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THOMAS OLIPHANT

Iraq exit plan gaining bipartisan support

WASHINGTON
ON THE SADLY shaky assumption that some degree of stability can soon be restored inside Iraq, there is a route to the future that has a chance of avoiding the worst of all medium-term outcomes -- an almost exclusively American occupation dealing with an increasingly nationalist Iraqi opposition.

 

The route has growing bipartisan support in this country and strong support abroad from a world that is not simply content to watch the United States stew in its own mess in a vital and volatile region.

It also has support within the fractious administration of George Bush, where Secretary of State Colin Powell has a toehold of influence against discredited unilateralists and where political advisers can state categorically that the status quo is seriously eroding Bush's standing with the public.

Among the obstacles ahead is that Bush is being urged to implement what amounts to John Kerry's ideas for Iraq's future and the future of US involvement.

For those who casually follow politics in the silly form of sound bites and most press coverage, Kerry is not supposed to have an alternative to the status quo, is just sitting there trying to take advantage of current chaos, or is the willing puppet of his cousins in France.

In fact, Kerry made a rather comprehensive proposal nearly seven months ago and updated it shortly after Thanksgiving. Its main elements will sound familiar because you can hear them these days in many Republican and Democratic discussions of the mess that US occupation has become.

First at the Brookings Institution here and then about eight weeks later at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, Kerry said Iraq's future should be framed around two new Security Council resolutions at the United Nations.

One would place the UN in Baghdad as the nation-builder -- a task for which it is both skilled and deeply experienced. Under what they call a "high commissioner," the UN would, to borrow Kerry's verb, "absorb" the entirely American Coalition Provisional Authority. Its job would be to manage both the reconstruction of the country and the establishment of a democratic government.

The second resolution would establish a multilateral military force to provide security in the wrecked country and gradually train and equip Iraqi military and police units. Because of the facts on the ground, Kerry said the multilateral force must be under US command. However, he has suggested a rough division of labor, with the non-US forces taking a major responsibility for the gradual training of a new Iraqi military. The potential importance of Arab or largely Muslim soldiers to this effort should be obvious.

Last September and December, with tempers still warm from the disagreements over the Bush decision to conquer Iraq with only Britain as a major contributing ally, it was not clear whether such a US proposal could move forward. It is now. With shared power and responsibility, a genuine international coalition is more than possible, and it would include serious money for the soaring costs as well.

The alternative should frighten Americans -- an indefinite US military occupation with essentially unilateral casualties and financial costs and a gigantic US Embassy (the administration envisions 3,000 people in it) as the provisional authority's successor. Forget the supposedly important June 30 date for formal transfer of sovereignty to what baseball people would call a player to be named later. This would be an indefinite American occupation, and this is when an analogy to Vietnam would begin to become undeniable.

There are three clues that Bush has at least not yet rejected the international route. The first is that there has been some willingness to pause for negotiations before an all-out military assault on insurgent forces in the Sunni Triangle and the Shi'ite South. The second is that the United States has largely deferred to UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi in the task of brokering a new Iraqi entity to accept sovereignty this summer; Brahimi's task, needless to say, has been greatly complicated by the hideous events of the last two weeks.

Most important, Bush has mostly disappeared from a public leadership role in the current mess. It is fair to criticize his posture, but I think it reflects in part the fact that the forces of sanity in his administration are still alive and kicking.

John Kerry has also been relatively quiet. The Bush campaign people still slam him for not having the alternative he clearly has, and even some Democrats would like to see another major speech on the subject and soon. The fact is, however, that the higher Kerry's Iraq profile is right now the more politicized the subject gets, and that is not in the country's, Iraq's, or even Kerry's interests.

The irony is that he laid all this out a long time ago. It's not his fault that the press was too busy nominating Howard Dean, reelecting Bush, and burying Kerry to notice. But the most damaging four words Kerry could utter now are: I told you so.

Thomas Oliphant's e-mail address is oliphant@globe.com.

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