Last Copter Out of Baghdad

Bush Flees Iraq Mess On The Campaign Express

Once again a war has gone wrong, and the denouement still must be leveraged for maximum political advantage—or at least to minimum disadvantage. A scary story must be capped off with a happy ending. And for that reason, the Bush administration must make sure certain things are forgotten: namely, the aims it said we were going to war for in the first place. George Bush must keep on moving the goal line, as he has ever since this war's beginning.

Why are we in Iraq? The notion of an imminent threat from Saddam's weapons of mass destruction washed out with the tide. We hear less, too, about making Americans safer from terrorism; the threat level as of this writing has only lately been lowered from orange, a degree of warning that, the Department of Homeland Security informs us, calls for "taking additional precautions at public events and possibly considering alternative venues or even cancellation." (Have fun at the Super Bowl.) And no one in power wants to talk about all the Middle Eastern nations that would start democratizing just as soon as Iraq's newly liberated people showed them the way.

illustration: Ward Sutton

That brings us to the latest war aims fallen by the wayside, the ones put in place last spring, after the end of "major hostilities" was declared. As it happens, Coalition Provisional Authority head Paul Bremer laid these out in June with a clarity and sweep the administration is certainly coming to regret. Goal No. 1 was the creation of a capitalist and transparent economy. "Getting inefficient state enterprises into private hands is essential for Iraq's economic recovery." And the idea was to do it fast. Said one of his advisers in July, citing Eastern Europe as a template, "Experience shows us that the faster you do it, the more beneficial it is for the economy." The other aim was the establishment of a constitutional government. For the Iraqi people to get back their sovereignty before a constitution was written under American supervision, Bremer insisted, "invites confusion and chaos."

There they are: two straight-ahead, clear benchmarks of success—giving Iraq a functioning private economy and giving it a constitution—right from the administration's mouth. But we've gotten nowhere on either one. The drive for economic reform "just disappeared from the agenda," one occupation official told The Washington Post last month. "It was just too risky." As for the constitution, by November, negotiations between the Coalition Provisional Authority and the interested Iraqi factions bogged down, and America announced a new plan: The American occupation would end July 1, 2004, and there wouldn't be any constitution, just a bare-bones, nonspecific "basic law." The original timetable for self-rule in Iraq was late 2004 or early 2005. It's not that things are ahead of schedule. It is that we have lopped off half the game clock, and moved the end zone to our present stalemate point, the 50-yard line. Touchdown! Game over! Everyone into the locker room!

There is only one problem, says Sidney Blumenthal: "It could be that by setting these artificial deadlines and abdicating a good deal of responsibility that the Bush administration simply accelerates the centrifugal forces within Iraq." Just as in Vietnam, we leave a nation behind to its own civil war. Only this time, we leave it even more unstable than we found it.

Violent factions across the country appear to be gearing up for . . . something. After the capture of Saddam Hussein, a call from clerics to their followers to refrain from attacking one another held for a few days; then assailants in a passing car opened fire on a Sunni mosque in Baghdad—drive-by sectarian warfare. Now Sunnis are arming themselves in militias, a counterbalance, they say, to the "Mahdi Army" of Shiite cleric and occupation critic Sheikh Muqtada al-Sadr. They promise to turn their new forces, part of a "Clear Victory Movement," against the Americans unless Sunnis get sufficient power in the post-war settlement.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration has bowed to pressure to keep the Kurdish region semi-autonomous—for fear that any other decision would set off a Kurdish uprising—and Kurds now talk of annexing oil-rich Kirkuk. That angers the Turks—raising the possibility of a regional conflict—and sets a precedent for dividing Iraq into Yugoslavia-style ethnic enclaves. Which paves the way for possible Yugoslavia-style ethnic cleansing, considering that the greatest population of Kurds lives not in the protected north but in Baghdad. Will Sunni militia leaders start demanding these Kurds return to "their" homeland?

As in Vietnam, the allies we plan to leave behind in our stead inspire little confidence. Here is one friendly faction of Sunnis: The Iraqi National Accord, former Baathists whose favor with us stems from their early-'90s collaboration with the CIA (a level of trustworthiness Orwell might call "doubleplusungood"). They assert their intention to do business with Syria, call for a new Iraqi secret police, and proclaim that "elections right now are impossible." Another of our allies, a member of our handpicked governing council, has a grasp of democracy so rudimentary he called the notion of a freshly elected leader replacing the incumbent's staff "this idiotic American system."

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