Iraq: U.S Must Keep Eye on the Prize

Recent polls suggest that, for the first time, more than half of Americans don’t approve of President Bush’s handling of the Iraq war, and much of the disaffection has to do with the relentless criticism he’s endured in the press.

But before America’s armada of armchair strategists offer their next assessment on how and why the president’s policies have failed us, they should remember to keep a few key points in mind.

Why is the United States in Iraq? We have legal and moral responsibilities as an occupying power. Historians can debate the wisdom of dethroning Saddam’s regime. But, having invaded the country, U.S. forces have a legal obligation, under international law, to do several things before they leave, most of which fall under what World War II military planners aptly called the “disease and unrest formula.” (search)

They must prevent the outbreak of mass starvation and disease, establish a legitimate government and adequate domestic security forces and provide public safety and order. Having done that, an occupying power can then withdraw, unless invited to stay and assist in reconstruction by the country’s recognized sovereign government. Once we’ve done that in Iraq, we should leave.

What constitutes sufficient public safety and order in Iraq? Adequate public safety does not mean an end to all terrorism. Indeed, no country on the planet is immune from individual terrorist attacks, with the possible exception of North Korea -- which a recent survey rated the country least likely to be struck by terrorists. Apparently its regime is terrorizing enough.

We’ll know there’s sufficient public order when we can conduct the other critical post-conflict tasks: feeding the people, setting up a government and fielding an army and police force. These tasks can, in fact, be done in the presence of a terrorist threat. Governments function and civil society operates adequately in the face of chronic terrorism in a number of countries, such as Israel and Northern Ireland.

Frankly, it does not appear that the present terrorist activities in Iraq can keep these things from happening …unless Americans and Iraqis succumb to what the terrorists want: for us to cave into our fears.

Why not let the United Nations take over? The United Nations did not invade Iraq; the United States did. Therefore, America bears the ultimate responsibility for the occupation. The United Nations and others can help, but the goal should not be to internationalize the occupation, but to end it. We must avoid anything that slows down that process. The only help we need is that which speeds fulfillment of the disease-and-unrest formula.

Who will rebuild Iraq? The Iraqis. Just as Europeans and Asians rebuilt their countries after World War II, the Iraqis will bear most of the burden, hardship and sacrifice of reconstructing their country after decades of neglect under a brutal regime and the consequences of three wars. In the end the Iraqis will have to fight for their own freedom. The United States needs to get out of their way and let them secure their own destiny.

Meeting the obligations of an occupying power and then withdrawing U.S. forces is the best way to do that.

What do we do about mounting casualties? Fight smarter. Protect our troops. But in the end, casualties are part of the fight for victory.

The aftermath of war is more like war than peace. It is a time filled with uncertainty, violence and privation. It needs to be thought of like war -- and war, let’s remember, is a competition between determined, thinking enemies. It’s a contest of action and counteraction. Human losses are always the measure of these terrible struggles. It is naive to assume occupations will be a frictionless, effortless endeavor. It also would be foolish to let adversity equal surrender.

American forces likely will suffer casualties until the last day of the occupation, but this does not mean that America will fail. We took casualties throughout the Cold War (search) -- yet, in the end, we prevailed. Let’s make sure the same can be said of Iraq.

James Jay Carafano is the Senior Fellow for Defense and Homeland Security at the Heritage Foundation  and the author of Waltzing into The Cold War: The Struggle for Occupied Austria.