Now that Iraqis ours, how do we give it back?

I hate to be an "I told you so" on Iraq, but I told you so. Long before American troops invaded Iraq, I questioned what victory would look like and what would happen after we "won" the war. Well, we won two years ago. Remember the "Mission Accomplished" banner? Now what?

Although I'm not calling for an immediate U.S. pullout from Iraq, or even for a withdrawal deadline, I think we've reached a crucial point in this costly (in American lives and taxpayer dollars) military adventure. That's why President Bush should level with us and outline his plans for extricating ourselves from what looks more and more like a terribly violent and very expensive international quagmire. He should answer a basic question about Iraq: Do the benefits to our national security outweigh the very considerable and painful costs? At this point, I don't think so.

And I'm not alone. Last week, several Republicans and two influential political columnists - Jim Hoagland of the Washington Post and Joe Klein of Time magazine - called on Bush to tell us what's really going on in Iraq and Afghanistan. "American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan deserved the nation's thanks and respect on Memorial Day," Hoagland wrote. "(The troops) deserve a clearer, more realistic explanation from President Bush of their strategic mission ..." in the face of increasing public opposition to the war in Iraq. He noted that the latest Washington PostÐABC News poll found that 58 percent of respondents disapprove of the way Bush is handling the situation in Iraq while 52 percent of them say the war in Iraq hasn't made us any safer. I'm with the majority on this one.

For his part, Klein wrote that Bush's most recent press conference (with British Prime Minister Tony Blair) "was notable for the president's continuing, annoying - indeed, outrageous - refusal to talk straight about Iraq. His platitudes haven't changed a bit. Yes, the Jan. 30 election was inspiring, but the good vibrations have long since evaporated" as hundreds of Iraqis and Americans have died in terrorist attacks since then, bringing the U.S. death toll in Iraq to more than 1,700.

"In sum, Iraq has to be re-thought," Klein continued, "as do the current deployment levels and recruitment strategy of the U.S. military .... Bush's legacy is embedded in the Mesopotamian desert, and so is the nation's long-term security." That says it all.

While strongly supporting the War on Terror since the horrific 9/11 terrorist attacks against New York and Washington, D.C., I have regularly questioned the direct relevance of the Iraqi adventure to our campaign against international terrorism. In fact, I could make a case that the other two members of Bush's "Axis of Evil" - Iran and North Korea - represent greater threats to the national security of the United States because of the nuclear weapons they seek and/or possess.

Recent revelations showing that the Bush administration short-changed postwar planning don't surprise me at all. Even before the president declared an end to major combat operations, I wrote that the State Department should take charge of postwar operations. But while Bush appointed an experienced diplomat, L. Paul Bremer, to head the interim Iraqi governing authority, Bremer reported to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld rather than to ex-Secretary of State Colin Powell, who was uncomfortable with that awkward situation. Prize-winning journalist Bob Woodward discussed Powell's unease in his fascinating book "Plan Of Attack," which disclosed how the Bush administration planned the invasion of Iraq.

In his book, Woodward cited Powell's oft-quoted belief that the U.S. would "own" Iraq if we defeated Saddam's Hussein's army on the battlefield. As predicted, the U.S. won the conventional part of the war and now that we "own" Iraq, we're frantically trying to figure out how to give that strife-torn country back to the Iraqis so that they can deal with a deadly insurgency fueled by internal political rivalries and extremist Muslim hatred of American "crusaders" and "infidels."

Part of the problem was that Rumsfeld and the Pentagon remained in charge of Iraqi democratization and reconstruction for far too long. Although State Department Mideast specialists drafted detailed postwar plans well before the 2003 invasion, Rumsfeld and his hard-line allies including Vice President Dick Cheney ignored State's civilian and diplomatic expertise. We've paid a high price for their short-sightedness; however, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is finally moving the policy pendulum away from DoD and toward the civilian side of the house. And I'm pleased to see that Dr. Rice has supplanted "Rummy" as the administration's chief spokesperson on Iraq policy.

So what should we do about Iraq? In my opinion, President Bush and Secretary Rice should immediately initiate an aggressive diplomatic campaign to cut a deal between the Sunnis and the Shiites in order to avert a civil war and to give the newly elected Iraqi government a chance to succeed before it's too late. Such a deal would save thousands of American lives and billions of taxpayer dollars. Now is the time to begin.

WACKO JACKO: Michael Jackson's umbrella man retained his job last Monday when a Santa Maria, Calif., jury acquitted the "King of Pop" on child molestation charges. But the verdict doesn't mean that Jacko isn't a child molester, only that the DA failed to prove the specific charges beyond a reasonable doubt. Perhaps the 46-year-old pop star will now stop "sleeping" with little boys, but don't bet on it. As we know, pedophiles can be remarkably persistent in their pursuit of young children.

n Guy Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.


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