Failure is not an option in Iraq. Thankfully, it also has begun to dawn on most everyone that the only way to avoid failure is to turn Iraq over to Iraqis as soon as possible. The Wall Street Journal put it best last week: "Above all, Iraqis themselves will have to begin taking responsibility for keeping the power on and maintaining order - in short, for governing themselves." President Bush, in his address to the nation on Sunday, confirmed that one of our top priorities is "the orderly transfer of sovereignty and authority to the Iraqi people."
The WSJ also - correctly, in my opinion - dashed cold water all over the notion of pouring more American troops into Iraq, likening any such idea to the "Westmoreland strategy" in Vietnam. The Journal editorial writer opined: "A million Marines" (to which I would add a million blue-helmeted U.N. peacekeepers) "won't be enough if the Iraqi people aren't on our side." I believe the only way to get the Iraqi people "on our side" is to give them back their country and ensure them the resources they need to rebuild the infrastructure and reform their economy and begin the process of democratization. That's why I was heartened to hear the president emphasize in his speech that "the current number of American troops is appropriate to their mission."
The dilemma is, we can't simply withdraw our troops and turn Iraq over to the Iraqis without creating a fatal power vacuum. The military admits that planning for postwar reconstruction was inadequate. Moreover, we have been so busy fighting an unanticipated guerrilla war that not only have we been unable to get the electricity on and the oil flowing, we haven't created the rudimentary institutions (military, economic and governmental) that would make possible an immediate transfer of authority to the Iraqis. We now must do whatever it takes to accomplish this transfer of authority quickly. Yes, the cost will be great, but the cost of failure would be even greater.
In the interim, to help restore and maintain order we must bring the international community into Iraq to create a multinational force that will give international legitimacy to the occupation, reduce animosity toward American soldiers and ensure that Iraqi spontaneous efforts to restore order themselves through local protective societies and militias don't degenerate into warlordism or mafia-style syndicates. At the same time, we must prevent the ideological multilateralists from exploiting the agony in Iraq to advance their own personal agenda of expanding and strengthening the United Nations at the expense of U.S. leadership. Dealing with the multilateralists will require all of our diplomatic skills as they attempt to hide behind and exploit the interests of the French and Germans for whom it is "payback" time, looking to use the United Nations to extract every conceivable concession from the United States.
The challenge, then, is to make appropriate use of the United Nations without allowing it to be hijacked and exploited, under the pretext of helping Iraq, to further ideological agendas and particular national interests. Bringing the United Nations into Iraq as just another occupying force not only will not improve the situation, it likely will make it worse. The United Nations' record in so-called "peacekeeping" undertakings in hot-conflict zones is poor.
There is a vital role for the United Nations in Iraq, but that role must be carefully worked out in consultation with the Iraqis. Iraq is not a U.N. mandate and should not be turned into one. The United States should remain the occupying authority in Iraq until such time as Iraq can be turned back over to the Iraqis and the new Iraqi government can invite the United Nations into the country to assist in the reconstruction. Bringing international troops into Iraq in the interim under U.N. auspices, therefore, will require working out some kind of joint force structure in which U.S. military remains under U.S. command.
Now is the time to focus our attention on three primary priorities that we can accomplish quickly without letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.
As many as possible of the 400,000 Iraqi military who are willing, suitable and reliable must be recalled to active duty immediately, and Iraqis must begin taking over security within a few weeks.
Local elections must be held as soon as possible, and the popularly elected local officials who emerge must select regional assemblies that, in turn, should select national assemblies that can be organized within a few months. These assemblies must be given the power of the purse and must take charge of conducting consultations and negotiations with the U.S. government to determine how and how much U.S. money will be spent on Iraqi reconstruction.
The oil industry must be quickly broken into real private joint-stock companies, complete with Iraqi CEOs and Iraqi governing boards of directors, in which every Iraqi is an equal shareholder. This is the fastest way to rejuvenate Iraq's international trade and one means of beginning to implement Bush's idea of a free-trade zone for all of the Middle East.
These three structural and institutional steps provide the core of a plan to turn Iraq back to the Iraqis quickly. There is no time to lose.