What's the Exit Strategy?
I keep wondering what Secretary of State Colin Powell really thinks about the war in Iraq and the fact that we appear to have no exit strategy.
A veteran of the Vietnam War, Powell was determined to prevent another military quagmire. In the early 1990s, he developed the Powell Doctrine, a set of criteria for using military force. War, he said, should be a last resort, the purpose should reflect a well-defined national interest and enjoy strong public support, and once decided, should be executed with overwhelming force and have a clear exit strategy.
With astonishing hubris, the Bush administration dumped the Powell Doctrine, with its many restraints, for a pre-emptive war strategy that had none. But Powell's criteria were right on target. The ostensible reason for the war -- that Iraq posed an imminent threat to the United States -- is proving to be untrue. So far, no weapons of mass destruction have been found. Despite protestations from the military, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld deployed just enough troops to secure Baghdad and a quick military victory, but not enough personnel to keep the peace. And, most ominously, there is no exit strategy.
The results are not pretty.
For the Iraqi people, it is a blazingly hot, deeply disillusioning summer. Widespread looting, squalor, crippling shortages, massive unemployment, contaminated water, insufficient electricity and pervasive lawlessness have given rise to questions fueled by suspicion and distrust. Why can't the Americans provide electricity and basic services? Why do they postpone elections? Do they really want democracy in Iraq, or a hand-picked puppet government that will assure them control over our oil?
Happy to be liberated from a monstrous dictatorship, the Iraqi people worry about an indefinite occupation. In April, the world watched as the statue of Saddam Hussein, which had long dominated Fardus Square in Baghdad, was pulled down to the ground. Today, however, few people see what the BBC recently broadcast, the graffiti written on the stump of its base: "All Done: Go Home."
For American and British troops, it is an equally hot and disillusioning summer. Victory came swiftly, but now the troops are spread too thinly and face the terror of guerrilla attacks. Snipers in speeding cars shoot at soldiers who patrol streets and guard checkpoints. The opposition, armed with AK-47 rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and light mortars, ambushes them with terrifying frequency.
Extended deployments have only added to the troops' growing demoralization. One officer from the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division in Iraq told the Christian Science Monitor, "Make no mistake, the level of morale for most soldiers that I've seen has hit rock bottom." Another Army officer, describing his troops, said, "They vent to anyone who will listen. They write letters, they cry, they yell. Many of them walk around looking visibly tired and depressed. . .."
The war in Iraq, as one historian recently said, is like Vietnam on crack cocaine. Global protests started before the war began. Official deception was exposed within weeks. Troops have become demoralized after months, not years. And within a relatively short time, public opinion has already shifted. A Gallup Poll conducted for USA Today and CNN on July 1 revealed that the number of Americans who think the war is not going well has jumped from 13 to 42 percent since Bush declared the "mission accomplished." Now 56 percent believe it was worth going to war in Iraq, down from 73 percent in April.
Like ghosts from the past, words and phrases from the Vietnam-era -- quagmire, credibility gap, guerrilla war, winning the hearts and minds of civilians, requests for more troops -- are creeping back into military and public parlance.
But this is not Vietnam. Finding an exit strategy in Iraq is far more complicated. There is no government that can negotiate a peace treaty with the United States. Until Iraq has a strong government, one that can provide basic services and protect its people, withdrawal of occupation forces is inconceivable.
Perhaps the military mess in Iraq can at least remind Americans how and why the Powell Doctrine, with all its reasonable restraints, prevented the United States from plunging -- until now -- into another unnecessary and perhaps unwinnable war.
Meanwhile, if the Bush administration -- who never articulated clear post- war plans -- has an exit strategy, what is it? The Iraqi people, our military forces and the American public have a right to know.