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Graham E. Fuller is a former vice chair of the National Intelligence Council at the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. His newest book is "The Future of Political Islam" (Palgrave/MacMillan, 2003).

By Graham E. Fuller

WASHINGTON -- It has become abundantly clear that the United States is no longer the solution in Iraq but is itself the problem. America, by virtue of its accumulated mistakes there and alienation of a majority of the Iraqi population, is increasingly the center of all controversy. It is not that Washington has nothing to offer Iraq, or lacks the power to do much there, but that its political baggage is now so overwhelming that even the wisest of policies can barely gain acceptance.

At this stage, the overwhelming goal for the United States should be the urgent establishment of a fully, repeat fully, sovereign Iraqi authority that can take over responsibility for the country with no U.S. strings attached.

There are no longer any good options left in Iraq, only bad ones. The good ones ran out many months ago, and almost anything the United States now tries to do is replete with downsides. Leave early, and thereby leave the place in chaos with no durable institutions? Or stay on to try build new institutions -- and become the target of mounting attacks and increasing radicalization of the population and the Middle East as a whole? In the end those very pitfalls of an early departure will all only grow worse if the departure is delayed.

Let's face it. The United States will now be lucky to get out of Iraq without hundreds of more soldiers being killed, and all outside supporters -- Italians, Japanese, Danes, U.N., Red Cross, whatever -- being targeted by radicals precisely because they became part of a conspicuously American project in Iraq.

Washington's other early goals are now fantasy: Iraq as a friendly new pro-American ally, a base for the projection of American power across the Middle East, an Iraq that immediately establishes full diplomatic relations with Israel and opens a new oil pipeline to Tel Aviv, an Iraq that serves as the swing producer in the Gulf so as to help keep the prices low (as the Saudis traditionally did). We will be lucky to get out intact and not leave a civil war behind, or a state of chaos that offers new refuge to terrorists and other radicals. Dangerously, an American pullout will be viewed as a U.S. defeat, and it may embolden other radicals. But will a prolonged and deteriorating U.S. occupation diminish the sense of ultimate radical victory?

The reality is that Iraq's first democratically elected leader, whoever he will be, will need to define his own independent power. Iraq's new fledgling sovereignty will only be demonstrated through decisions and policies that are perceived as acts of complete independence from the United States and its earlier agenda. Look at the scene on the ground today. Iraq is descending into a classic phase of a struggle for national liberation from an occupier, however benign the United States may believe it is. That struggle is growing more intense and divisive by the day and has become a magnet for more radical forces within the country -- such as the fiery Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Because national liberation from U.S. occupation is the most emotive cause in the country on which nearly all can agree, al-Sadr has now taken the national lead in defining and leading that force, attracting many Sunnis over to his side. He may not prevail in the rivalry for leadership, but his bid is symptomatic of what Iraqi politics is now all about. That kind of burgeoning nationalistic force is not something that Washington can any longer resist.

Regrettably, it is hard to be sanguine about the ability of Iraq's multiple ethnic and religious groupings to sort out future leadership issues peacefully after a U.S. departure. But in the absence of a massive struggle over the U.S. presence itself, maybe new leaders will be more open to seeking outside assistance -- this time done in full exercise of their own sovereignty.

But make no mistake -- it will take total American disengagement from the country. That is a far cry from current administration plans -- in which a nominal turnover of sovereignty to Iraq on June 30 actually cloaks plans for continuing U.S. control of the military, key elements of the economy and even oil policy. This proposal for behind-the-scenes control solves nothing. Such an American coterie of commanders and advisors will be targeted almost from day one by any aspiring new nationalist leader who needs to prove his independence of action and demonstrate in full Iraq's new sovereignty. He won't necessarily hate the United States, but he will just thank us and tell us, firmly and unequivocally, to leave now, totally.

This unpalatable option nonetheless contains a few positive elements. One, it will mean the total disengagement of the United States from what is now a growing fiasco. It will leave the next ruler of Iraq free to ask any and all to come in and help at the request of Iraq's sovereign decision. A United Nations or Red Cross that is now targeted by radicals for facilitating an American project will no longer have to operate under that onus and will instead be entirely serving an Iraqi project. If the new sovereign government needs to clear out a lot of foreign mujahedeen or native radical militias holed up in some city, it will do so in the name of a sovereign Iraq and not in the name of helping a U.S. project. It is even conceivable that some Americans in a new capacity could be invited back in to help the broad reconstruction. But some time will need to pass before any U.S. presence will have lost the stigma that has attached itself over the last year.

This is not the outcome that the administration had hoped for, but in the end it may be the best of a lot of bad choices. Americans will no longer die in Iraq, we will be off the screens of Al-Jazeera, no longer the center of international controversy or the unspoken elephant in the room. As we prepare a full pull out, we can help line up potential external support that a new sovereign leader can think about drawing upon as he wishes. For America to "stay the course" may sound good in a speech, but it will be disastrous for both the United States and Iraq.  

(c) 2004, Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Tribune Media Services International.
For immediate release (Distributed 5/24/04)