Iraq has been and will be a U.S. problem

by Doug Bandow

WASHINGTON — The debate in Washington over policy in Iraq remains contentious and even ugly, but one fact is certain: The United States will remain essentially alone. American policy must reflect the fact that no one is going to help Washington resolve the conflict into which it has blundered.

Ironically, the Bush administration and its critics alike have ignored this unpleasant reality. The administration plays up the minuscule contribution of states such as Mongolia, which U.S. President George W. Bush visited on his recent trip to Asia. Democrats claim that they could convince America’s more important friends and allies to share the occupation burden.

However, no nation other than Britain provides a significant combat contingent in Iraq. And many members of the coalition, including London, are edging, and in some cases running, for the exits. It would be no different under a President John Kerry or Howard Dean.

As my Cato Institute colleague Ted Galen Carpenter archly observes, “there always has been a dearth of evidence to support the ‘international rescue’ thesis” advanced by both sides. Countries that opposed America’s invasion of Iraq had little cause to join the occupation, despite the administration’s fantastic belief that victory would generate a global bandwagon. Even most U.S. friends preferred to write letters of support than to send cash or especially deploy soldiers.

The bloody insurgent and terrorist campaigns have deterred all but the hardiest or most dependent allies. Some countries frankly put a price on their participation; others intervened only if their forces were kept away from the fighting and, in the case of Japan, actually protected by soldiers of other nations.

Even so, ever fewer friends are willing to stick around.

Already gone are 10 nations, including Honduras, Netherlands, Philippines, Spain and Thailand. Ukraine will be out soon. Australia, Bulgaria, Japan, and Poland say that they intend to begin withdrawing soon.

Worse, the “big three” — Britain, Italy, and South Korea, which collectively provide 14,800 of the 21,500 coalition troops — are signaling that their commitments have limits.

With an election coming soon, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s government is nervous and has started pulling out. South Korea announced an impending cut of one-third in its contingent the day after Bush visited South Korea to acclaim Seoul’s fortitude.

British Defense Minister John Reid says that British forces will remain “until the job is done,” but that will be defined as when Iraqis are taking over their nation’s security. Which means most anytime London wants to start toward the exit.

Indeed, Prime Minister Tony Blair says that it is “entirely reasonable” to consider beginning to withdraw in a year. Some reports suggest that London will start bringing home its troops in May.

Losing these foreign forces will increase the burden on the U.S. Britain performs substantial security duties; Australia provides support personnel. Italy and Poland help train Iraqi forces.

But few foreign governments can ignore rising popular disquiet at home. Observes Terence Taylor of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, “Public opinion in many of these countries is heavily divided.”

The financial cost is one concern. Indeed, Poland’s new conservative government suggested that it might be willing to stay if the U.S. wrote a big check to help cover the $600 million that Warsaw so far has spent in Iraq.

Most coalition allies also have lost lives. The numbers are small compared to U.S. casualties, but are significant considering the smaller number of troops and lack of national interest involved.

New sources of foreign assistance are minimal. Bosnia recently sent 36 bomb-disposal technicians. But Japan has agreed to keep its nominal soldiers (really humanitarian workers) only so long as the Australians and British offer protection, which is likely to end in mid-2006.

It is even proving harder to get allied assistance in Afghanistan, which always has drawn greater European cooperation. The Netherlands refused to commit to its planned deployment of 1,200 soldiers until the U.S. reassured Amsterdam that all detainees would be treated humanely.

There are many reasons to favor an expeditious U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, but set aside that debate. As my colleague Carpenter observes, “the Iraq mission is an American problem, and it is up to the American people and their elected representatives to craft a solution.”

Unfortunately, neither the administration nor its critics are realistic in hoping for more outside assistance. No nation is lurking around the corner to bail out the U.S. as the U.S. has so often bailed out other nations.