WASHINGTON—The Bush administration faces tough choices as it decides how long to keep U.S. troops in Iraq to ensure that it becomes a stable, democratic country.
If American forces remain a long time, creating a broad new order, the U.S. government risks appearing as a colonial overseer, scholars say. Washington also might run up a huge tab.
But if U.S. troops retreat quickly, dreams of democracy for Iraq might give way to a reality of warlords and ethnic fighting. Radical clerics could grab for power.
The balancing act, experts say, will be to establish an interim government good for Iraqis and safe for the United States while not wearing out a tenuous welcome.
"It is essentially a race against time," said Andrew Krepinevich, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who is now at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington research organization.
In an interview Thursday with NBC News, President Bush was asked whether the U.S. military might remain in Iraq two years. "It could. Or less, who knows?" he responded.
Bush emphasized his commitment for troops to remain long enough to establish a viable, pluralistic government: "We believe that democracy can work within Iraq."
While experts say the U.S.-led military campaign to topple Saddam Hussein went well, a chorus is now arising that the Bush administration has performed poorly in the post-war era. After Baghdad fell to U.S. troops, Iraqis witnessed a spasm of looting and plundering that underscored the difficulties of creating a new system. Electricity in Baghdad remained off for two weeks. In a post-war power vacuum, little-known Iraqis attempted to snatch power in several cities, including Baghdad.
"The U.S. clearly got off to a bad start," said Roberta Cohen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a research center in Washington.
Some critics say that a number of administration assumptions—such as that majority Shiite Muslims would immediately support pro-Western rule and that clerics would remain quiet—are not bearing out.
"There was nowhere near enough planning. In fact, there was a stunning lack of planning that went into it," said Nancy Soderberg, a former senior National Security Council official in the Clinton administration.
In an effort to consolidate its control, the Bush administration is expected to introduce a resolution to the U.N. Security Council within days that would lift sanctions and wind down the role of a U.N.-managed oil-for-food program. The sanctions currently limit Iraqi trade, including oil sales.
The Bush administration has remained deliberately vague about its intentions for a long-term troop presence in Iraq. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on Friday put the current number of U.S. troops in Iraq at 135,000. He declined to say how long they might stay.
"It doesn't do any good to guess. We're going to go in there, and we're going to do what we need to do, and we're going to get it done . . . and then we'll leave," Rumsfeld said.
Other Pentagon officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to a variety of media, have suggested in recent days that they hope U.S. troop withdrawals could begin soon and that a turnover of authority to an interim Iraqi team might occur as rapidly as 120 days.
Scholars, though, say historical precedent indicates that U.S. troops generally remain far longer than expected.
"If you look at Bosnia, we have been there eight years, and we thought we would be out of there in a year," said Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan era.
By some counts, the administration is being astute to duck the issue of length of deployment.
"By giving notice of when you are leaving, you're telling anyone who doesn't like your reforms that they just have to wait you out," said James Dobbins, a retired U.S. diplomat who once served as special envoy to places such as Kosovo, Bosnia and Haiti.
But a prolonged U.S. military commitment could strain the Pentagon. Dobbins said that maintaining even 75,000 U.S. infantrymen in Iraq over several years would crimp U.S. abilities.
"It would mean that every infantryman in the Army would spend six months out of every 18 or 24 months in Iraq," he said. "It would virtually preclude any other commitments other than of an emergency nature."
Such a deployment would cost taxpayers about $20 billion a year, a recent bipartisan task force of the Council on Foreign Relations determined.
A prolonged U.S. presence could also impact President Bush's re-election chances.
"It never wins a president extra points to have a lot of troops overseas in an election cycle," said Tamara Wittes, a Middle East expert at the United States Institute of Peace, a nonpartisan congressionally funded group in Washington.
"Sentiments for a quick exit arise from a desire not to be seen as colonial occupiers," added Eric P. Schwartz, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Some Shiite Iraqis already have voiced anti-American feelings in protests.
"The longer we stay, the more we run the risk of alienating the population. We are a foreign culture to them," Krepinevich said.
But Bush administration officials have set huge stakes in the establishment of a peaceful, pluralistic government in Baghdad, saying it will be a democratic "domino" that will help bring representative government throughout the Middle East.
An immediate U.S. challenge is to build civic groups to compete with Muslim religious leaders who might try to hijack the country, another scholar said.
"Many of them clearly want themselves to play a bigger role in politics," said Shibley Telhami, an expert on the Arab world at the University of Maryland.
"How do you create an environment where you have true competitors for the clergy? That is a trick that is, I think, almost insurmountable in the foreseeable future," Telhami said.
Krepinevich said that a vital challenge is pulling the mosaic of Iraqi ethnic and religious groups—Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Christians, Kurds, Assyrians, Turkmen and others—into an interim administration and ensuring that they have a voice in the government.
"If various groups feel they have an economic stake in the regime and the country staying together, it can help ease the transition of American forces out of the country," Krepinevich said.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.