Richard Reeves

The Vietnamization of Iraq

WASHINGTON -- OK, here's the plan: "Iraqization." We get the hell out of there in double-time and turn the place over to any bunch of guys wearing the local uniform.

I know, of course, that there is no valid comparison between our frustrating occupation of Iraq and our frustrated liberation of Vietnam all those years ago. My president tells me so. And that means we should not compare Iraqization with "Vietnamization," the way President Nixon finally talked our way out of South Vietnam. But they are variations on a theme: Turn the mess over to the locals and pray for them.

Read between the lines of what our guys are saying this week:

"Rather than flooding the zone with more Americans ... it is, we believe, vastly better to continue to invest in encouraging the Iraqis to provide the kinds of increases and ramping-up of their own security capabilities. ... I don't believe it's our job to reconstruct the country. We work with the Iraqis to pass off to them the political responsibility for their country -- they already have a cabinet; they already have a Governing Council; they already have city councils. ... That's our exit strategy." -- Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, speaking last Wednesday at the National Press Club

"We believe Iraqis should be given responsibility for their own security, economic development and political system as soon as possible. ... The coalition wants them to exercise real power and will thrust authority at them." -- chief Iraq administrator L. Paul Bremer III, writing in last Monday's Washington Post

Right now it is obvious that the Bush administration intends to declare victory, salute the Governing Council and leave Iraq, hopefully before the bills come due for destruction and reconstruction. Those bills, by the way, add up to more than $1,000 per American family this year alone. Enjoy your tax cut!

The only question on the table right now is whether the United Nations can be persuaded to provide political cover for our strategic withdrawal. The problem there is Bremer himself. The price of a new U.N. Security Council resolution (a prerequisite for foreign contributions to rebuild Iraq) is likely to be the removal of the White House's administrator and appointment of a U.N. administrator or co-administrator.

"The liberation was a great and noble deed," wrote Bremer. Perhaps. History will decide that. Next he said, "Terrorists have decided to make Iraq a key battlefield in the global war on terrorism." Historians may have trouble with that one. Certainly contemporary commentators seem agreed that it was the United States that chose the place and time of this confrontation.

"My suspicion is that the Americans have put themselves into precisely the kind of frontline engagement with the extremists that the extremists have been looking for," said Tim Winter, a lecturer in Islamic Studies at Cambridge University in England. "Osama bin Laden's statements in 1996 and 1998 regarding the presence of foreign troops in the Islamic world now look prophetic. The perception in the Muslim world of the U.S. is no longer of a secular republic containing lots of Christians but of a crusading, evangelizing entity."

Richard Murphy, a former State Department official respected in the Islamic world, put it more succinctly: "It (the invasion) has served to unite the fanatics."

The United Nations, always handy to blame when things go wrong, will now become the focus of the contemporary debate as U.S. allies, old and new, decide whether to help the spent Americans try to back out of there -- reneging on the promise to rebuild Iraq. The great promiser, Secretary Rumsfeld, a historic example of the danger of answering political questions by turning them into military ones, now says this: "Foreign forces in a country are an anomaly. They're not natural. They're unnatural."

No kidding. Rumsfeld, who seems wonderfully capable of immediately unloading any thought that sparks between his ears, was asked about who would pay for the reconstruction of Iraq at the Press Club. He mentioned oil, of course, but then added: "Tourism is going to be something important in that country as soon as the security situation is resolved."

Sure it will. Let's hope they aren't all tourists walking across the border with AK-47s under their blankets, looking for an American to kill.

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