So, what do you think we should do about Iraq?
Stay the course? Withdraw the troops immediately?
Oh, goodness. If only the answers were that simple.
Should we have gone there? Of course not. The administration's reasons for invading Iraq have unraveled into spaghetti. For example, a presidential commission studying the United States' intelligence capabilities just said we were "dead wrong" about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Not much ambiguity there.
Nor was this about liberating the Iraqi people. OK, Saddam was a bad guy and it's good he's gone - but let's be honest: If the United States' mission were to liberate people from oppressive regimes, it wouldn't have taken us six years to notice what the Taliban were doing to Afghan women.
And, once and for all, let's get this straight: The only kind of connection that Iraq had to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, was a very squiggly line drawn one night when the Bush administration was playing "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon."
To debate whether we should have invaded, however, is not the point of this column. The thing has been done.
It's time to talk about what we do next, and the answers aren't as definitive as red and blue.
This week, Rick McDowell of the American Friends Service Committee visited the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram to talk about his time in Iraq. McDowell and his wife, Mary Trotochaud, were part of an assessment team for a consortium of faith-based humanitarian agencies.
McDowell talked about sharing common experiences with the Iraqi people in Baghdad's dangerous "Red Zone" for the past two years.
Finally, the city grew too dangerous for Westerners and they left, concerned that they were putting not only their lives in danger but also the lives of the Iraqis that they interacted with.
McDowell's job had been to assess the conditions in Iraq and see how humanitarian resources were being used, as well as to work with new Iraqi non-governmental organizations and help with larger projects such as water sanitation.
What he saw wasn't good.
"In the past two years, rather than seeing an improvement in services, (Iraqis are) seeing a continual decline in those services," McDowell said.
That's gone hand in hand with a decline in security.
The American invasion, unfortunately, was undertaken in a manner that allowed chaos to take over.
On one hand, people were thrilled that Saddam's regime was overthrown. On the other hand, McDowell said, "I don't know anybody that would tell you conditions are better. They are worse. Obviously, there were problems under the regime. But they could walk the streets. Their kids could go to school. They felt safe - as long as they didn't engage in politics."
First, there was widespread looting. McDowell recalls a meeting at the Ministry of Health that was held on the 12th floor of the building because every stick of furniture had been stolen from the first 11.
Then, the chaos turned into something more sinister: Organized crime, a powerful insurgency and a continued fracturing of ethnic and religious groups.
Continuing violence put an incredible strain on an already broken system.
What to do about it? Stay? Leave?
That's a difficult question to answer. The Western occupation of Iraq has become "a magnet for violence," McDowell said.
Still, he went on to say, perhaps pulling out would force the Iraqi government to be more inclusive and get serious about improving security.
But then, some Iraqi people say pulling out would leave the people absolutely vulnerable and possibly send the nation into a civil war, McDowell said.
Then, of course, there's the example of what happened after Afghanistan's war with the Soviets. The United States left the crumbled nation in an economic mess that created the conditions for the Taliban to rise. And we all know where that went.
What is clear is that Iraq needs to have more well-trained security forces and police. That should happen before the United States leaves, and McDowell said it would be best to get the international community involved.
The other thing that should happen, he said, is the United States should clearly announce its intention to leave.
McDowell was in Maine to request that Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe include an amendment to the Iraq supplemental appropriations bill that states the United States' intent to pull both its troops and its bases out of Iraq.
"The reality is there will always be insurgents in Iraq as long as we have bases there," McDowell said.
He's not asking to include a timeline in the statement - just to state intent. The president has already said America plans to withdraw troops, but McDowell said it's worth making the proclamation as well.
"That creates space, not only in Iraq, but in the region, and I think in the world," McDowell said. "It's saying that we do not have imperial designs."
Nikki Kallio is an editorial writer at the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram.
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