TCS Daily

Avoiding Losership

By Sylvain Charat - September 21, 2005 12:00 AM

"Fight this war right or get out." This warning sent by the mother of one of the 16 Ohio-based marines killed in August summarizes the alternatives facing the Bush administration. Popular support for the war is fading. Casualties are high, and public opinion is beginning to wonder for what cause thousands have died. The social cost of the war may be increasingly destabilizing for an administration that has not been effective in communicating a rationale for the conflict.

Expenditures are high. A total of $71.3 billion was earmarked by the Department of Defense for the Global War On Terrorism (GWOT) for the fiscal year 2004, according to the Congressional Budget Office. This amount was shared among the three main current operations: $57 billion to Iraqi Freedom, $10 billion to Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and $4.3 billion to Noble Eagle for anti-terrorism in the United States. But it is only one piece of the cake, since a total of $250 billion has already been spent on military operations, not including figures concerning disability and health payments for veterans. To give an idea of what the cost could amount to, just consider these data on the 1991 Gulf War: the 159,000 veterans receive $2 billion per year for a conflict that lasted 5 weeks, and resulted in 148 dead and 467 wounded. The GWOT's financial costs absorb a quite important part of the US budget, and the American taxpayer might not be willing to pay any longer for a war whose aims are not clearly defined.

Politically, doubts are being raised among conservatives. "If Iraq is in the rearview in the '06 election, the Republicans will do fine. But if it's still in the windshield, there are problems," said Grover Norquist, a conservative activist close to the White House and president of Americans for Tax Reform. He expresses the worries of Republicans and conservatives over the fact that the Iraqi intervention could be labeled a fiasco if it is not settled soon.

In this context, there are two political traps President Bush must avoid in order to restore trust. One of these is the possible failure to keep Iraq united, given the difficulties of drafting a Constitution. The bickering among Kurds, Sunni and Shi'ites over the Constitution shows how elusive unity is. Iraq might not remain one nation but could become another Yugoslavia or Lebanon. Some would say the United States is accountable for this. Yet, it must be underlined that even though dictatorship can hold together different groups in one country through oppression, it is worth the risk of democracy to allow people's self-determination. Compare a map of Europe in 1990 with a current map and you will understand; Europe now is politically more stable. Whatever the result in Iraq, Bush should underline this fact to avoid further misunderstanding.

The other trap lies in the risk of a long war. Bush should be clear and communicate strongly on this issue. If the war in Iraq were conventional, i.e., two armies facing each other or the US forces facing a sort of organized resistance, then withdrawal of troops would clearly end the conflict since there would be someone to negotiate with. But the Iraqi conflict is much different. The three weeks of military operations in March and April 2003 were the only classical war scenario in a much broader conflict. What started as a conventional war has turned out to be an asymmetrical fight conducted by terrorists. The enemy is like a virus and cannot be eliminated by usual means. No state represents them so there is nobody to talk to.

To placate political and opinion leaders who are now asking for a withdrawal of troops would be difficult and would not achieve the aims they desier. Physical and material withdrawals are possible indeed, but withdrawal from the state of war is not. Even if US troops return home, the conflict will continue -- around the globe. That is why it is necessary to restate clearly that the Global War On Terrorism is actually global and concerns all Western democracies which are threatened by terrorists. This could be the bedrock for an alliance of democracies, a stronghold of nations ready to commit themselves to the defense of the ideas of freedom and sharing the costs of protecting it. The Bush administration could start such an international organization, an alternative to the United Nations, and a solid foundation for fighting a long war.

Communication and ideas will be key elements in future political moves. In a state of war, frankness is crucial. Churchill knew this when he bluntly declared to the British people during World War II, "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat." It is all in the Bush administration's hands. It is the price to pay for restoring leadership and avoiding "losership".

Sylvain Charat is director of policy studies in the French think tank Eurolib Network.


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