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A Plea to Editors on Iraq

Now that Nicholas Kristof has come out for withdrawal from Iraq, won't the nation's editorial boards help bring the tragedy to a close?
 
 
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In his Sunday column for the New York Times , Nicholas Kristof said he had a notion about how to solve our Iraq problem. One hangup: He won't let us in on it until his next column, on Tuesday. Oh well, we've waited this long.

All Kristof would say on Sunday is that he opposes both Bush's stay-the-course plan as well as an "immediate" withdrawal. This, of course, is simply knocking down straw men. Bush's strategy has been thoroughly discredited, and hardly anyone calls for bringing the troops home immediately, in time for Thanksgiving or even Christmas.

So what did Kristof come out with in the Tuesday column? We should pull "at least" half of our troops out of Iraq by the end of 2006 with the rest to follow by the end of the following year. Also, we should by then get rid of all of our military bases there. "All the Iraq options are bad," he declares. "But this is the least bad."

Kristof writes: "I met last month with three visiting Iraqi journalists, all of them anti-insurgency and pro-constitution. All three favored a target date for withdrawal." He adds: "A target date would also light a fire under all Iraqis to work out a modus vivendi. Time and again, deadlines have proved the only way to get Iraqi politicians to do anything."

While the pace could be quicker, this is a welcome and realistic step forward.

Kristof notes that many Democrats are coalescing around this outline (though not, alas, the Hillary-Biden wing of the party). Just Sunday, in a Washington Post op-ed, former candidate for vice president John Edwards admitted he was "wrong" to back the war three years ago and called for a U.S. withdrawal to begin early next year. His fellow former senator Tom Daschle has also re-surfaced recently, leading a drive to get Bush to at least set a timetable for a pullout.

Now that Kristof has floated his idea, I'll state my position now: It's time (actually, it's overdue) for newspaper editorial writers to take the lead in helping to bring this American tragedy to a close. I have been advocating this, rather fruitlessly, for over two years. I mention this not as an I-told-you-so but to point out what dithering has cost: 1,700 more American lives, and more fuel for the terrorists' fire.

I see Kristof is now referring to the situation in Iraq as a "quagmire." Two years ago when I suggested that, many poked fun. Yet he still refers to the neocons who got us into this mess, embracing cooked intel like a high-priced hooker, as "well-meaning."

It's true that this is not a black-and-white case. There is something to be said for giving a president and his team a further chance to fashion a better future for the Iraqis. But this is not that president and this is not that team. And the better future does not likely require our unlimited occupation.

The bottom line, which I humbly ask newspaper editorial boards to consider: Whatever your feelings about keeping Americans troops in place to protect Iraqi citizens, remember who is running the show back at the White House and Pentagon, and whether you trust them to manage this enterprise.

Most Americans have already answered this question. According to all major polls, they think the president misled the country into the war and is not to be trusted today, in general.

I'll put it this starkly: If you're not going to call for the impeachment of the president and the resignation of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld -- and I'm sure you're not -- then you really ought to increase pressure on them in your editorials to change direction in Iraq, and begin a phased (not immediate) withdrawal.

I've been pushing this idea for two years, suggesting that if at least one national newspaper backed a phased withdrawal it might start a stampede. No one responded the first three times, and no one expects The Washington Post, for example, to lead the charge (witness Sunday's Fred Hiatt column).

The Seattle Times did argue for a pullout several months ago, but until recently The New York Times was actually advocating sending more troops. The Times has run many tough editorials against the president and his conduct of the war, but the newspaper has not called for setting a timetable or beginning withdrawals.

Apparently they trust Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld to handle this disaster just fine. Do you?

On Oct. 15, 2003, Kristof wrote a column backing the $87 billion bill for Iraq, adding, "Above all, to stave off catastrophe in Iraq, we must keep our troops there and provide security, for that is the glue that keeps Iraq together." How time flies.

It's worse than Waiting for Godot. It's Waiting for God Help Us. Secretary of State Rice recently said U.S. troops might still be in Iraq 10 years from now.

Besides Kristof and Edwards, another prominent figure weighed in on the war this weekend. General William Odom (ret.), former head of the National Security Agency under President Reagan, wrote an article for NiemanWatchdog.org earlier this year in which he argued that the war is serving the interests of Osama bin Laden, the Iranians, and extremists in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. According to Odom, all that we fear could go wrong if we "cut and run" is actually made more likely by staying in Iraq.

In his latest piece, which he calls a "postscript," Odom (now a senior fellow with the Hudson Institute and a professor at Yale University) calls Iraq "the worst place to fight a battle for regional stability. Whose interests were best served by the U.S. invasion of Iraq in the first place? It turns out that Iran and al-Qaeda benefited the most, and that continues to be true every day U.S. forces remain there. A serious review of our regional interests is required. Until that is accomplished and new and compelling aims for managing the region are clarified, continuing the campaign in Iraq makes no sense."

But Odom is not for total disengagement. He wants the U.S. to remain a force, but recognizes that we will gain no help from key allies until our troops are on the way out. Therefore, "it becomes clear that U.S. withdrawal from Iraq is the precondition to winning the support of our allies and a few others for a joint approach to the region. Until that has been completed, they will not join such a coalition. And until that has happened, even we in the United States cannot think clearly about what constitutes our interests there, much less gain agreement about common interests for a coalition."

He adds: "Putting it bluntly, those who insist on staying in Iraq longer make the consequences of withdrawal more terrible and make it harder to find an alternative strategy for achieving regional stability.... To hang on to an untenable position is the height of irresponsibility. Beware of anyone, including the president, who insists that this is 'responsible' or 'the patriotic' thing to do."

***

Here's one of several letters from newspaper execs I've received in response to the above:

"One week before President Bush announced the invasion of Iraq, our newspaper ran a front-page editorial urging him to wait and work with the UN. Our editorial said there was no solid evidence of WMD and no link between Iraq and 9-11. Further, we stated that UN sanctions were working and that Hussein did not impose an imminent threat to the U.S. Finally, we said the idea of establishing a democratic form of government that would spread to other Mideast nations was at best wishful thinking and doomed to failure.

"One reader came into my office the next day and tore up his subscription renewal notice and threw it on my desk.

"Since early August of this year, every Friday on the editorial page we run, Lest We Forget, listing the U.S. casualties in Iraq. We also ran on three successive Fridays, editorials asking for a timetable for the pullout of American troops. Two weeks ago, I wrote a column, referring to the PBS special, 'Two Weeks in October,' pointing out how the U.S. top brass then and now have ignored the reality of their ill-conceived war efforts.

"Your stand on this issue for the past two years has been right on. I started out in this business during the Vietnam War. Maybe, that's why it was easier for me to see through this horrible hoax than my colleagues at daily newspapers throughout the country."

Joe Karius, Publisher
Daily Globe
Ironwood, Michigan

Greg Mitchell is editor of E&P and author of seven books on politics and history.