The New York Times
As we debate what to do in Iraq, here are two facts to bear in mind:
First, a poll this spring of Iraqis — who know their country much better than we do — shows that only 21 percent think that the U.S. troop presence improves security in Iraq, while 69 percent think it is making security worse.
Second, the average cost of posting a single U.S. soldier in Iraq has risen to $390,000 per year, according to a new study by the Congressional Research Service. This fiscal year alone, Iraq will cost us $135 billion, which amounts to a bit more than a quarter-million dollars per minute.
We simply can’t want to be in Iraq more than the Iraqis want us to be there. That poll of Iraqis, conducted by the BBC and other news organizations, found that only 22 percent of Iraqis support the presence of coalition troops in Iraq, down from 32 percent in 2005.
If Iraqis were pleading with us to stay and quell the violence, maybe we would have a moral responsibility to stay. But when Iraqis are begging us to leave, and saying that we are making things worse, then it’s remarkably presumptuous to overrule their wishes and stay indefinitely because, as President Bush termed it in his speech on Tuesday, “it is necessary work.”
We can’t afford universal health care at home — but we can afford more than $10 billion a month so that American troops can be maimed in a country where they aren’t wanted? If we take the total eventual cost of the Iraq war, that sum could be used to finance health care for all uninsured Americans for perhaps 30 years.
Or imagine if we invested just two weeks’ worth of the Iraq spending to fight malaria, de-worm children around the globe and reduce maternal mortality. Those humanitarian projects would save vast numbers of lives and help restore America’s standing in the world.
On Tuesday, Mr. Bush argued that we should give the surge a chance and that the costs of withdrawal would be enormous.
Just because President Bush says something doesn’t mean it is fatuous. It’s true, for example, that our withdrawal may lead to worse horrors in Iraq. But don’t ignore the alternative possibility, believed overwhelmingly by Iraqis themselves, that our departure will make things better.
Mr. Bush is also right that the surge is only just in place and may still enjoy modest success. Sectarian violence initially dropped in Baghdad (although it seems to have risen again since May), and it’s impressive to see Sunni tribes cooperating with us in Anbar against foreign jihadis. Then again, even the Green Zone is now a daily target, Turkish troops may invade Kurdistan and brace yourself for battles in Kirkuk between Kurds and Arabs.
Meanwhile, since Mr. Bush announced the surge, 600 American troops have been killed and 3,000 injured.
But whatever happens on the streets that the Americans patrol, the only solution in Iraq is political, not military. The surge was supposed to build political space for that solution, and that is not happening.
Progress has stalled on de-Baathification and constitutional reform, one-third of Iraq’s cabinet is boycotting the government and people are turning to sectarian militias for protection. The Pentagon itself reported last month that 52 percent of Baghdad residents say that militias are serving the interest of the Iraqi people.
In this desperate situation, the last best hope to break the stalemates in Iraqi politics will come if Congress forces Iraqi politicians to peer over the abyss at the prospect of their country on its own. If Congress makes it clear that the U.S. is heading for the exits — and that we want no permanent bases in Iraq — that may undercut the extremists and lead more Iraqis to focus on preserving their nation rather than expelling the infidels.
It’s nice that Mr. Bush is still confident about Iraq, telling us on Tuesday: “I strongly believe that we will prevail.”
Apparently, we’re doing almost as well today as we were in October 2003 when he blamed journalists for filtering out the good news and declared: “We’re making really good progress.”
Then in September 2004, Mr. Bush assured us that Iraq was “making steady progress.” In April 2005: “We’re making good progress in Iraq.” In October 2005: “Iraq has made incredible political progress.” In November 2005: “Iraqis are making inspiring progress.”
Do we really want to continue making this kind of inspiring progress for the next 10 years?
Photo Credit: Nicholas Kristof. (Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times)