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Out of Iraq

| Sunday, July 22, 2007

When supporters of the Iraq war argue that the United States should avoid premature, politically motivated gestures -- such as this month's U.S. House vote to pull out by April 2008 -- I cannot help responding, "And what was the essence of the original decision to intervene?"

In short, it was premature and politically motivated.

Americans deserve better leadership, starting with a new, well-crafted, clear, coherent, innovative strategy for Iraq no later than this fall. Then, during the course of approximately a year, the plan should bolster the fledgling democratic system in Iraq, restrict the U.S.-led mission and shape a post-coalition peacekeeping force.

All of those changes would accelerate the return home of U.S. troops.

Two Republican U.S. senators, John Warner of Virginia and Richard Lugar of Indiana, have offered some useful ideas along those lines. Until Wednesday, they were competing with backers of a U.S. Senate proposal similar to the House's.

The Bush administration would be wise to set aside its habitual stubbornness and listen. Its cantankerous attitude inspired my own doubts long before the actual intervention. I believed that meddling in Iraq would produce precisely what it has, a morass of long duration, terrible casualties and great expense.

Additionally, I feared another possibility that has come to pass -- a proliferation of terrorism in Iraq. Because of the frighteningly changed circumstances, I revised my stance and offered conditional support for the intervention.

But in return, I fully expected the U.S.-led coalition to deliver enough troops, resources, economic assistance, political support and other capabilities -- in the context of solid planning -- to push Iraq toward standing on its own.

Unfortunately, my hopes did not materialize.

Instead, the Bush administration has plodded along, taking one stunningly unimaginative step after another, including the meager troop "surge" of recent months. It comes as no surprise that the White House's own recent report on Iraq shows mixed results. Yet, President George W. Bush has little to add but his patience mantra.

Well, my patience already had expired in February when I concluded that the White House was unwilling and perhaps unable to fix the Iraq problem. Accordingly, Americans should move expeditiously toward an exit strategy, which differs from an arbitrary pullout deadline.

A hasty departure would only strengthen U.S. opponents and ratchet up the level of violence in Iraq. Some details of an exit strategy should remain quiet to keep adversaries guessing. Also, a sound withdrawal plan would have to be carefully coordinated with various initiatives, including but not limited to:

  • Making up for the failings of the Iraqi political system with a bold, promising move: the partition of Iraq into substantially autonomous regions for the Shia, Sunni and Kurdish groups, under a loosely organized central government. Those populations largely live apart anyway. Partition would give them more control over their respective areas and rapidly improve security.

  • Shifting U.S. forces from their central role in policing sectarian violence to a narrower focus on counterterrorism, border security and training. It is particularly vital to correct training deficiencies in the Iraqi military; otherwise, the nation never will be able to handle its security responsibilities. Also, I would like to see NATO substantially increase its training activities.

  • Developing a foreign peacekeeping force to replace the coalition. As eager as Americans are to get out of Iraq, it would be too destabilizing if the U.S.-led coalition abruptly withdrew. Realistically, Iraq will need the assistance of foreign troops for several years. Although the coalition certainly could participate, other countries -- including friendly Muslim neighbors that desire for the new Iraq to succeed -- should contribute peacekeepers.

A new, well-crafted, clear, coherent, innovative strategy for Iraq would remove the discussion from the realm of the premature and the political and provide solutions that both Americans and Iraqis desire.

John C. Bersia, a former Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer for the Orlando Sentinel, is the special assistant to the president for global perspectives at the University of Central Florida.

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