News Analysis: To restore U.S. honor, 3 options

Posted in Iraq | 11-May-04 | Author: Roger Cohen| Source: The New York Times

LONDON - A military defeat is a damaging thing, and Iraq remains a tense battleground. But a moral one may be more devastating and more enduring for a power like the United States that has long held that its actions are driven, at least in part, by the desire to be a force for good with a liberating mission for all humanity.

It is precisely such a rout of the American idea that now confronts the United States in Iraq. The world is asking what sort of liberation is represented by an American woman holding a prone, naked Iraqi man on a leash in Saddam Hussein's Abu Ghraib prison, of all places. No matter that the offenders represent a tiny minority of the American military or that torture may be common in Arab jails. Such images will be held aloft for many years, whenever America declares itself determined to right a wrong.

"This is the most serious setback for the American military since Vietnam," said Richard Holbrooke, who was a U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in the Clinton administration. "We now have to admit that the American position is untenable." In Europe, some people are saying that if America were a country of 10 million people its leaders would be hauled before an international criminal court.

So, a little more than a year after American tanks swept into Baghdad, the central question has become how to salvage the American credibility on which peace in places from Kosovo to the Korean peninsula depends.

Suggested short-term fixes include apologies like that more or less offered by President George W. Bush, convictions of those responsible and even the departure of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. But the longer-term issue is how to snatch victory, or at least honor, from the jaws of the current debacle in Iraq and so deliver the remote objective outlined by Bush last month: an Iraq that "will stand as an example to the Middle East, encouraging reform and hope by demonstrating what life in a free society can be like."

Three distinct approaches appear possible.

Announce that America is reversing course, rather than staying the course, and that its troops will be gone from Iraq by a date in 2005, so focusing the minds of Iraqis on how best to benefit responsibly and peacefully from their liberation from Saddam.

Empower the United Nations, giving it the central international role in Iraq's fate after June 30, while keeping American troops as part of a UN-mandated force in the country, but confining them increasingly to a few bases.

Or, finally, pay lip service to the United Nations while fighting a ferocious campaign with 135,000 American troops or more, until resistance is crushed.

Several factors complicate the pursuit of any of these strategies. Even before the abuse at Abu Ghraib became apparent, the failure to secure UN backing for the war and, above all, the failure to find weapons of mass destruction had eroded American moral legitimacy.

In unsuccessful wars, a certain rot tends to set in. The first 100 days are often critical; after that, it is harder to regain the initiative. So whatever America does now, it is facing a rising tide of not easily reversible resistance and doing so in a country whose stability is tenuous. An unstable Iraq is increasingly divided among Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites whose aims diverge and whose interest in a united Iraq is probably smaller than their interest in the assertion of their own identities. The prospects of economically prone, multiethnic states freed from ruthless dictatorship have been amply illustrated by the disintegration of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. Despite this danger of fracture, and its potentially explosive effect on the Arab world and Iran, Rashid Khalidi, a Palestinian-American and longtime critic of the United States' Middle East policy, argues that the fastest possible withdrawal of American troops is now essential. "The entire rationale for this whole adventure has to be jettisoned in order to save something," said Khalidi, adding that, in his view, the extent of Iraqi nationalism makes a breakup of the country less likely than many believe. A withdrawal, in his view, is justified because the American forces are part of the problem rather than the solution, because occupation in any form will only engender more resistance in a country with vivid memories of British colonialism, and because the Bush administration's strong support of Israel has tended to make Falluja and Gaza a single struggle in the eyes of many Arabs. American officials involved in the Bush administration's planning for Iraq believe such an option would be catastrophic, inviting mayhem that would destabilize the small Gulf principalities and possibly Saudi Arabia. "We have to stick to our guns on the basic strategy of keeping the force there, because without it, there will be chaos," said one of those officials, speaking on condition that his name not be used. "At the same time, we have to defuse the uproar of the photographs by being as transparent as possible in what we do about the abuses."

The administration and its chief ally, Tony Blair, the British prime minister, have been brought toward a broad, but never explicitly avowed, embracing of the second option: retreat through osmosis as the United Nations decides who gets to run Iraq after June 30, organizes the elections planned for January 2005 and authorizes an internationalized military force that the administration hopes will include NATO.

This approach has several problems.

Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, the commander of American forces in Iraq, will remain for many Iraqis the true ruler of the country, whatever happens on June 30. The chalice now offered to the United Nations appears to be poisoned, because resistance to any outside presence has spread.

NATO is divided, with France and Germany insisting they will not send troops to Iraq under any circumstances (and Spain pulling out its forces), so an alliance presence there is uncertain. And the neoconservative hawks so influential in the planning and execution of the Iraqi invasion remain deeply skeptical of the United Nations. Their sympathies are inclined to the third option: prosecuting the battle with vigor.

That there are no good options at this point is fast becoming a cliché. Holbrooke, an adviser to the Kerry campaign, said that the administration must now explicitly concede that the American presence in Iraq is illegitimate and illegal in the eyes of the Arab world and turn affairs over to the United Nations.

But Bush and Blair see Iraq as a fight to deliver the Middle East from Al Qaeda's poisonous ideology by opening up Arab society and linking it to the West. A withdrawal on their watch, even a phased one, looks unlikely.

Their goal, however, has never looked more elusive. Abu Ghraib is not My Lai. Nothing like the infamous massacre of Vietnamese civilians took place in the Iraqi prison. But it is assuming something of the mantle of that tragedy - a vivid stain on America's conscience. How the United States can recover the moral authority with which much of the world still yearns to vest it will depend on its choices over the next few weeks. The battle for Iraq now begins again, for the third time, and on tougher terms than ever.