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Sunday, September 26, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

William Pfaff / Syndicated columnist
'De Gaulle option' may be our best Iraq exit strategy

U.S. soldiers aim their guns as Iraqi civilians flee for safety during a day of heavy gun battles in the holy city of Najaf in southern Iraq in mid-August.
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If John Kerry wins the U.S. presidency in November, he will find himself in the same plight as Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon when they took office. Each inherited another man's war. Each prosecuted that war — Johnson reluctantly, Nixon because he thought he could do better. Both failed and were destroyed by the war.

This does not have to happen to Kerry. There is an alternative. However, it is an alternative that he seems determined to exclude. Johnson anticipated and dreaded his failure. He told his press secretary, Bill Moyers, "I feel like a hitchhiker caught in a hailstorm on a Texas highway. I can't run. I can't hide. And I can't make it stop." The murdered Kennedy's foreign-policy advisers told him that if he didn't press on with the war, "Asian Communism" would conquer one non-Western state after another — dominos tumbling. So did practically everyone else in the Washington policy community. It was one of those things "everybody knew."

Johnson was a populist economic and racial justice reformer. He knew nothing of Southeast Asia. He knew that if he prosecuted the war he "would lose everything at home." If he did not, he "would be seen as a coward and my nation would be seen as an appeaser, and we would both find it impossible to accomplish anything for anybody anywhere."

Kerry expresses no such doubts. He apparently accepts what "everyone knows" in Washington today: that "failure in Iraq is not an option."

This is true, but not in the way they think. Failure is no longer an option; it is a certainty. The questions that remain are failure's timing, and the gravity of its consequences. The principal purpose of the invasion of Iraq was to make it into Washington's new strategic anchor in the Middle East, with permanent U.S. military bases there, and an assured American role in its economy and oil industry.

The countries that previously played this strategic role for Washington were the shah's government in Iran during the 1960s and 1970s, and Saudi Arabia following the Gulf War. They are inauspicious precedents.

The shah's government was overturned by the same nationalist and religious forces that motivate the Iraqi insurrection today. The identical forces, at work within elite groups in Saudi Arabia, were responsible for Osama bin Laden's creation of his al-Qaida movement.

John Kerry supported the invasion of Iraq. He says that he still supports it. His reproach to George W. Bush is that he, Kerry, could have done it better. He would have won the support of all the allies and of the international community.

If elected, he promises to "put a deal together" with those allies that would allow "a significant, enormous reduction" of U.S. troops in Iraq by the end of his first term — that is, by four years from now.

Subsequently realizing that this is not quite what the electorate wants to hear, he said he could withdraw troops within a year. This was a correction that undermined the plausibility of both promises, contributing to his current difficulty in clarifying where he actually does stand on the matter.

He nonetheless seems confident that if he is president, other countries will send troops to fight the insurgency, replacing Americans. He does not explain why they should wish to do so. Just last month, Polish and Ukrainian authorities noted that their troops, engaged by militants of Muqtada al-Sadr 's Mahdi Army, had been sent to Iraq as peacekeepers, not to fight — and that their existing commitments will soon be up.

When Richard Nixon campaigned for the presidency in 1968, during the Vietnam War, he said, like Kerry, that he knew how to win. His plan was to emulate Dwight Eisenhower, whose vice president Nixon had been during the war in Korea. He would threaten nuclear war.

When Eisenhower took office in January 1953, he caused a message to be conveyed to Beijing and Pyongyang, warning that he would "carry on the war in new ways never yet tried in Korea." In July, an armistice was agreed, effectively partitioning Korea along the 38th parallel (as it remains today).

When Nixon became president in 1969, the notion of atomic attack on North Vietnam had already been bruited in limited Washington circles, but judged an unprofitable option. He nonetheless transmitted a threat of "massive retaliation" to Hanoi — to no effect.

He subsequently ordered conventional bombing attacks that eventually became the heaviest campaign of conventional aerial bombing in the history of warfare (worse than all of World War II). The Vietnamese Communists were unmoved.

The Vietnam War ended with an ignominious American withdrawal, following an agreement with Hanoi signed in 1973, accompanied by unenforceable American threats in case of its violation. Two and a half years after that, Saigon fell to Communist forces, with American officials scrambling onto helicopters from the embassy rooftop.

Nixon, however, possessed an option in 1969 that he lacked the courage to choose. He had always said he admired Charles de Gaulle. When de Gaulle returned to power in France in 1958, at a moment of extreme crisis in France's war to defeat Algerian insurgents and to keep Algeria French, he recognized that the war was futile, even if the insurrection itself might temporarily be defeated.

He cut France's losses. Defying military mutiny, despite significant resistance from French public opinion, and facing assassination attempts and a terrorist campaign directed against him and his government, de Gaulle negotiated Algerian independence. It was an act of cold-blooded courage and realism.

It did not leave France revealed as "a pitiful, helpless giant" (as Nixon said would be the case if the United States left Vietnam). It strengthened France, freeing it to deal with real issues of political and economic reform.

If Kerry is elected president, he will have the de Gaulle option. He will have a window lasting a few months during which he could reverse U.S. policy and expect, provisionally, to carry public opinion with him.

He could set a general timetable for coalition troop withdrawals, begin them, terminate the construction now going on of permanent American bases in Iraq and affirm America's intention to respect Iraq's sovereign authority over its national security, its economy, its industry and the disposition of its energy resources.

Rather than try to control political development in Iraq he could support, disinterestedly, the efforts by Iraq's traditional religious and tribal leadership, together with the country's old and new secular political forces, to re-establish the representative political institutions that existed in Iraq between independence in 1932 and the military and Ba'ath Party coups that began in 1958.

The conventional wisdom in Washington is that political disorder and communal struggle would follow, leading to chaos, Iraq becoming "a breeding ground for terrorism."

Once again, this is irrelevant opinion. Iraq already is a breeding ground for terrorism, and is nearing chaos under the occupation. According to the available polls, 98 percent of the Iraqis want the Americans to leave. It is obvious that continued military occupation is worsening the situation, provoking resistance and disorder.

Simply consider the numbers. Compare the ratio of troops (coalition plus Iraqi: fewer than 200,000) engaged today in an Iraq of 29 million people, with the total 500,000 American and 450,000 Vietnamese troops that were unable to pacify a Vietnam of 19.6 million people.

In any case, the ultimate responsibility for what happens in Iraq lies with the Iraqis themselves, if they are let alone. This is what Iraqis insisted all along.

The intervention in Iraq is the latest in a 50-year series of American politico-military interventions into the internal affairs of non-Western countries, none of which have been successes. Most were failures.

The consequence of failure in Vietnam unseated the Johnson and Nixon administrations. Revolution in Iran and retreat from Lebanon in 1983 damaged the Carter and Reagan administrations. This year Iraq may defeat George W. Bush.

Why should Kerry, an intelligent man, wish to be next?

Paris-based historian and columnist William Pfaff is a regular contributor to the International Herald Tribune and a former New Yorker magazine writer. He is the author of "Fear, Anger and Failure: a Chronicle of the Bush Administration's War against Terror" (New York, 2004).

Copyright 2004, Tribune Media Services International

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