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From the May 17, 2004 issue: The Bush administration seems not to recognize how widespread, and how bipartisan, is the view that Iraq is already lost or on the verge of being lost.

May 17, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 34 • By ROBERT KAGAN and WILLIAM KRISTOL
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WE DO NOT KNOW how close the American effort in Iraq may be to irrecoverable failure. We are inclined to believe, however, that the current Washington wisdom--that the United States has already failed and there is nothing to do now but find a not-too-damaging way to extricate ourselves--is far too pessimistic, a panicked reaction to the difficulties in Falluja and with Moktada al-Sadr, as well as to the disaster of Abu Ghraib. We are also appalled at the cavalier and irresponsible way people on both left and right now suggest we should pull out and simply let Iraq go to hell. We wonder how those who, rightly, complain about the American mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners, can blithely consign the entire Iraqi population to the likely prospect of a horrific civil war and the brutal dictatorship that would follow. Spare us that kind of "humanitarianism."

Thank goodness the president says he remains committed to victory. Thank goodness there are stalwarts like Senators Joe Biden, Joe Lieberman, and Evan Bayh in the Democratic party who are fighting against that party's growing clamor for withdrawal. But loss of confidence that the war is winnable goes well beyond left-wing Democrats and isolationist Republicans. The Bush administration seems not to recognize how widespread, and how bipartisan, is the view that Iraq is already lost or on the verge of being lost. The administration therefore may not appreciate how close the whole nation is to tipping decisively against the war. In a sense, it doesn't matter whether this popular and elite perception of the situation in Iraq is too simplistic and too pessimistic. The perception, if it lingers, may destroy support for the war before events on the ground have a chance to prove it wrong.

So Iraq could be lost if the Bush administration holds to the view that it can press ahead with its political and military strategy without any dramatic change of course, without taking bold and visible action to reverse the current downward trajectory. The existing Bush administration plan in Iraq is to wait for U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to name an interim Iraqi caretaker government by the end of May that will take power on July 1, and prepare for elections in January 2005. This plan might have been adequate a couple of months ago. But it is inadequate to meet the new challenge.

Among the biggest mistakes made by the Bush administration over the past year has been the failure to move Iraq more rapidly toward elections. It's true that many, inside and outside the administration, have long been clamoring to hand over more responsibility to Iraqis, responsibility above all for doing more of the fighting and dying. But the one thing even many of these friends of Iraq have been unwilling to hand over to Iraqis is the right to choose their own government. This is a mistake.

We do not believe in the present circumstances that the current administration plan moves quickly enough toward providing Iraqis real sovereignty. It is not real sovereignty when a U.N. official tells Iraqis who their next prime minister will be. We strongly doubt that the announcement of a new interim government--three to four weeks from now, to take office almost two months from now--will have sufficient impact on Iraqi public opinion to overcome the images of American soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners. Nor do we believe the present course will give the American people and their representatives sufficient reason to hope that a corner may be turned in the near future. The coming weeks are critical.

We don't claim to have a silver bullet. But we believe one answer to the current crisis would be to move up elections by several months, perhaps to September. The administration could announce very soon that nationwide Iraqi elections will be held on September 30. Brahimi could go ahead and announce his caretaker government, but it would be clear to all that the new government's primary purpose was to preside over the transition to elected government--first by preparing for the elections, with the help of the United States and the international community.