Nicholas Kristof: Listen to the Iraqis

What We Need in Iraq: An Exit Date
Published: February 14, 2006

Here’s the single most depressing tidbit I’ve seen from Iraq lately: a new poll has found that among Sunni Arab Iraqis, 88 percent support violent attacks on U.S. troops.

So at least in the Sunni Triangle, the biggest problem isn’t Syria or terrorists like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, but ordinary Sunnis who want to see our soldiers blown up.

So how should we handle this?

First, we should announce unequivocally that we will not keep American military bases in Iraqi territory.

Second, we should announce a target date for the withdrawal of all U.S. combat forces from Iraq — say, the last day of 2007. Those moves would help to allay Iraqi nationalist suspicions — at least a little bit — that the U.S. is simply after Iraqi oil and bases, and would take a bit of the wind out of the insurgency’s sails.

The new poll, which was conducted for, had some good news for President Bush. More than three-quarters of the Iraqis said that ousting Saddam Hussein was worth the hardships they’d suffered. And 64 percent said Iraq was now headed in the right direction.

But 80 percent of Iraqis said the U.S. sought permanent military bases in Iraq (frankly, they’re right), while 70 percent called for a full U.S. withdrawal within two years.

It’s time to listen more carefully to Iraqis, who know their country better than we ever will. In the poll, 64 percent said violent attacks would decrease after the U.S. pulled out. For Sunni Arab Iraqis, who are disproportionately responsible for the violence, that figure is 86 percent. Other polls show roughly the same: Iraqis are suspicious of our intentions, and they want us out.

The single biggest mistake we have made since World War II has been the failure to appreciate nationalism, whether in China, Southeast Asia or Latin America — or, now, Iraq. Given the origins of the U.S. — an insurgency fueled by the maladroit policies of King George III, who never understood American nationalism — you’d think we would be more sensitive to such sentiments, but throughout history great powers have always had a blind spot for indigenous nationalism.

Craziest of all is our refusal to renounce long-term bases in Iraq. Keeping alive the bases option increases the antagonism toward us, adds to the risk that Iraq will completely fall apart and leads to more maimed Americans. It’s not worth it.

As for withdrawal, I believe that an immediate pullout would be irresponsible and would leave Iraq worse off. But a two-year timetable for withdrawal would give Iraqi security forces time to consolidate power, and would weaken the strongest card the insurgents have: the argument that they’re protecting the motherland from imperialist Yankee crusaders.

A timetable would also put pressure on Iraqi politicians to cooperate and govern, and it would make the U.S. more of a partner and less of a national scapegoat.

It’s true that Iraqis wouldn’t fully believe our announcements, and the insurgents certainly won’t lay down their weapons. But the insurgents can operate only with the tacit support of ordinary Sunni Arabs — and the poll showed that many of those Iraqis would be less hostile to the U.S. if there was a timetable for withdrawal.

As Gen. George Casey Jr., the top commander in Iraq, told Congress in the fall, the U.S. presence “feeds the notion of occupation,” while reducing the troop presence would begin “taking away an element that fuels the insurgency.” And Gen. John Abizaid, who speaks Arabic and has extensive Middle Eastern experience, added, “We must make clear to the people of the region that we have no designs on their territories or resources.”

General Abizaid is right, so it’s time to renounce publicly the pipe dream about bases. There’s a parallel with Saudi Arabia, where we clung to U.S. bases because we thought they gave us a strategic advantage and flexibility. But those bases outraged Saudi nationalists and gave fundamentalists like Osama bin Laden a cause that rallied supporters. Instead of an advantage, we gained an albatross — and now we’re doing the same in Iraq.

The biggest intelligence failure of the neocons in Iraq wasn’t the assumption that Saddam had W.M.D. It was the conviction, as Dick Cheney put it, that “we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators.” Anyone who had actually visited Iraq and talked to Iraqis knew that was nonsense, but the administration never seemed to hear ordinary Iraqi voices or make allowances for Iraqi nationalism.

I’m afraid the administration still doesn’t.

The Discussion: 6 Comments

Richard, I think if we just kill a few thousand of them, especially small children, they’ll love us and want democracy. It’s worked so well in the rest of Iraq.


February 14, 2006 @ 3:02 am | Comment

There seems to be a school of thought that use of force will teach the Iraqis to respect the Americans. I read one army sergeant quoted after he went in hard on some Iraqi youths saying they were “disrespecting” him. Respect for what?

February 14, 2006 @ 4:28 am | Comment

American nationalism is also an issue, not only in the times of king George but now. It is the dreams of empire that help today’s George muster enough support for an invasion and to maintain the occupation. WMD, Saddam… it is all very good but many Americans just wanted to nuke somebody and buy themselves one of the largest known oil reserves.
Many Americans think they are defending the world but many of the rest of the world fear more the rest of the Americans than they fear Bin Laden. Who will defend us of uniletarism?

February 14, 2006 @ 4:32 am | Comment

I think the main reason the sunni arabs in Iraq want to kill us is because we are there. We have rid them of Saddam, true, yet we have also failed in other aspects of getting the society back up and running.

and look at abu ghraib. if that happened to us, I’d know i’d be a tad bit angry at the people who had done it.

so how should we handle it? how bout a sincere apology and an actual deadline for our pull out from the area. Our troops have attained their military objectives, and there really isn’t anything left to do. We effectively created the insurgency when we disbanded the entire iraqi military, yet that insurgency isn’t going to follow us back to the U.S. if we leave.

February 14, 2006 @ 10:08 pm | Comment

In an attempt to be constructive, I will say that Kristof (and because he posted it, richard) is on the right track…

Renouncing permanent claims to any piece of Iraqi territory in a very public matter would be beneficial. The problem inherent in any “timeline” approach is that it sets a date that terrorists must simply wait out.

Perhaps instead we can go for the ‘roadmap’ approach in which withdrawal is coordinated with the Iraqi government meeting a series of goals (energy production, infrastructure repair, size of Iraqi national army, etc)

February 15, 2006 @ 1:12 am | Comment

I read somewhere that the 80% figure applies to all Iraqis – Sunni and Shia. It also said that same 80% does not want the US to leave before Iraqis are trained and in place to run Iraq themselves. There is also a blossoming internal war between Sunni and Shia militias on one side and the jihadi terrorists on the other.

I have to agree with Johnny on timelines and raodmaps, and that we need to articulate our intention of leaving clearly and repeatedly. The arab world has been repeatedly lied to by numerous governments and is probably more than a little suspicious of any promises by Western governments.

February 16, 2006 @ 1:42 pm | Comment

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