The Magazine

America's Responsibility

From the September 15, 2003 issue: Should the administration place all its bets on being able to find tens of thousands of foreign forces to fill the dangerous gap in Iraq?

Sep 15, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 01 • By ROBERT KAGAN and WILLIAM KRISTOL
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In short, it is foolish--and we believe irresponsible--for the administration to place all its bets on being able to find tens of thousands of foreign forces to fill the dangerous gap in Iraq in the coming months. We have nothing in principle against seeking a new U.N. resolution, or in further "internationalizing" the occupation of Iraq, if that will help bring security to the country. But the fact is that, at the end of two months of U.N. diplomacy, the United States is unlikely to have found real help. And then what will the administration do?

The same desperation is driving the administration to accelerate its efforts to turn over responsibility for maintaining security in Iraq to Iraqis. Obviously this ought to be the goal, and the sooner the better. But there are real questions about how quickly a reliable Iraqi force can be put in place. The original plan was to take more than a year to stand up an Iraqi army, and more than a year to train an Iraqi police force to reasonable standards. Now that's all being accelerated. Why? Not because the administration is suddenly eager to put an Iraqi face on security. Not because it's been determined that Iraqis don't need that much training after all. No, the accelerated timetable is due entirely to the fact that security problems are proliferating, and the U.S. forces in place are insufficient to deal with the mounting crisis. But premature overreliance on Iraqi forces is a bad substitute for adequate U.S. forces. General Sanchez admits that a serious Iraqi force won't be ready for several months. That's probably optimistic.

And there's another problem. In the interest of finding capable Iraqis, the administration has apparently been turning increasingly to former employees of Saddam Hussein's elite military and security forces. According to the Washington Post's Daniel Williams, "The need to quickly find skilled fighters and intelligence agents . . . has forced the Americans to dip into the ranks of units closely associated with Hussein." Most worrying if true is the fact that the new Interior Ministry's domestic intelligence network will, according to the Post, be "made up largely of secret police and intelligence agents from the ousted government." Administration officials say all recruits are "screened" to insure their loyalty to the new regime and their friendliness toward the United States. But as one Iraqi official commented, "Their ties may be difficult to break." And it only takes one or two mistakes in the vetting process to cause a catastrophe. Already American officials in Baghdad are investigating the possibility that the car bombing of police headquarters there may have involved Baathists within the new Iraqi security forces. Similar suspicions swirl around the bombing of the U.N. headquarters.

Plainly, there are no easy answers to the problems we face in Iraq right now. The American military is too small, thanks to a decade-and-a-half's irresponsible cutbacks, under Republican and Democratic administrations alike. The administration seems to find it difficult to admit that more troops are needed, in Iraq and in the armed forces generally. But every day, the reality of our predicament becomes harder to paper over. The difficult straits in which we find ourselves will become painfully apparent when the administration's pleas for help at the U.N. prove unavailing. We trust that before that moment arrives, the White House will make the hard decision to put in the U.S. troops necessary to do the job. Though it is true that our military is smaller than it should be, there are troops available for Iraq, if we are willing to call on combat elements from the Marines, the National Guard, and Special Forces.

Again, we have no principled objection to involving the United Nations, to seeking more international help, and to giving Iraqis more responsibility for their own country. But in present circumstances, the hasty efforts in this direction have about them an unmistakable air of buck-passing. Here we find the Bush administration and its Democratic critics in altogether too much agreement: It's been four months since the war ended, and already everyone wants to shift the burden of responsibility off America's shoulders and onto someone else's, and the sooner the better. Democrats call for internationalization in Iraq not simply because they like multilateralism but because, as both Howard Dean and John Kerry have said, it will allow us to "bring our boys home." In this formulation, the call for the U.N. to take the lead role in Iraq is really a kind of veiled McGovernism. The administration's push to stand up an Iraqi force ahead of schedule is a thinly veiled attempt to make up for the lack of American forces and the unwillingness to introduce more.