, where instability could pose troubling implications for the global economy.
Senior Bush administration officials say they're still hopeful that the insurgents can be crushed and calm restored in time for a June 30 handover of sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government, which has yet to be identified. Even so, U.S. troops will remain.
But the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were casting doubt on administration policy, say they are growing concerned about the American public's long-term patience with the war.
Polls show a majority of Americans continue to believe that invading Iraq in March 2003 was the right thing to do. But a survey by the Pew Research Center, taken after last week's grisly killing and mutilation of four U.S. security contractors in the city of Fallujah, found that 44 percent favored bringing American troops back from Iraq, up from 32 percent in January. Fifty percent favored keeping the troops in Iraq.
Peter Feaver, a Duke University specialist on public opinion and war, said the renewed violence could ultimately lead Americans to conclude that the United States cannot achieve its goals in Iraq.
Feaver said he's taking a poll, not yet complete, is finding that a large majority of Americans favor - for now - escalating U.S. military operations against the Iraqi insurgents rather than hunkering down to avoid casualties.
The situation is different from Vietnam in two ways, Feaver said.
First, Bush and his aides have been careful not to claim that reconstructing Iraq would be easy, unlike Lyndon Johnson's administration, which claimed to see "light at the end of the tunnel" in Vietnam in the mid-'60s. When Vietnam got worse, Johnson's credibility was shot.
Second, Feaver said, most of Bush's critics, including Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, don't favor a precipitous U.S. withdrawal. Kerry calls for more international help, but he too argues that a failed state in Iraq is too great a hazard to risk.
Bush and his top aides insist the United States will stay the course and proceed as planned with the June 30 handover. One reason why is that the potential consequences of pulling out now could be horrifying.
Senior U.S. officials say a U.S. retreat would embolden radical Muslims, who would claim credit for defeating America. It might also spark Sunni-Shiite clashes in oil-rich Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
Bush's stated goal that a free and stable Iraq could improve the Middle East was "a reach," said Ole Holsti, a professor of political science at Duke University. But "at this point, to leave a mess leaves the neighborhood even worse than it was. And it does nothing for our credibility."
Mack, of the Middle East Institute, agreed.
"If Iraq descends into the kind of chaotic situation that we allowed to take place in Afghanistan" after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, "you're going to have this huge black hole spawning terrorism, narcotics trafficking, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction," he said.
U.S. friends in the region, such as Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, say the United States made a lot of mistakes "but for God's sake, don't pull out now," Mack said. "They're terrified of the regional instability."
Not everyone thinks withdrawal is a bad idea.
Charles Pena, of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank that opposes most U.S. entanglements abroad, said the United States should cut its losses, leave Iraq and refocus on the al-Qaida terror network and other threats to the homeland. Washington could threaten that U.S. forces will return if U.S. interests are threatened, he said.
"This (war) is no longer about U.S. national survival - if it was to begin with," said Pena. He said a chaotic Iraq wouldn't necessarily pose a threat to U.S. vital interests. And while Iraq might descend into chaos if the United States leaves, "our staying doesn't guarantee that it won't."
The planned June 30 handover promises to be more symbolic than real, for Pentagon planners intend to keep U.S. military forces in Iraq indefinitely.
There's no agreement yet on how to form an interim Iraqi government, pending the completion of a mission to Baghdad by U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi. The leading option, according to Secretary of State Colin Powell, is to expand the U.S.-appointed, 25-member Iraqi Governing Council. But Powell acknowledged this week that, whatever form the Iraqi government takes, it will need U.S. military backing to survive.
"They are going to need us for security for some time to come," Powell told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee.
Bush's best hope to lower the U.S. profile appears to be to internationalize the effort by asking the United Nations to craft a political solution and protect U.N. workers organizing elections next year. But the price could be more, not fewer, U.S. troops and ceding some political control to the world body, something Bush has been loath to do.
Mack said Bush's credibility to sell such solutions to Americans has been damaged by prewar claims from Vice President Dick Cheney and others that U.S. troops would be welcomed in Iraq.
"This was going to be a permissive environment," Mack said. "Plus, there was a ready-made alternative to Saddam and his regime. And it wasn't even going to cost us very much money."
All such assurances turned out to be illusions.
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