After the recapture of Fallujah, Marine Lt. Gen. John Sattler claimed that we had "broken the back of the insurgency," words that he no doubt already regrets. Insurgencies don't have backbones or any other form of structure, which is why they are so difficult to break.
In fact, 18 months after President Bush announced the end of major combat operations in Iraq, and after repeated claims of progress that later proved wildly optimistic, U.S. troops find themselves in some of the bloodiest fighting of the war, with more than 130 American soldiers dying just last month.
So it seems fair to ask: Why? With Saddam Hussein long gone and no weapons of mass destruction to be found, why are we still in Iraq?
U.S. officials haven't been honest so far about the answer, not to those of us here at home, not to the Iraqi people and not to the world at large.
We are not, for example, staying in Iraq in hopes of creating a model democracy in the Mideast. Or at least we shouldn't be. The chances of democracy emerging from the chaos of Iraq were slim from the beginning, and they have since become so infinitely small that it would be criminal to sacrifice any more lives in pursuit of that goal.
Yes, some in Washington still cling with messianic fervor to that dream. They like to see themselves as the true believers in democracy, implying that those who doubt democracy's future in Iraq while celebrating its defense in the Ukraine are guilty of some sort of anti-Arab racism. Such an attitude implies that the immense variability in human history, culture and religion is unimportant, and it treats democracy as if it were an engine that could be dropped as easily into a Ford as a Chevy.
It just isn't so. Look at the heroic stubbornness of tens of thousands of Ukrainian patriots who stood night and day in the city square in their capital city of Kiev, demanding that their democracy be restored to them. Support from the Bush administration and European leaders played a crucial role, but the success of the pro-democracy movement in Ukraine came mainly because the citizens were willing to fight for it. There is no evidence of such widespread and heartfelt commitment to democratic principles in Iraq, and that commitment cannot be created by outsiders at gunpoint.
So far, polls do indicate that a significant if shrinking majority of Iraqis still supports the U.S. invasion, mainly because it rid them of Saddam's tyranny. However, those same polls also indicate a rising anger that coalition forces remain in their country. From the beginning, the Iraqis have feared that our real motivation for invading was not some touching humanitarian concern for their well-being, but rather control of their oil and establishment of military bases. That widespread suspicion is what gives the Iraqi insurgency its justification and its staying power.
We could ease that concern considerably by simply renouncing any ambition of keeping permanent military bases in Iraq, and by promising that all U.S. troops will be gone by 2006 or 2008. But so far we have refused to do so.
Why? Because Iraqi suspicions are correct. U.S. strategic planners still harbor hopes of remaining in that country permanently, even if a growing anti-Americanism has made those hopes scarcely more realistic than hopes for a model democracy. At more than a dozen sites around the country, U.S. military contractors are even now in the process of building what they called "enduring bases," facilities intended to be permanent U.S. military installations.
There is only one legitimate reason for keeping our troops in Iraq, and it's a very important reason. Even if we cannot install an enduring democracy in that country, even if hopes for a permanent U.S. military presence in Iraq are no longer realistic, we have still incurred an obligation to the Iraqi people to restore at least a semblance of sanity and order to their country.
That's why we have to stay. But once that goal is achieved — if it can be achieved — we should come home.
Jay Bookman is the deputy editorial page editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution . His column appears Mondays and Thursdays.
© 2004 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution