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The Big Iraq Mistake--Plus, “Tantalizing Signs of a Political Breakthrough”


If you want to finger one mistake the Bush administration made this year in Iraq, it’s one that is almost never mentioned in the conventional wisdom that harps on troop levels. It’s that we went the first part of the year with a passive, and then no, ambassador in Iraq. This Washington Post story from yesterday captures it:

“There was a deliberate hands-offness during Negroponte,” said a former State Department official. “We went from blowing hot to blowing cold. . . . Those were his instructions.”

Michael Rubin, who worked in Iraq for the U.S. government, said Negroponte served as a necessary transition. “In a multi-course dinner,” Rubin said, “he was the sherbet meant to cleanse your palate between courses.”

At the White House, however, there was considerable frustration among aides who felt the ambassador was too passive and seemed to consider himself unaccountable to Washington. Looking back, current and former officials said, Negroponte’s eight-month stint marked a period of drift followed by a diplomatic void when he abruptly departed to become the new U.S. intelligence director and was not replaced for four months.

He oversaw the January elections, which proved a symbolically powerful moment with Iraqis waving purple-stained fingers indicating they had voted. As negotiations to name a prime minister stalemated, though, Negroponte left the ornate Republican Palace on the banks of the Tigris River and the momentum generated by the election faded. “We stepped back, and back, and then back some more,” said a former official. “The thought was good — we have to now re-gear ourselves down. But then we went too far — we turned the engine off.”

A new interim government was not sworn in until May, three months after the election and six weeks after Negroponte’s departure.

“It took the shining moment, where there was so much positive energy, and the negotiations descended into the pettiest infighting,” said Les Campbell, the National Democratic Institute’s Middle East director, who has made 13 trips to Iraq. “The government that rose from that election never once was able to rise to the hopes generated by that election.”

More important was the missed opportunity to capitalize on a Sunni change of heart. In a dramatic shift after the January vote, Sunni groups that had boycotted the election and therefore won only 16 of 275 seats in parliament declared they wanted to help write the constitution. But Shiites and Kurds took until June to add 25 Sunni members and advisers to the constitutional drafting commission — just two months before the deadline.

As talks opened, Shiite and Kurdish leaders wanted to score the greatest possible gains. “They knew they had the Sunni community at a disadvantage and they decided to forge ahead,” Campbell said. “Looking back on it, they may see it as a mistake as it led to a hardening of moderate Sunni attitude.”

Zalmay Khalilzad finally arrived in Baghdad in July after four months with no U.S. ambassador. If Negroponte was the anti-Bremer, Khalilzad was the anti-Negroponte. Outgoing, charming and prone to wheedle and cajole until he gets what he wants, Khalilzad was never one to sit on a back bench, but the Afghan-born envoy had to get up to speed and found a jumbled situation as constitutional negotiators bogged down.

The Post story is also notable for a positive note from relentless administration critic Larry Diamond:

For all that, some of the administration’s toughest critics still see a chance for success. “Despite all the mistakes in our myopic clinging to arbitrary deadlines and our vision of what the political transition and pace should be, and our succession of lost opportunities to broaden the arena, I think we’re finally beginning to get it right,” said Diamond. “There are some tantalizing signs of a political breakthrough.”


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