Broken beyond repair

IN 1789, GEORGE Washington issued the first national Thanksgiving proclamation. After giving “sincere and humble thanks” for the many blessings our young country had enjoyed, he urged Americans to “unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations, and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions.”

If Washington were alive to express those sentiments today, he’d be pilloried by Bill O’Reilly as a member of the “Blame America First Club.” National transgressions? Who, us?

But, yes, even the U.S.A. screws up sometimes. The invasion of Iraq, for instance, will go down in history as a national transgression of epic proportions -- and our original screw-up (an unjustified invasion based on cooked intelligence books) was compounded many times over by our failure to plan for the reconstruction of post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.

I visited Iraq in August 2003, back when it was still possible to believe that some good would come out of the U.S. invasion. True, we hadn’t found any weapons of mass destruction -- but Hussein was out, and ordinary Iraqis were eager to embark on a freer and more prosperous future. On the pedestal that had once supported the famous statue of Hussein (toppled in April 2003 by jubilant Iraqis, with a little help from U.S. troops), an Iraqi graffiti artist left the Americans a pointed message, written in blood-red paint: “ALL DONNE GO HOME.”

We should have done just that.

Even then, just five months after the invasion began, it was clear that the window of opportunity was closing for the United States. In most of Baghdad, the electricity was on only a couple of hours a day. Crime was surging, and tempers flared in the 130-degree heat. The Iraqis I met all asked me why the U.S. -- the sole superpower -- couldn’t manage to reestablish basic security, or at least get the lights to work. It was a good question.

On my last day in the country, I got a small taste of the Iraq that was to come.


Bandits forced our car off the road as we drove through Fallouja. With a gun barrel inches from my nose, I obediently handed over my wallet. After relieving us of our cash, the bandits sped away, leaving us shaken but unhurt.

We were lucky to get away so lightly. The day after we got back to the States, a truck bomb destroyed the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad, killing 22 people, including Sergio Vieira de Mello, the U.N. envoy to Iraq. Just a few days earlier, I had sat in De Mello’s office, chatting with one of his staffers, and had imagined that I was safe.

Back at home, I watched as that window of opportunity slammed shut. Kidnappings, executions and car bombs became routine. People died in so many different ways: helicopters were shot out of the sky; mutilated bodies turned up in rivers and alleys; dozens were killed at a time by suicide bombs. The ceaselessly escalating carnage was shocking, then appalling, then numbing.

For a long time, I remained ambivalent about whether the U.S. should pull out of Iraq. However foolish the invasion had been, however negligent the post-invasion planning had been, didn’t we have a responsibility to stay and make things right again?

But at this point, our presence is manifestly making things worse. Ask the Iraqis, who ought to know. In a poll released this week, 78% of Iraqis told researchers that the U.S. military presence is “provoking more conflict than it is preventing”; 71% said they want U.S. troops out within a year; 58% said they think inter-ethnic violence will diminish if the U.S. withdraws; and 61% think that a U.S. withdrawal will improve day-to-day security for average Iraqis. We should listen to them, this time.

And no, adding another 20,000 or 30,000 troops won’t magically turn the tide. It’s too little, too late. Adding another 200,000 to 300,000 troops might make a difference, but troops don’t grow on trees. They grow in families, and this war has already damaged thousands of those.

We can withdraw quickly or slowly, all at once or in stages, but we should withdraw. If it makes anyone feel better, we can call it “strategic redeployment,” and we can and should look for ongoing ways to use our financial resources and our technical expertise to help ordinary Iraqis and any legitimate, nonaggressive Iraqi government.

Before the war, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell told President Bush of the so-called Pottery Barn rule: “You break it, you own it.” But Iraq is not a decorative dinner plate. We broke it, but we can’t fix it, and we can never own it. All we can do now is leave and apologize for the terrible damage we’ve done.

It’s hard to imagine our current president asking anyone’s forgiveness for our “national transgressions,” but this Thanksgiving season would be a pretty good time for him to start.