Saturday, April 14, 2007

Resolve to Be Ambivalent

Published: April 15, 2007

One of the essential flaws in President Bush’s Iraq policy is that America comes across as wanting to be in Iraq more than the Iraqis want us there.

So in that context, the Congressional efforts to restrict funding for U.S. troops there don’t undermine the war effort. Rather, they support it, by usefully signaling that American patience is wearing thin. The more we send that signal, the better off we and Iraq may be.

Mr. Bush and Dick Cheney signal an unwavering commitment to supply American blood indefinitely to Iraq, and they are overseeing the development of military bases that frighten Iraqis because they look so permanent. The results are perceptions of nefarious American designs on Iraq, consequent Arab suspicions, empowerment of nationalist anti-Americans like Moktada al-Sadr, and an Iraqi government that feels insufficient pressure to make concessions to achieve a political solution. In short, the firmness of our resolve to stay is a military and diplomatic disaster that leads to more Americans coming home in body bags.

The latest poll of Iraqis, by ABC News, USA Today and others, shows that 80 percent of Shiites and 97 percent of Sunni Arabs oppose the U.S. troop presence in Iraq, and over all, 51 percent support attacks on U.S. troops. But only 35 percent want the U.S. forces to leave immediately.

That may seem a contradiction: why blow up Americans now if you still want them to stay a bit longer? But it makes sense to Iraqis, who believe that Mr. Bush is so determined to keep troops in Iraq that killing them today is the only way to dislodge them in a year’s time.

Likewise, Saudi Arabia’s king, Abdullah, felt free to denounce the “illegal foreign occupation” of Iraq, even though he has made clear he wants it to continue for the time being, to protect the Sunni minority.

If it looked as if Congress (or a new president) might actually bring the troops home, the tone might change, and we might start hearing pleas for us to stay a little longer.

Look, neither I nor anyone else has a good solution to the mess in Iraq, and there is a real risk of a genocidal bloodbath after our departure. I’m not sure that the policy I’ve been advocating (a timetable for withdrawal within one year, accompanied by a clear renunciation of permanent bases in Iraq) would work. But I am sure that no American policy will ever succeed as long as we want to be in Iraq more than the Iraqis want us there.

There’s a parallel with South Korea, where the U.S. troop presence outraged Korean nationalists for decades. We showed great public resolve and determination to stay in Korea, and there was constant resentment at our troops’ behavior and at the land taken up by our bases. It was an article of faith among many Koreans that we were there not to protect them but for our own dark purposes.

Then a few years ago, Donald Rumsfeld ordered U.S. troops pulled back from the border with North Korea, and there was talk of slashing the U.S. troop presence. Suddenly, the U.S. force in Korea didn’t seem so inevitable or permanent. Instead of grousing about the U.S. troops, some Koreans began to worry about the risk that they might be withdrawn. By showing ambivalence of our own, we actually created more support for our troops.

You saw something similar in former Soviet bloc countries like Mongolia, where ordinary people used to roundly denounce the way they were exploited by the Soviets. Then with the collapse of old military and economic arrangements in 1990, the former satellites shifted to worrying how they would get by without the Soviets.

That’s the kind of change of tone we need in Iraq, and it would have a second salutary effect.

The best hope for peace in Iraq is a political settlement, in which Shiite leaders make political concessions to bring Sunnis out of the insurgency and into decision making. That’s the only real way out of this civil war. But as long as Shiite leaders see that Mr. Bush is determined to keep troops in Iraq to protect their rule, they don’t make the necessary compromises.

So instead of signaling that we will stay in Iraq to the last gasp, President Bush should be showing ambivalence of his own, signs that our commitment is not open-ended. He seems incapable of that.

Now Congress is rising to the occasion — and the resulting battle over troop funding sends the right signal to Iraq and the world, that we might actually pull out. In this case, a mixed message is the right message.