What We Need in Iraq: An Exit Date

By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF

New York Times

February 15, 2006

Here's the single most depressing tidbit I've seen from Iraq lately: a new poll has found that among Sunni Arab Iraqis, 88 percent support violent attacks on U.S. troops.

So at least in the Sunni Triangle, the biggest problem isn't Syria or terrorists like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, but ordinary Sunnis who want to see our soldiers blown up.

So how should we handle this?

First, we should announce unequivocally that we will not keep American military bases in Iraqi territory.

Second, we should announce a target date for the withdrawal of all U.S. combat forces from Iraq say, the last day of 2007. Those moves would help to allay Iraqi nationalist suspicions at least a little bit that the U.S. is simply after Iraqi oil and bases, and would take a bit of the wind out of the insurgency's sails.

The new poll, which was conducted for WorldPublicOpinion.org, had some good news for President Bush. More than three-quarters of the Iraqis said that ousting Saddam Hussein was worth the hardships they'd suffered. And 64 percent said Iraq was now headed in the right direction.

But 80 percent of Iraqis said the U.S. sought permanent military bases in Iraq (frankly, they're right), while 70 percent called for a full U.S. withdrawal within two years.

It's time to listen more carefully to Iraqis, who know their country better than we ever will. In the poll, 64 percent said violent attacks would decrease after the U.S. pulled out. For Sunni Arab Iraqis, who are disproportionately responsible for the violence, that figure is 86 percent. Other polls show roughly the same: Iraqis are suspicious of our intentions, and they want us out.

The single biggest mistake we have made since World War II has been the failure to appreciate nationalism, whether in China, Southeast Asia or Latin America or, now, Iraq. Given the origins of the U.S. an insurgency fueled by the maladroit policies of King George III, who never understood American nationalism you'd think we would be more sensitive to such sentiments, but throughout history great powers have always had a blind spot for indigenous nationalism.

Craziest of all is our refusal to renounce long-term bases in Iraq. Keeping alive the bases option increases the antagonism toward us, adds to the risk that Iraq will completely fall apart and leads to more maimed Americans. It's not worth it.

As for withdrawal, I believe that an immediate pullout would be irresponsible and would leave Iraq worse off. But a two-year timetable for withdrawal would give Iraqi security forces time to consolidate power, and would weaken the strongest card the insurgents have: the argument that they're protecting the motherland from imperialist Yankee crusaders.

A timetable would also put pressure on Iraqi politicians to cooperate and govern, and it would make the U.S. more of a partner and less of a national scapegoat.

It's true that Iraqis wouldn't fully believe our announcements, and the insurgents certainly won't lay down their weapons. But the insurgents can operate only with the tacit support of ordinary Sunni Arabs and the poll showed that many of those Iraqis would be less hostile to the U.S. if there was a timetable for withdrawal.

As Gen. George Casey Jr., the top commander in Iraq, told Congress in the fall, the U.S. presence "feeds the notion of occupation," while reducing the troop presence would begin "taking away an element that fuels the insurgency." And Gen. John Abizaid, who speaks Arabic and has extensive Middle Eastern experience, added, "We must make clear to the people of the region that we have no designs on their territories or resources."

General Abizaid is right, so it's time to renounce publicly the pipe dream about bases. There's a parallel with Saudi Arabia, where we clung to U.S. bases because we thought they gave us a strategic advantage and flexibility. But those bases outraged Saudi nationalists and gave fundamentalists like Osama bin Laden a cause that rallied supporters. Instead of an advantage, we gained an albatross and now we're doing the same in Iraq.

The biggest intelligence failure of the neocons in Iraq wasn't the assumption that Saddam had W.M.D. It was the conviction, as Dick Cheney put it, that "we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators." Anyone who had actually visited Iraq and talked to Iraqis knew that was nonsense, but the administration never seemed to hear ordinary Iraqi voices or make allowances for Iraqi nationalism.

I'm afraid the administration still doesn't.