McCain’s warning

One thing that’s puzzled me since the overthrow of the Baathist regime in Iraq is how so many other supporters of the war seem duty-bound to defend the Bush administration’s post-war strategy. Pro-war bloggers in particular appear almost eerily confident that we’re on the right track and that over time, everything will turn out all right. But I can’t help sensing that they are deliberately suppressing their doubts because they think that to do otherwise would lend aid and comfort to the war’s opponents. Perhaps it would. But when will it be OK for us to express misgivings? When it’s too late?

Fortunately Senator John McCain isn’t waiting. McCain, one of the most outspoken backers of the war, recently returned from a visit to Iraq, and he doesn’t feel the need to keep his conclusions to himself.

We do not have time to spare. If we do not meaningfully improve services and security in Iraq over the next few months, it may be too late. We will risk an irreversible loss of Iraqi confidence and reinforce the efforts of extremists who seek our defeat and threaten Iraq’s democratic future.

Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, an able administrator, lacks resources and the political commitment to achieve his goal of Iraq’s transformation. His operation is nearly broke, and he admits Iraq will need “tens of billions” of dollars for reconstruction next year alone. Yet there is an insufficient sense of urgency in Washington, and needs on the ground in Iraq are going unmet.

Security remains a serious problem in Iraq partly because, contrary to administration assurances, our military force levels are obviously inadequate. A visitor quickly learns in conversations with U.S. military personnel that we need to deploy at least another division. We need more foreign troops, particularly from Muslim allies such as Turkey and Pakistan, but security does not necessarily improve with each new country that deploys forces. It is the number and quality of military forces, not the number of countries that send them, that matters.

Iraq’s reconstruction requires not simply more troops but a different mix of troops — linguists, civil affairs officers, military police, engineers — as well as a significant increase in civilian experts in development and democracy-building. The number of civilian advisers in Iraq is astonishingly low. I was struck by the near-unanimity of opinion among American officers in Iraq that civilian expertise — on reconstruction, judicial reform and local governance — is as important as our military presence.

“We do not have time to spare.” Are you listening, Mr. President?