It's time for welfare reform in Iraq.

It's time for welfare reform in Iraq.

It's time for welfare reform in Iraq.

How you look at things.
June 29 2005 1:39 AM

Stand Aside

It's time for welfare reform in Iraq.

Tonight President Bush explained how he plans to get our troops out of Iraq. "Our strategy can be summed up this way," he said. "As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down."

I've heard politicians say this sort of thing before. But the politicians were liberals, and the downtrodden people they talked about were needy Americans. As these folks learned to support themselves, government would no longer need to support them, the liberals promised. As the poor stood up, we would stand down.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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For 40 years, the central argument of the Republican Party—George W. Bush's party—was that liberals had it backward: If you prop people up, they'll never stand up, and you'll never stand down. You have to let go. As you stand down, they'll stand up.

Which brings us to the occupation of Iraq. In blood and money, it's fast becoming the most expensive welfare program in the history of the world. Like other welfare programs, it was a good idea when it started. Like other welfare programs, it has begun to overtax the treasury and the public. Like other welfare programs, it warps the behavior of its beneficiaries. But in one respect, it's unique. It's the one welfare program conservatives can't criticize or even recognize, because they're the ones running it.

We're "helping Iraqis rebuild their nation's infrastructure and economy," Bush said tonight. "Rebuilding a country after three decades of tyranny is hard, and rebuilding while at war is even harder. ... We're improving roads and schools and health clinics. We're working to improve basic services like sanitation, electricity, and water. And together with our allies, we'll help the new Iraqi government deliver a better life for its citizens."

Deliver a better life for its citizens. Is it any mystery why polls have turned against the occupation? The people being polled are Americans. The people deriving a "better life" are Iraqis. Bush spent half the speech obscuring this gap. He equated Iraqi terrorists with the 9/11 hijackers and kept insisting that we're fighting for "our" freedom and security. But that spin lost its force long ago, when Saddam's weapons of mass destruction failed to materialize, forcing Bush to reframe the war as a democracy-spreading project. It's a noble war, but it's noble because it's altruistic. And people get tired of altruism.

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Rebuilding a country after three decades of tyranny is hard. That's the way liberals talked about the ghetto after decades of slavery and discrimination. Remember when Bush assured us Iraqis were strong, sophisticated, and ready to govern themselves once Saddam was gone? Now he's making excuses for them—and for his nation-building program.

Bush talked a lot tonight about the thousands of ordinary Iraqis who have signed up to serve as police or soldiers. He's right about those people: They're standing up. The people who aren't standing up are Iraq's politicians. "The Iraqis have held free elections and established a Transitional National Assembly," Bush said. "The next step is to write a good constitution that enshrines these freedoms in permanent law. The Assembly plans to expand its constitutional drafting committee to include more Sunni Arabs."

Plans to expand its drafting committee? The deadline for drafting the constitution is Aug. 15. The elections were five months ago. What have the assembly's Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish leaders done for the past five months? Bickered over every petty dispute. How much of the constitution have they drafted? Zip. Why are they bickering instead of buckling down? Because they can. Because they don't have to cut fast deals, meet the deadline, and give every faction a stake in the government to hold off the insurgency. They don't have to do these things, because 140,000 American troops are propping them up.

Setting a deadline for withdrawal of those troops "would send the wrong message to the Iraqis, who need to know that America will not leave before the job is done," Bush said tonight. But 45 seconds later, responding to calls for a troop increase, he cautioned, "Sending more Americans would undermine our strategy of encouraging Iraqis to take the lead in this fight." Which is it, Mr. President? Does our military presence encourage Iraqi self-sufficiency or weaken it?

I understand why Bush doesn't want to talk about withdrawal. He knows terrorists feed on fear and weakness. He knows the surest way to lose this war is to think we've lost it. He sees it not as a story that's been written but as a story we're still writing. That's why he appealed tonight to our virtues: courage, steadfastness, perseverance, resolve. He doesn't believe in objective impossibility. He believes in free will. And he's right.

But ultimately, this isn't our story. It's the Iraqis' story. They have to write it, and they have to start by drafting a constitution in six weeks. If they think Uncle Sam will prop them up till the job is done, the job will never get done. That's what conservatives used to understand about big government, before they started running it.