Politics & Policy

Mission Report

Two steps forward, one step back.

President Bush needed to do two things in his Monday-night speech. First, he needed to restore confidence in his plan to stabilize Iraq and help its new government gain credibility among its people and in the world. Second, he had to quell the growing panic among Republicans that an out-of-control Iraq could sink Bush in November. Because he didn’t quite perform the first mission, whatever success he had in the second will be fleeting.

There were things Bush said that were dramatic and things that were important. Unfortunately for those of us in his corner, the things that were dramatic weren’t important and the things that were important weren’t dramatic. The president’s pledge to build a new prison and then demolish the Abu Ghraib site was dramatic. But demolishing a prison–symbolic though it is–makes no change to the facts on the ground in Iraq.

Most people probably snoozed through Bush’s explanation of the different strategies that are paying off big time in Iraq. In Fallujah, Marine Gen. Conway is gambling–so far successfully–that by declining to destroy the city and the insurgents there, and instead letting the Iraqis join in establishing security there, we are enhancing the credibility of the new government. If Iraqis are responsible for their own security, the populace will know that their government can function. In Karballah and Najaf, our forces are defeating the al-Sadr militia piecemeal, taking great care to not damage the holiest sites in Shia Iraq. And, most importantly, the Shia clergy there are acting to end the Sadr insurgency themselves. These steps are critical to defeating the insurgency, but they are not enough. Unless and until we deal with Iran’s and Syria’s support for the insurgency, it won’t end.

But those incremental successes provide only temporary success. The president’s “five point” plan to turn Iraq over to free Iraqis is riddled with holes. The first is that the president insisted that the “turnover” of Iraqi sovereignty would be complete. But how can that be when, as he said, 138,000 American troops will remain there as long as necessary, under American command? If they are not subjected to the law and authority of the new Iraq provisional government, how can they be anything other than an occupation force? Though the “Coalition Provisional Authority” will cease to exist on June 30, changing the sign over the door but leaving American troops there under American command (the only way they could possibly stay) continues the occupation.

President Bush is–again–submitting to wishful thinking by making his plan for Iraq subject to the goodwill of the U.N. The proposed Security Council resolution introduced Monday will achieve the same success as the previous handful: none at all, and for the same reasons the others have failed.

First, the new resolution proposes that the Iraqi Development Fund–the follow-in scam to the U.N. Oil-for-Food swindle–be subjected to some level of control by the new Iraqi government, and not left solely to the U.N.

Second, the proposal also says that the “multinational force under unified (i.e., American) command” that remains in Iraq, “…shall have the authority to take all necessary measures to contribute to the maintenance and security in Iraq including by preventing and deterring terrorism….” That language–the most important in the resolution–would allow us to deal with Iran and Syria from our strength in Iraq. Those words are a guarantee that the resolution will not pass in this form, if it passes at all. Relying on the U.N. is, as it has been since the 1991 Gulf War, a sucker bet. If–as is most likely–the U.N. resolution fails to pass in this form, Bush’s plan will not have failed. But the perception will be that it did. And the panic will resume.

Bush would have done better to have delayed this speech–regardless of the polls–for the week or two necessary to know more about what the U.N. and the Iraqis will do. If he had announced passage of some U.N. resolution–even one less ambitious than the one now being considered–or if he had been able to name the leaders of the new Iraqi government, his speech would have had more substance and thus more impact. Giving the speech now may quell the uneasiness for a few days, but not more. Real action is required to be done, not just forecast. And some is in the works.

President Bush said there are two visions conflicting for the future of Iraq. “These two visions–one of tyranny and murder, the other of liberty and life–clashed in Afghanistan. And thanks to brave U.S. and coalition forces and to Afghan patriots, the nightmare of the Taliban is over, and that nation is coming to life again. These two visions have now met in Iraq, and are contending for the future of that country.” That truth is understated. There are two gods fighting for the future of Iraq. The American civil god–freedom–is fighting another, a version of Islam that requires not only adherence to religious dogma but to political dictates of its clergy. By failing to convince Iraqi clergy to surrender some power to a nonreligious government, we have failed to establish the foundation for a stable Iraq.

For months, senior administration officials have been expressing their exasperation with Ambassador L. Paul Bremer. Last week, King Abdullah of Jordan delivered a message that the Defense Department had been trying to get across since last fall: Bremer is a large part of the problems that beset the Iraqis. He has alienated much of the Iraqi clergy, and though he has labored mightily, he hasn’t done the principal thing he was sent to Iraq to do: gain credibility with the local and regional leaders there to bring them together to form the new government. When Bremer inexplicably forbade the Iraqi Governing Council to continue its own investigation of the UN Oil-for-Food scam two weeks ago, he lost what little credibility he had with them.

By defaulting to U.N. representative Lakhdar Brahimi months ago, Bush admitted that Bremer wasn’t up to the task. Now, Bush has announced that a new transnational assembly would soon be formed to pick the Iraqi provisional government, and draft a new constitution for it to function under. Before this happens, Bremer may be removed.

An administration source told me that plans for removing Bremer before the June 30 sovereignty handover are finally in the works. If that happens, the way will be cleared for our newly appointed ambassador, John Negroponte, to play a lesser yet more important role. With Bremer gone, the appointment of the new Iraqi provisional government by Brahimi will actually be more susceptible of American influence. It is vital to maintain that influence to prevent the surrogates of Iran and Syria from pushing Iraq toward the kind of totalitarian theocracy they’d like to see. Perhaps Negroponte, in partnership with Coalition military leaders in Iraq, can do better than Bremer. He must. Bush’s speech was a plea for patience. But in this election year, patience is in short supply.

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