Thu, 28 Aug 2003

U.S. troops must leave Baghdad

Jeffrey D. Sachs, Professor of Economics, Director of the Earth Institute, Columbia University, Project Syndicate

The poison of terrorism has now ripped into the humanitarian work of the United Nations, with the tragic bombing of its Iraq mission's headquarters. Dozens of innocent people were killed, including one of the world's most accomplished peacemakers, Sergio Vieira de Mello. Predictably, President George W. Bush re- stated his determination to wage war on terrorism. Other leaders declared that the UN should not abandon its mission. Yet the bombing raises political questions that demand answers. Rather than bolstering its military occupation, the U.S. should leave Iraq, allowing the UN to continue its mission.

In the early 20th century, empires could suppress restive populations. No longer. Nationalist and anti-colonialist ideologies, supported by growing literacy and political mobilization, have long since made imperial rule virtually impossible. This is especially true in the Middle East, where anti-colonialism mixes with religious fundamentalism. It was foolhardy for the U.S. to think it could put troops on the ground in Iraq without an extended period of violence and bloodshed.

America's leaders believed that the U.S. would be welcomed as liberators. The U.S. government and many observers believe that if the U.S. can just get basic services established in Baghdad, and perhaps catch Saddam Hussein, then the situation will quiet down. The goal seems to be to install a regime led by friends of the Pentagon, such as Ahmed Chalabi. That regime, in turn, is supposed to invite a longer stay by U.S. troops, and to grant concessions to the U.S. oil industry.

But such a regime will never have legitimacy, and will be subject to assassinations, political upheaval, and terrorist attacks. In the end, it will squander human lives -- such as the brave and dedicated workers of the UN -- not to mention hundreds of billions of dollars. Shockingly, the U.S. is now spending around US$4 billion per month to station its troops in Iraq, while at the same time President Bush fights like crazy to keep America's contribution to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria to no more than $200 million for an entire year.

Many Americans are already saying that whether or not the war in Iraq was a good idea, the U.S. (and the UN) must now stay, to preserve honor and to show that the U.S. will not be scared away by terrorism.

Yet the emotional response of digging in deeper simply compounds the political errors of the war itself. The U.S. is not in a position to pacify Baghdad or to protect the UN or others that work alongside an occupying army, even those working in humanitarian activities. Terrorism in this case is not just a cowardly act; it is also a reflection of the poisoned politics of U.S. military occupation. A political response is therefore needed.

Malaysia, a successful and stable moderate Muslim country, has put the issue just right. Rather than defending the truly heroic work of the UN, Malaysia's government called on the U.S. to leave Iraq. Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar noted that "(t)he security threat in Iraq will remain as long as the deep-rooted resentment ... against the occupation is not dealt with in a fair and just manner. The UN should not be seen as part and parcel of the occupation."

Even at this late date, with American soldiers being killed on a regular basis, and with the massive deaths resulting from the car bombing of the UN headquarters, the U.S. resists greater UN authority, much less replacing U.S. troops with UN-led forces. The Bush administration is sticking to its game plan. It is probably calculating that a few casualties will still be worth the greater prize -- a U.S. military presence in Iraq that looks over the disposition of more than 100 billion barrels of oil while breathing down the neck of Iraq's neighbor, Saudi Arabia.

This will prove to be a false and misguided calculation. As long as U.S. occupying forces remain, Iraq's politics are likely to remain unstable. Cooperation with the U.S. will increasingly become a disqualification for Iraqi political leaders.

In the early 21st century, merely providing electricity and running water will not prove enough to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqis, even if the U.S. figures out how to get these public services working. Iraqis will demand the dignity of government by Iraqis, while criminals and terrorists will prey on such sentiments by whatever means necessary.

The U.S. invasion was a grave mistake. What is needed now is the quick withdrawal of U.S. forces, and their temporary replacement by UN-led troops, which will hand power back to the Iraqi people.