In a defiant speech yesterday, President George W. Bush assured a nation uneasy about the war in Iraq that "we're helping the Iraqis build a free society, with inclusive democratic institutions that will protect the interests of all Iraqis."
But the question remains: Can Iraq edge closer to democracy while under foreign occupation? The answer is that American occupation, with its daily violence and infringements, only empowers radical voices in Iraq, making civil war - not democracy - the more likely outcome. The path to stability in Iraq remains withdrawing, not sustaining, U.S. forces.
Nearly three years after the American invasion and expenditure of approximately $300 billion, the United States has become the symbol of the hapless occupation. A variety of polls surveying Iraqi opinion all stress the alarming news that Iraqis, on average, are now identifying the American forces as "occupiers."
In such a tense political atmosphere, the voices of moderation are likely to be displaced by Shia radicals, Sunni extremists and Kurdish separatists. The persistence of violence and instability will only inflame nationalistic hostility to the occupation, further affirming the spurious claims of radicals regarding America's rapacious nature and further validating their strategy of armed resistance.
The United States now faces the dilemma of other imperial powers in the Middle East as its occupation generates its own pathologies, insurgency and terrorism.
Nor can the elections serve as a necessary panacea. The elections in Iraq are not just reinforcing sectarian identities, but also increasingly evolving around nationalistic themes of sovereignty and independence. Iraq today remains the only Arab country occupied by an external power, a reality that is beginning to be objectionable to aspiring Iraqi politicians seeking electoral advantage.
In a recent Cairo meeting with other Arab leaders, the one thing that the contending representatives of the Shia, Sunni and Kurdish communities readily agreed on was the need for the full restoration of independence.
As many leading Democrats here are belatedly recognizing, the only way to stem the insurgent tide is to announce that the American forces will withdraw on a fixed timetable.
Bush, in yesterday's speech at the U.S. Naval Academy, customarily decried such a policy. "Setting an artificial deadline to withdraw," he said, "would send a signal to our enemies that if they wait long enough, America will cut and run and abandon its friends."
The president's curious logic ignores the fact that the determination of the insurgents is not predicated on the longevity of the U.S. presence. Indeed, in three years of occupation without a deadline, the insurgency has only grown - in geographic scope, in the potency of its tactics and in the sophistication of its operations.
Far from intensifying the insurgency, a responsible American withdrawal plan will compel pragmatic forces within Iraq society to step forward and renegotiate a new national compact for their country. A pledge to withdraw will alter the debate from U.S. occupation to the future of Iraq. In such a political arena the insurgency will be confined to the margins of the society.
Having invaded Iraq, the United States does have a moral obligation to see to its reconstitution. But that effort should be channeled through the United Nations. Transferring authority to the UN can generate greater international participation by countries deterred by the Bush administration's unilateralism and arrogance.
America's problem in Iraq is neither one of irresolution nor a more adroit management of the occupation, but the incongruity of an occidental power seeking to superimpose its claims on a recalcitrant populace. The insurgency confronted by the United States is not merely Sunni resistance but a nationalistic rejection of external domination. The persistence of U.S. occupation only serves the cause of rebels and radicals. The only way to redeem the original promise of freedom and stability for Iraqis is for America to withdraw.
Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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