America Held Hostage

By PAUL KRUGMAN

New York Times

July 1, 2005

A majority of Americans now realize that President Bush deliberately misled the nation to promote a war in Iraq. But Mr. Bush's speech on Tuesday contained a chilling message: America has been taken hostage by his martial dreams. According to Mr. Bush, the nation now has no choice except to keep fighting the war he wanted to fight.

Never mind that Iraq posed no threat before we invaded. Now it's a "central front in the war on terror," Mr. Bush says, quoting Osama bin Laden as an authority. And since a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq would, Mr. Bush claims, be a victory for Al Qaeda, Americans have to support this war - and that means supporting him. After all, you wage war with the president you have, not the president you want.

But America doesn't have to let itself be taken hostage. The country missed the chance to say no before this war started, but it can still say no to Mr. Bush's open-ended commitment, and demand a timetable for getting out.

I know that this argument will be hard to sell. Despite everything that has happened, many Americans still want to believe that this war can and should be seen through to victory. But it's time to face up to three realities. First, the war is helping, not hurting, the terrorists. Second, the kind of clear victory the hawks promised is no longer possible, if it ever was. Third, a time limit on our commitment will do more good than harm.

Before the war, opponents warned that it would strengthen, not weaken, terrorism. And so it has: a recent C.I.A. report warns that since the U.S. invasion, Iraq has become what Afghanistan was under the Soviet occupation, only more so: a magnet and training ground for Islamic extremists, who will eventually threaten other countries.

And the situation in Iraq isn't improving. "The White House is completely disconnected from reality," said Senator Chuck Hagel, referring to upbeat assessments of progress. "It's like they're just making it up as they go along. The reality is that we're losing in Iraq."

Mr. Hagel claims to believe that we can still win, but it's hard to see how.

More troops might help, but pretty much the whole U.S. Army is already in Iraq, on its way back from Iraq or getting ready to go to Iraq. And the coalition of the willing is shrinking.

Helping Iraqis rebuild their country could help win hearts and minds. But for all the talk of newly painted schools, the fact is that reconstruction, originally stalled by incompetence and corruption, is now stalled by the lack of security. When Ibrahim al-Jafaari, the Iraqi prime minister, visited Washington, he was accompanied by Iraqi journalists. One of them asked Mr. Bush, "When will you begin the reconstruction in Iraq?"

Meanwhile, time is running out for America's volunteer military, which is cracking under the strain of a war it was never designed to fight.

So what would happen if the United States gave up its open-ended commitment to Iraq and set a timetable for withdrawal?

Mr. Bush claims that such a step would "send the wrong signal to our troops, who need to know that we are serious about completing the mission." But what the troops need to know is that their country won't demand more than they can give. He also claims that it would encourage the insurgents, who will "know that all they have to do is to wait us out." But the insurgents don't seem to need encouragement.

It's far more likely that if the Iraqi government knew that our support had an expiration date, it would both look to its own defenses and, more important, try harder to find a political solution to the insurgency.

The Iraq that emerges once U.S. forces are gone won't bear much resemblance to the free-market, pro-American, Israel-friendly democracy the neocons promised. But it will pose less of a terrorist threat than the Iraq we have now.

Remember, Iraq wasn't a breeding ground for terrorists before we went there. All indications are that the foreign terrorists now infesting Iraq are there on the sufferance of a homegrown insurgency that finds them useful for the moment but that, brutal as it is, isn't interested in an apocalyptic confrontation with the Western world. Once we're no longer targets, the foreign terrorists won't be welcome.

The point is that the presence of American forces in Iraq is making our country less safe. So it's time to start winding down the war.

E-mail: krugman@nytimes.com