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The Imperial Retreat Begins

September 8  2003

We cannot do it by ourselves in Iraq. We need help.

That is the message sent in the clear to the Mideast and the world by our going back to the United Nations to ask for troops and aid in Iraq. Our enemies can read that message as well as our friends.

The four suicide bombings of the Jordanian embassy, the U.N. headquarters, the mosque in Najaf, the headquarters of the Iraqi police in Baghdad in one month underscored it. We do not have the troops to cope with the deepening crisis of a new terrorist threat, added to the classic guerrilla war our soldiers were already fighting.

Moreover and here is the central point the United States does not intend a dramatic increase in U.S. troop levels in Iraq. Sen. McCain's call for another division has been heard and rejected. There is apparently no constituency, or stomach in the White House, for a long bloody war, if that is what it takes to pacify Iraq.

Condi Rice may talk of a "generational commitment." McCain may echo her. But America has made no such commitment to Iraq. We were sold this war on a single compelling argument: Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, was working on atomic bombs, and was a grave and growing menace because Saddam would use them on us, or give them to al-Qaida for terror attacks on American cities.

Now we know the threat assessment was "sexed up."

By going to the United Nations hat-in-hand, President Bush and the Pentagon unilateralists who had mocked the U.N. are being forced to eat humble pie. They had confidently predicted our "coalition of the willing" was up to the task. Now, we are ready to cede authority and accept U.N. supervision, in exchange for U.N. troops and multilateral money. "U.S. Offers to Report to U.N. on Iraq," read the headline in The Washington Times

Nevertheless, given the choices he faced, Bush made the right call. With our global commitments, crises coming with Iran and North Korea over nuclear weapons, the bleeding war in Afghanistan and the reduced size of our Army, we do not have the forces to fight the five- or 10-year war the hawks say is necessary in Iraq.

According to a report released by the Congressional Budget Office the day Secretary Powell said we were going back to the United Nations, the U.S. Army will be hard put even to maintain present force levels in Iraq beyond next March without calling up the reserves.

Though he decided rightly, President Bush's problems, and ours, are only beginning. Before signing on to any new U.N. resolution, France will exact its pound of flesh. The president may be unable politically to accept U.N. terms. Whatever he gets, the road back to Turtle Bay is a humiliating retreat. Democrats are already piling on, calling our return to the United Nations a defeat for Bush unilateralism and a presidential concession that they were right all along.

Even if the president gets his resolution, there is unlikely to be great enthusiasm among U.N. members for sending troops to Iraq. Few nations wish to see their soldiers as targets of guerrilla or terror attack, like ours. And as no troops are superior to ours, replacing American soldiers with Pakistanis, Indians or even Turks must reduce the fighting effectiveness of any force we leave behind.

The future in Iraq is fraught with peril. A retreat under fire, which appears to have begun for the United States, is among the most precarious of military operations. Word that the U.S. Army is planning to withdraw from Iraq could spread like a prairie fire and energize America-haters all over the Middle East.

Insiders say that the president's decision to return to the United Nations and "internationalize" Iraq is a victory for Powell and the Joint Chiefs. They do not want to fight an Iraqi intifada and Islamic terror only with U.S. troops. The president is said also to have concluded that he was misled about what to expect when Baghdad fell, and that the preparations and plans of Secretary Rumsfeld and the Pentagon for postwar Iraq were woefully inadequate.

Now that the United States has apparently decided troop levels in Iraq will not be raised, and U.S. troops there will begin to be withdrawn, the initiative passes to the enemy. We cannot cut and run. We have to endure whatever bleeding he imposes.

But if the current level of casualties continues for the next year, or Iraq appears about to collapse into chaos and civil war as we pull out, Bush could face a situation at home similar to what LBJ faced in 1968. Foreign policy already promises to be the issue in 2004, for the first time since the end of the Cold War.

The glorious victory of April is history now. As summer turns to fall, Iraq takes on the aspect of Gaza. Soon, angry voices will be raised asking how we get out of Iraq, and just who got us in. The evening of recriminations is almost upon us.

2003 Creators Syndicate, Inc.

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