Accepting Our Label

by Sam Stein | 11/21/03 6:00am

Since President Bush and Co. recently announced that they were turning over to Iraqis increased security and governing responsibility , there have been several ominous developments that have deepened my anxiety over this Iraq calamity (for lack of a more objective term). To begin with, amid a wave of anti-American attacks the enigmatic Trent Lott dropped this little sound bite: "Honestly, it's a little tougher than I thought it was going to be [in reference to Iraq]." Then he added, "If we have to, we just mow the whole place down and see what happens." Holy crap! I know the contention that sometimes in order to pick yourself up, or in this case to resurrect a massive nation rebuilding project, you have to hit rock bottom first. But Lott's quote is a tad bit inhumane and obtuse for my endorsement.

The second development that made me cringe was the revelation that the Iraqi Governing Council, the council appointed and structured by the Coalition Provision Authority, remains almost entirely incapacitated. A recent article in "Time Magazine" referred to the council's performance as "lackluster." More frightening is that during the past four months nearly half the council's members have been MIA (a find myself writing in military terms much more frequently since the war started). The result of all this, according to French Minister Mohammed Thabit Rifat, is that Iraqis are beginning to perceive the council as a group of bourgeoisie exiles who have enjoyed life abroad while their countrymen suffered under both Hussein's despotism and the chaos of America's occupation.

The third development that further compounded my skepticism was a "Los Angeles Times" article that unequivocally stated the Iraqi police forces are not only unconvinced by the American occupation, but also painfully unprepared to take over policing duties within their country. This discouraging news, combined with revelations of the Governing Council's ineffectiveness, and compounded by the decision at the end of combat to disband the Iraqi National Army, means that there is absolutely no institutional stability upon which Iraq can be "Iraqified" (this can't possibly be a word?). This is the parallel I offer with the utmost sincerity: Iraq is like a schizophrenic 16 year-old, suffering from dementia but, nonetheless, about to be issued a drivers license from the DMV.

To be fair, the news could be worse. Imperceptive morons like Trent Lott could be in charge of the post-war policies, in which case Baghdad would become a sandbox for neo-conservatism. Even worse, civil war could very well erupt once we hand power over to provisional authorities -- but let's have faith that Shiites and Sunnis will abandon their millennium long conflict for externally imposed cultural pluralism.

The United States must make a choice that will shape the history of the Middle East. Do we embrace the identity of an occupying power, absorb the backlash and casualties that come with this label and stay the course in Iraq? Or do we work till June, hope for miraculous institutionalization, pray that these institutions can handle internal condemnation and ultimately leave the country?

Now here comes the bit of ironic introspection. I, someone who has opposed the unilateralism of this war, actually believe that the U.S. needs to embrace its identity as an occupying power. It's evident that Iraq is but an infant in its process of reconstruction. In a region full of wolves there is no way Iraq will survive on its own, not without devoted politicians, not without economic vitality and certainly not without a competent police force. If spreading democracy is truly our goal, and President Bush has been riding this horse for weeks now, then leaving prematurely will ultimately undermine our cause.

Dominique de Villepin, the French Foreign Minister, said acidly last week, "The American representatives on the ground continue to use the language of all the world's occupation regimes -- 'Just a little more time.'" Well if asking for more time makes us an occupying power then I'm willing to accept the backlash of this label. America got itself into this war in a frenetic rush to shore up its theoretical lack of security. If our objectives can be accomplished by June, which I doubt, then let's pack up and get the hell out. But let there be a forewarning, if we leave Iraq in haste, then the situation which we were trying to prevent may very well end up a reality.