Portland Paper Shifts Gears: Calls for Iraq Pullout

By: E&P Staff While many newspaper editorial pages have long been critical of the conduct of the Iraq war, few have actually come out and called for a U.S. withdrawal, slow or speedy, despite public support for such a position. A few papers have taken that step lately, however, the latest the Portland (Maine) Press Herald.

The editorial published today also in the Maine Sunday Telegram, opens with a bang: "It is time to bring our troops home from Iraq." Then it explains: "This stand represents a shift in the newspaper's editorial position. Until now, we have supported the military mission in Iraq, though at times we have been harshly critical of President Bush in his role as commander in chief.

"Now, it is our opinion that major U.S. military operations in Iraq should cease, though not because the decision to invade was inherently flawed."

Excerpts from the rest of the editorial follows.

Ridding the Middle East of Saddam Hussein's rule in Iraq could have helped combat global Islamic terrorism.

Toppling Saddam and replacing him with a democratic government was not beyond our military and diplomatic capabilities.

Even if the Bush administration exaggerated the threat posed by Saddam's weapons programs and hinted disingenuously at a link between Iraq and the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, the mission still made sense. That's because the threat of weapons of mass destruction and a potential Iraq-al-Qaida link were never the best reasons for the invasion. By themselves, the strategic advantages to be had from Saddam's ouster and the creation of a more pro-Western government in Iraq were worthy and obtainable goals.

But in supporting this war, we made a tremendous error. We believed the president and his team possessed the skills and judgment needed to make the mission a success. We were wrong.

The president has so botched the job in Iraq that it has become clear to all but the most stubborn observers that a military victory there is unlikely. Even if one believes the United States has the resources to turn things around, the president's performance has been so poor that he has lost the confidence of the American people. As such, it will be impossible for him to rally the support necessary for a costly and sustained military effort in Iraq.

It should therefore be the official policy of the United States to withdraw its forces from Iraq in an orderly fashion.

Consider these words, appearing in this space on Jan. 23, 2003, just weeks before the invasion: "War with Iraq is not solely about weapons of mass destruction. If it were, then America would be on the brink with North Korea over that country's nuclear program. It isn't solely about oil either. If that were the case, Bush would be readying plans for intervening in Venezuela, where a crisis in confidence in the government threatens a major oil exporter.

"An important component to combating global terrorism is bringing stability to the Middle East. That means an all-out effort to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It means pushing allies like Saudi Arabia to combat terrorism and become more democratic. It means, too, getting rid of Saddam."

And, consider this, from an editorial on Feb. 7, 2003: "Indeed, the Bush administration hasn't explained how such a (democratic Iraqi) government would be established in the first place, let alone who would be part of it.

"What about security immediately following the war? If there are significant stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction as (Colin) Powell suggests there might be, then securing the country is going to be a huge challenge.
"What about Iraq's long-term stability? To be the productive and stable democracy that many in the administration hope Iraq can become will take billions of dollars in investment. It will also take a long-term commitment from the United States or United Nations to keep the peace there."

We did not fall into lockstep on the march to war as many in the media are accused of doing. We did ask critical questions before the invasion.

Still, we were sucked in and blinded, not by White House rhetoric, but by the tremendous upside to removing Saddam from power. We should have paused to think what it meant that the president hadn't made his best case for the war or hadn't thought about the obvious challenges going in.

Those were warning signs that this administration lacked the competence necessary succeed in Iraq....

Besides exhausting public support, Bush's blunders have exhausted the military. Our recent reports from Iraq by columnist Bill Nemitz and photographer Shawn Patrick Ouellette make clear that our military is drained and discouraged in Iraq. That reporting played a central role in our rethinking this issue.

The very real concern expressed on these pages days ago that a withdrawal could lead to Iraq becoming a haven for terrorists remains. If that happens, American lives will be put at greater risk at home.

But staying in Iraq to contend with that risk assumes there remains a chance to succeed. The obstacles to that success -- the largest of which is the president's incompetence -- are simply too daunting.

Instead, it is better to bring our troops home in a phased, but steady withdrawal. This does not mean the war on terror is lost. It means that we must make a strategic retreat and change our approach.

Efforts by congressional Democrats to legislate a target date for withdrawal are understandable given the president's stubbornness. But those dates don't make sense from a military standpoint. It's just a bad idea to give one's enemies that information.

As the issue plays out, a hopeful course is for Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe's desire to set benchmarks for success or failure in Iraq to become a vehicle for compromise.

The United States should have a clear plan for withdrawal that leaves some flexibility for military leaders to craft the best possible strategy. While the timing ought to be flexible, the policy shouldn't be. Our primary goal in Iraq should be to bring our troops home.


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