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May 6, 2004

Waist Deep in the Big Muddy; The Big Fool Says to Push On*


by Thomas Gale Moore

Instead of improving, the situation in Iraq continues to become more chaotic. American soldiers are dying at the rate of nearly five per day, up from about one per day last fall. With the photographs and reports of U.S. guards mistreating Iraqi prisoners, we have destroyed any possible rapport with the local people. The likelihood of establishing a friendly democratic government is close to nil. The pullback from Al-Fallujah, one day after we dropped leaflets demanding surrender or death, has been widely seen as a victory for the insurgents. The appointment of an Iraqi general to head a group of former soldiers to pacify the city, then, two days later, the selection of another former army officer to oversee the effort, indicates a confused military command. The stalemate in Najaf over the attempt to arrest Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shiite cleric charged with murdering another cleric, demonstrates the impotence of the US military. It is not that we could not have taken either Najaf or Fallujah but at what cost? We could have leveled both towns and killed most of the inhabitants but the political fallout would have been too high.

It is time, therefore, to consider the alternatives. They are all BAD. We could, as George Bush says, "stay the course," which means an endless stream of body bags, maimed soldiers who will spend the rest of their lives as cripples, and huge government expenditures with a burgeoning national debt. Eventually, like the British in the 1920s, we will have to pull out. There is an old saying, "when you are in a hole, stop digging," or, as a poker player would say, "you have to know when it's time to fold." Rather than wait several years at increased costs, let us consider getting out now.

On April 28, John Harwood, writing in The Wall Street Journal, quotes retired General William E. Odom, Director, National Security Studies of the Hudson Institute, as saying, "We have failed. The issue is how high a price we're going to pay … Less, by getting out sooner, or more, by getting out later?" Odom proposes that the US try to get the U.N. to take control of Iraq and provide for its security. Since it will be difficult to secure an agreement in the Security Council to take over the supervision of Iraq, he would couple that with the "unilateral" step of removing all US troops from that country within six months, irrespective of the response of the international community. Such a move might galvanize the Europeans into accepting some responsibility for security and stability in this vital area.

Hawks in the administration and the press would undoubtedly see this as "cutting and running." They would assert that withdrawing would make the United States look weak and encourage others to stand up to America. The same claim was made about pulling out of Vietnam. Yet, when we did, with our helicopters evacuating the last Americans from the roof of our embassy, our armed forces remained strong and no country tried to take advantage of us. Let us not have to build a helicopter pad on the top of our Baghdad embassy.

Clearly our military is the most powerful in the world. No one dares to attack the United States. What we cannot do or don't have the stomach to do is to occupy another country. As we have seen, no people like to have a foreign nation occupy their homeland. To do so successfully, one must be willing to be totally ruthless and to accept that such an occupation will carry a huge human and financial cost for both occupier and occupied.

On June 30, instead of awarding a meaningless partial "sovereignty" to some yet to be chosen (by whom?) Iraqi government, we should provide full sovereignty with the right to make laws and control the country's armed forces. If we can secure UN agreement, we should let that body take the initiative in choosing the new people to run Iraq. Otherwise, we might call together a council representing the various tribes, religions, and areas to choose their own leader. But even if they fail and there is no government, we should declare victory – we have captured Saddam Hussein and achieved regime change – and leave by the end of this year. It should and will then be up to the Iraqis to settle their own affairs.

* From Pete Seeger's anti-Vietnam war folksong (1967).

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Thomas Gale Moore is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in economics and has taught at Carnegie Institution of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University), Michigan State University, UCLA, and in the Stanford Business School. He has written numerous peer-reviewed economic articles and several books.

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