Garrison duty

THE BALTIMORE SUN

DEFENSE SECRETARY Donald H. Rumsfeld says the United States doesn't need a bigger military, and he's right. American armed forces have proved they're capable of fighting lean wars - most recently in Iraq, and even more spectacularly in Afghanistan. Smart weapons, smart satellites and smart soldiers can do the job.

But how to handle victory? Iraq shows just how hard the aftermath of lean wars can be. Clearly, current U.S. policy there is close to bankrupt. But the two most obvious alternatives - declaring victory and going home, or sending another 100,000 troops in to pacify the place - would probably make matters worse.

What's wrong with a pullout: It would look to all the world like a retreat, a veritable invitation to terrorists and Iranian mullahs and North Korean communists to do their worst. With eyes open, the United States leaped into Iraq despite the very evident perils, and now it has a tiger by the tail. Letting go is hardly an option.

What's wrong with an escalation: Putting Army boots on the ground is a pretty crude way to re-establish the normal routines of life. Nineteen-year-old combat soldiers don't make the best nation-builders. Also, lots more soldiers would make it lots harder to pretend that the United States doesn't have colonial designs on Iraq. And the current occupation is costing $1 billion a week as it is; that's a lot of money.

The U.S. military was designed for the offensive. Its essential principle is to take action and win. Now Washington is asking it to garrison Iraq, and the negative consequences are evident, not least in terms of American morale.

What to do? There's clearly no single easy answer. Gen. John P. Abizaid, the straight-talking head of the U.S. Central Command, says he needs better intelligence. The failings of American intelligence throughout the Iraq adventure have been a continuing theme - and serious moves to address those failings should be a priority concern.

The U.S. authorities should be given the manpower and technical resources they need to re-establish reliable electricity and water. Money has been pouring into Bechtel and Halliburton, which won lucrative contracts for the reconstruction of Iraq, but the results are pitiful. This is unacceptable.

With the lights on and the faucets working, it should be that much easier to create a real Iraqi government, which would make all the difference.

Finally, blue helmets can do what American ones cannot. Washington is turning once more to the United Nations; the dickering - with France in particular - is beginning. That's good. It's important to remember that the ultimate goal in Iraq is democratic stability, not American control. An international presence there will blunt anti-American hostility. U.N. soldiers actually would be able to engage in peacekeeping. Some sort of deal should be worked out - and the sooner, the better.

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