Peter Galbraith: Bush should accept that Iraq has fallen apart

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The Independent Online

The Democrats won the Congress because American voters came to the conclusion that President Bush has no strategy for dealing with Iraq and other challenges to US security. The voters are right. This has been the most ideological - and least strategic - United States administration at least since the US became a world power at the turn of the previous century. Mr Bush's decision to sack Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is a sop to voter sentiment. The question is whether Bob Gates's appointment as replacement signals a willingness to think pragmatically about the challenges the US faces.

After 9/11, Mr Bush correctly identified the danger from so-called rogue states in possession of weapons of mass destruction. His actions, however, made America less safe. He invaded Iraq to eliminate non-existent WMD and botched the occupation so badly that half the US military is committed to an endless military presence there. As a consequence, the Bush administration has few resources and no apparent political will to tackle the threat posed by a nuclear-armed North Korea and a nuclear-ambitious Iran. The President loudly proclaimed that the US would never tolerate a nuclear-armed North Korea and Iran, and then, when the North Koreans detonated a nuclear weapon, did exactly nothing. The lesson was not lost on the Iranians who openly mock a US president whom they see, in the phraseology of his native Texas, as being "all hat and no cattle".

Never has an American president been held in such low esteem by both allies and adversaries as George Bush is, and this has practical consequences. Although the danger posed by Iran's nuclear programme clearly exceeds the danger thought to come from Iraq before the war, the administration has been unable to secure meaningful action from the UN Security Council. Feeling burned on Iraq, council members do not trust the administration not to use a resolution as a pretext for unilateral military action.

The Bush administration went into Iraq without having made a serious appraisal of the prospects for success (defined by the President as a unified and democratic Iraq) in a deeply divided country, or considering the consequences of failure.

Today, Iraq has effectively broken up. Putting it back together would require an expanded effort that the administration itself is not prepared to contemplate. (It would require US troops to serve as peacekeepers in Iraq's civil war and to disarm the Shia militias that enforce a strict Islamic rule in much of the country). If it faces up to the reality that democracy and national unity are not achievable goals, the administration could withdraw rapidly from large parts of Iraq including the Shia south and the Shia parts of Baghdad.

A more strategically minded Bush administration might then turn its attention to Iran, and North Korea. The North Koreans say they are prepared to give up their nuclear programme in exchange for a peace treaty and security guarantees, while the Iranians might be persuaded to suspend their uranium-enrichment activities in exchange for normal trade ties and a US willingness to forgo regime change as a policy objective. We would not be giving up much to forgo an attack on North Korea that we do not plan to make or regime change in Iran that is unlikely.

A substantial withdrawal from Iraq increases US negotiating leverage with both Iran and North Korea as it makes a military option more plausible. But, more immediately, it would enable the US to focus its military resources on al-Qai'da both in Afghanistan where its Taliban allies are resurgent and in the Sunni parts of Iraq where US strategy has failed to check the insurgency. Last week, the American people told their leaders they want a national security strategy that gives priority to the gravest threats, and that is realistic. The coming months will tell if the message has got through.

Peter Galbraith, a former US ambassador, is author of 'The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End'