The Iraqi Frying Pan

By Leonard Fein

Published September 26, 2003, issue of September 26, 2003.
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The fear, of course, is that the entire Iraq operation will stay bogged down. Perhaps the Iraqi people will drop their growing hostility to the occupying power once the electricity goes on for good and the streets are safe and the oil begins to flow, but there is no reason to think that these and the other things that might reduce resentment will happen before the resentment hardens. It is at least as likely that the hostility will continue to grow — and with it, the subversion, the violence. The capture or death of Saddam Hussein is no longer by itself likely to have much effect on the downturn; the hostility is no longer, if ever it was, limited to Saddam’s disappointed followers; it extends now to a disappointed citizenry. This, they ask, is what freedom means?

Each day now brings new revelations of the ways in which the Bush administration lied and lies to the American people. Question: If it is true, as President Bush, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and National Security Advisor Condaleeza Rice now all say, that Iraq had nothing to do with the September 11 terrorist attacks, then why do 69% of the American people think it did? Answer: Because these same people hinted as much, again and again, hoping thereby to whip up the needed support for our invasion.

Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts got it half-right when he said the other day that, “There was no imminent threat. This was made up in Texas, announced in January to the Republican leadership that war was going to take place and was going to be good politically. This whole thing was a fraud.” (The other half wasn’t fraud, it was delusion, the delusion of the neo-conservatives in the Defense Department that our military power would liberate Iraq and that a liberated Iraq would change the entire Middle East. No fraud there; utter, if childishly arrogant, sincerity.)

And now we are stuck. We wanted to be and be seen as liberators; we are and are seen as occupiers. And the terrorists would like nothing more than to do to the United States in Iraq what the mujahadeen did to Russia in Afghanistan — or what the Viet Cong did to us in Vietnam.

There are two equally intolerable outcomes: The United States remains in Iraq for years to come, absorbing casualties all the while, spending huge amounts of money, generating thereby considerable unrest in America, with no end in sight. Or, the United States finds some face-saving excuse to withdraw, leaving Iraq to fend for itself and praying that it will not become the home-base of the very terrorists we falsely claimed were the reason for our original intervention.

Those are not the only possible outcomes. The story could, theoretically, have a happy ending. Improbably, all these lemons might yet somehow be turned into lemonade. If you like long shots, place your bet here.

There’s one more possibility: If our goal is to get out of Iraq at the earliest possible moment without proving to the terrorists that we are a paper tiger, without leaving in our wake a fertile home to lethal international terrorism, then we can begin immediately by turning responsibility — and authority — over to the United Nations.

That is hardly a simple solution, whether viewed through a political or a security lens. The prospect of interminable debates and irreconcilable differences among the key participating nations is disconcerting, the prospect that the participating nations will set aside their self-interests and come together on a strategy adequate to the challenge is unlikely, the prospect that the American companies will stand down and sweetly agree to give others a piece of the lucrative action is implausible. And the risks are high: A U.N. failure in Iraq could well mark the demise of that fragile institution. (Careful: The neo-cons would be actively rooting for exactly such a failure, proclaiming loudly the morning after that “they told us so.”)

But a U.N. failure is scarcely more dismal an outcome than an American failure, and a U.N. success would be a marvelous precedent, putting an abrupt end to the American doctrine of preventative preemption. We will have learned that being the world’s only superpower does not render us all-powerful, that constructive internationalism is not just politically correct but also substantively wise. And we will have successfully deflected at least some of the ample and still-growing resentment against America that our insistence on sole authority in Iraq encourages.

All this goes well beyond the natural desire to see the neo-cons get their comeuppance. In fact, the president still has time — weeks, not months — in which to negotiate a hand-off to the U.N. in a manner agreeable to the other key players and then to claim that this was what he intended all along. The claim will be mocked by pundits and editorial writers as part of the fraud, but the mockery will be overwhelmed by a popular sense of relief.

Out of one frying pan, into another. But given that the fire under these frying pans is one that we ourselves lit, and given the fact that failing a transfer of authority to the U.N. it’s the fire itself and not just another frying pan that threatens us, what else is there to do? We are in trouble, and the trouble is growing, not diminishing. Bush has painted himself, and thereby us, into a corner. Behind him, there is a tiny window. He can barely squeeze through it, and once through, badly scratched, there are still no guarantees. But the claim that the paint is an illusion, that with just a little more time and a lot more money everything will work as originally planned, seems, more and more each day, absurd.

Leonard Fein’s most recent book is “Against the Dying of the Light: A Father’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope” (Jewish Lights, 2001).

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