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A Call for International Assistance, Not Isolation

A Call for International Assistance, Not Isolation
By Senator Robert Byrd

Thursday 10 July 2003

On August 22, 1920, an article written by former Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Edward Lawrence appeared in one of the great newspapers of London, the Sunday Times. This legendary British military officer -- better known as Lawrence of Arabia -- began his commentary with a sharp warning about his country's occupation of ancient lands in the Middle East:

"The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honor. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information. The Baghdad communiques are belated, insincere, incomplete. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows. It is a disgrace to our imperial record, and may soon be too inflamed for any ordinary cure. We are today not far from a disaster."

Colonel Lawrence concluded with an equally sharp question: "How long will we permit millions of pounds, thousands of Imperial troops, and tens of thousands of Arabs to be sacrificed on behalf of colonial administration which can benefit nobody but its administrators?"

These were the observations some 83 years ago of a British soldier who had studied the history of the Middle East, fought alongside Arabs in the Great War, and understood the anger of those who lived under the administration of a distant power.

His observations, which might have been considered academic in the months before U.S. and British troops began their advance into Iraq, now appear prescient. As violence in the streets of Baghdad increases, as our troops are being killed and wounded by guerilla attacks, as progress toward creating a new Iraqi government stagnates, the American public is only just now beginning to come to grips with the enormity of the task that we have before us in Iraq. A clear picture had never been painted for them by the "powers that be." Rosy scenarios about instant liberty and flowers to the troops were the order of the day.

But, now reality has emerged and it is harsh. And seeing the enormity of the task before us, and the increasing dangers to the loved ones who serve in uniform, the American people are beginning to ask, how long must our troops remain in those distant, hot sands? How long must they patrol the dangerous streets of Najaf and Fallujah? When will our troops be coming home?

Weeks ago, the President gave vague assurances about the timely withdrawal of our troops. He said, "We will stay as long as necessary to get the job done, and then we will leave." [Remarks at Santa Clara, CA, 5/2/03] Such words are without substance. They are "doublespeak." They do nothing but feed the hopes of the American people that our troops will soon return from Iraq while avoiding any real indication of when that might happen. The fact is that the Administration has carefully avoided telling the American people when it expects our occupation of Iraq to conclude. So far, this Administration has yet to even estimate how soon it will be able to hand Iraq over to the Iraqi people. In short, it appears that we have no exit strategy. The word "quagmire" is starting to be used by the media. Clearly, many people are very worried about our situation in Iraq. The death toll keeps mounting.

Last week, the President actually taunted those forces who are murdering our troops in the streets of Iraq. He dared the violent militants by saying "Bring 'em on." One can hardly think of a more inappropriate comment for a President to make when Americans are under siege in Iraq and being asked to deal with the treacheries of urban guerrilla warfare with no end in sight. Chest thumping should have no place in such a situation. This was the President who went to the trouble to put on a flight suit, land on an aircraft carrier, and, with great fanfare, tell the American public that "major combat operations in Iraq have ended." But, British and American soldiers are still dying in Iraq. Now, the President is saying, "Bring 'em on." What are we to believe?

The President has backed away from earlier suggestions of a foreseeable end to U.S. peacekeeping efforts in Iraq. He warns of the return of tyranny if our troops begin returning home. Judging by the President's statements, our armed forces have become the thumb in the dike - - the only obstacle that prevents the return of a repressive dictatorship in Iraq.

How did it come to this? Members of Congress were told that our forces would be greeted as liberators. Iraqi citizens were supposed to eagerly embrace democracy and serve up Saddam Hussein on a silver platter the moment that they sipped from the cup of freedom. We should have known that the burden of democratizing Iraq would be no easy task. The Administration should have been more forthcoming about the difficulty of that task, about the time it would take to execute it, and about the cost to the taxpayer. To be sure, the Defense Department is now scrambling to scrape up as many as 20,000 foreign troops to join our forces in occupying Iraq by the end of September. I applaud these efforts. But it would be folly to believe that a deployment of 10,000, 20,000, or even 30,000 foreign troops would significantly reduce the dangers to the nearly hundreds of thousands of Americans who are now in Iraq.

The failure of this Administration to adequately plan for post-war Iraq has become painfully evident. At yesterday's Armed Services Committee hearing, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said that he did not know if the United States had made any formal request for assistance from NATO or the United Nations since the beginning of the war in Iraq. The deployment of experienced peacekeepers from our friends and allies would go a long way to relieving the strain on our troops. It is simply shocking that our Secretary of Defense would be unaware of any efforts by the Administration to make a formal request to NATO and the U.N. to provide these troops.

