Iraq: How To Repair America's Moral Authority

Rumsfeld's ouster is a necessary first step in restoring U.S. credibility

America's effort in Iraq is verging on failure. The horrible images of torture from the Abu Ghraib prison are undermining the legitimacy of the occupation not only inside Iraq, but in the U.S. as well. President George W. Bush's glowing Wilsonian dream of establishing democracy in Iraq -- and the Middle East -- is giving way to dark despair in Washington and a rising chorus of demands to get out as quickly as possible. No magic bullet can now reverse the Administration's blunders made over the past 12 months. But there are steps that can be taken that might begin to salvage some of the effort to bring a better life to Iraqis and restore some of the moral authority lost by America around the world. If they are to work, the President must focus on the much longer-term mission of bringing stability and democracy to the Middle East.

This is what should be done:


The biggest mistake the Bush Administration has made in Iraq is resisting the transfer of sovereignty to the Iraqis. Neoconservatives in the Pentagon initially talked of a 10-year occupation and completely misread Iraqi nationalism. Calls for early elections by one of the most powerful -- and moderate -- Shiite clerics, the Grand Ayatolla Ali Sistani, were rejected. The latest plan calls for a June 30 transfer of sovereignty to Iraqis chosen by U.N. envoy Lakdar Brahimi, with elections following in January, 2005. But a weak, interim government is unlikely to get the respect of Iraqis, and eight months is too long to wait.

Elections, and the prospect of a truly sovereign government in just four months, could well channel Iraqi energies away from resisting America's occupation toward building their own political system. An Iraqi government elected in September would probably include Islamist and Baathist parties not to the Bush Administration's liking. But if freely elected, the government in Baghdad would be supported by most Iraqis and could provide the stability necessary for the U.S. to cut back its military presence.


Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is associated with such a series of bad management mistakes in Iraq that had he done anything similar as chief executive of a corporation, his board would have fired him. Rumsfeld listened to Iraqi exile Ahmed Chalabi when he promised victory parades and flowers in Baghdad after a U.S. invasion, and not to the State Dept., which warned of chaos. Rumsfeld listened to a few radicals in the Defense Dept. who promised success from a small military strike force and not Army General Eric K. Shinseki, who said up to 300,000 troops would be needed to occupy Iraq. The result? Looting destabilized Iraq, Fallujah rose up in rebellion, and terrible things were done to prisoners by overwhelmed and undertrained reservists.

Polls show that Rumsfeld remains popular in the U.S. Yet he is clearly responsible for designing an occupation policy that is falling apart. Rumsfeld's removal is a necessary first step in reestablishing American credibility in Iraq and the Middle East.


Belatedly, the Bush Administration is turning to the U.N. and European allies for help in Iraq. The Administration strategy of unilateral preemption lies in pieces. In the end, America's attempt to go it alone in Iraq lacked the military resources and international legitimacy to work. A return to the Powell Doctrine of overwhelming force, with explicit goals and a clear exit strategy, would be a step in restoring America's legitimacy worldwide. It requires the use of massive military might that only allies can provide. It reintegrates the U.S. into its alliances and assures allies that their voices will be heard.

The fiercest anti-American backlash in history may well be under way. The policy of unilateral preemption and its inept execution has, in the end, made the U.S. less secure. The barbaric beheading of Nicholas Berg is a grim reminder that America faces a long war against a savage enemy. It must regain the respect of those it needs to win that war. To do that, America needs to change its rules of engagement not only in Iraq but in the world at large. A nation that relies on its global ties for economic growth, on immigration for its dynamism, and on foreign capital for its finances cannot long ignore virulent anti-Americanism before facing dire consequences. Restoring America's respect in Iraq is but the first step in restoring America's leadership and moral authority around the world.

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