The Magazine

An Administration of One

From the December 1, 2003 issue: Bush has made it clear that the only exit strategy from Iraq is a victory strategy, with victory defined as "democracy."

Dec 1, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 12 • By ROBERT KAGAN and WILLIAM KRISTOL
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What has also become clear this past week is that Bush is determined to promote democracy in Iraq--and right now. This is a significant step forward. Up until recently, senior Bush officials have tended to avoid using the word "democracy" to describe the goals of American policy. In the Pentagon and elsewhere it has been thought that this sets the bar too high and implies a lengthy American commitment to Iraq, a commitment of money, energy, and troops. The most urgent task, as Donald Rumsfeld and General John Abizaid have been inclined to see it, has been to bring the levels of U.S. forces in Iraq down and turn over the task of security to the Iraqis as quickly as possible. Others in the administration have adopted the familiar argument that the Iraqi people are not yet ready for democracy and have tried to push any real elections as far into the future as possible.

President Bush this week slammed the door on this kind of thinking. First, he set the bar for success high: democracy. The new plan for a handover of sovereignty to the Iraqis calls for regional caucuses to elect a transitional legislature by next May, with general elections planned for the end of 2005. We would prefer to see the elections moved up, but even under the current schedule Iraqis will have a chance to begin participating in democratic politics almost immediately. That is a giant step toward the goal and the commitment that Bush articulated this past week: The United States "will meet our responsibilities in Afghanistan and Iraq by finishing the work of democracy we have begun."

So much for exit strategies. Bush has made it clear that the only exit strategy from Iraq is a victory strategy, with victory defined as "democracy." "We did not charge hundreds of miles into the heart of Iraq and pay a bitter cost of casualties and liberate 25 million people only to retreat before a band of thugs and assassins. We will help the Iraqi people establish a peaceful and democratic country in the heart of the Middle East." That commitment may turn out to be the most important of Bush's presidency, perhaps the most important of the post-Cold War era.

The second significant point Bush made in London was about troop levels in Iraq. In response to a question about beginning to bring home troops from Iraq next year, the president could not have been clearer. The United States will provide the troops necessary in Iraq. "We could have less troops in Iraq, we could have the same number of troops in Iraq, we could have more troops in Iraq, whatever is necessary to secure Iraq." Unfortunately, Bush's senior advisers treated his remark as if it were a gaffe and immediately began backgrounding reporters that there was no chance of a troop increase next year. That was an appalling error, signifying just how little the president's own advisers understand what's at stake in Iraq.

The president, we are happy to say, does understand. "The failure of democracy in Iraq," he said this week, "would throw its people back into misery and turn that country over to terrorists who wish to destroy us." Failure in Iraq is unacceptable. Al Qaeda and international terrorists "view the rise of democracy in Iraq as a powerful threat to their ambitions. In this, they are correct. They believe their acts of terror against our coalition, against international aid workers and against innocent Iraqis will make us recoil and retreat. In this, they are mistaken." Progress toward democracy is imperative. If that means more American troops are needed, then the administration should not--and we are now confident will not--flinch from putting in more troops, even in an election year.

The president made great progress this week explaining his vision and strategy to the world. He has placed himself at the level of Reagan and Truman, both of whom were also treated with derision by their opponents. Bush's great task now will be to explain his strategy to his own cabinet and commanders and insist that they begin implementing it.

--Robert Kagan and William Kristol