The tragic failure of the Administration's efforts to build international support before launching its impatient rush towards war against Iraq is now bearing its bitter, bitter fruit. The difficulty in finding just 20,000 peacekeepers to patrol Iraq is evidence that White House efforts to assemble 49 nations into a "coalition of the willing" was merely an exercise in rhetoric, meant to cover the lack of significant military or financial contributions from dozens of nations, save for those of Britain, Australia, and Poland.

Has the lack of a plan for post-war Iraq needlessly cost American lives? If we had not been so convinced that Iraqis would greet our armies with flowers and smiles, could we have better anticipated the chaos and lawlessness that broke out in the days after the war?

If we had not been so cocksure about our ability to neatly decapitate the leadership of the Iraqi regime, could we have fashioned a better plan to deal with the collapse of civil order as our tanks rolled into Baghdad.

Perhaps this White House should have listened to the advice of many senior military leaders who foresaw the need for several hundred thousands troops to stabilize post-war Iraq. Perhaps it should have contemplated the consequences of a Saddam Hussein driven into hiding, but still potent and dangerous. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.

The Administration appears quite ready now to dedicate our military to a long-term occupation of Iraq. War-weary soldiers will continue to patrol the areas around Baghdad. The citizen-soldiers of the National Guard and the Reserves will be kept from returning to their homes, their jobs, and their families. Thousands of American families will continue to worry about the fate of their loved ones.

And in spite of the heavy commitment that this Administration has made to the most ambitious policy of nation-building in more than half a century, it appears to be on the verge of sending unknown numbers of U.S. troops to yet another peacekeeping mission in Liberia.

In my home state, there is a growing sense of disenchantment with these foreign adventures. Every day, more letters come to my office from West Virginians asking when their family members will be coming home. They contain details about National Guard and Army Reserve units with unclear missions and open-ended deployments. I have received word that some units are without mail service, others must wait weeks between phone calls home to their families. One unit had to ration water to just 20 ounces per day because of supply shortages. I suspect that other Senators are experiencing a similar phenomenon in the content of their mail from families of the Guard and Reserve.

These part-time soldiers are proud to serve in our nation's military, but they know that they are also full-time members of their communities. Our nation's reservists have important duties in their civilian lives, serving their cities and towns as police officers, businessmen, doctors, teachers, and laborers. Members of the Guard and Reserves proudly joined to serve their country in times of crisis, not to be a permanent constabulary force in the Middle East.

Our brave and professional fighting men and women are awesome on the battlefield, but they must not be expected to carry out the role of peacekeepers or nation-builders in an open-ended mission, whether it take place in Lebanon, Somalia, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Liberia, or Iraq. Our American soldiers are not Iraqi bureaucrats. Our Armed Forces are trained to win wars, not run countries. Putting our men and women in such an untenable situation is a misuse of our military and a disservice to our military personnel.

This Administration should think hard about whether we have the manpower to sustain a large commitment of troops in Iraq for the long term. We currently have overseas commitments in South Korea, Japan, the Balkans, and Afghanistan. Keeping tens or hundred of thousands of troops in Iraq for as many as ten years may demand more troops than our voluntary armed forces can muster.

This Administration should think hard about whether we have the money to single-handedly pay for the occupation and reconstruction of Iraq. The Department of Defense has reported that we are spending $3.9 billion each month to occupy Iraq, in addition to the $950 million we are spending each month for our mission in Afghanistan. At a time when the United States is running record-breaking deficits of $400 billion each year, the Administration has not even included these $58 billion in occupation costs in its budget. In sharp contrast to the 1991 Persian Gulf war, where our allies contributed $54 billion of the $61 billion cost of that war, the American taxpayer is virtually alone in bearing the burden for the staggering cost of this most recent war with Iraq.

Americans have good cause to be proud of the men and women who unselfishly serve our country in uniform. They have carried out their duty in Iraq admirably. But what is the next step? The last thing we want to do is repay the services our troops have given to our country by committing them indefinitely to a fuzzy reconstruction mission of uncertain duration.

Iraq is fast becoming an urban guerilla shooting gallery with U.S. troops as the targets. It is time to go to the United Nations and work to deploy a trained multinational peacekeeping force to cope with the perils of the occupation of Iraq. Before there is a disaster to cope with. Before there is a major loss of life. Before there is a crisis, we must read the tea leaves.

This White House cannot further presume on the patience of the public. The American people must be given an exit strategy for our troops. We must ask the International Community for help in Iraq.


# # # ENDS # # #

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