Less than a month ago, lacking the energy or motivation to go toe-to-toe with the superpower over Iraq yet again, France, Russia and Germany joined the other 13 members of the U.N. Security Council in unanimously endorsing a U.S.-led occupation with no set timetable for the drafting of a constitution, elections or turning security responsibility over to Iraqis. Their votes came with a warning, however. In a joint statement, the three powers warned that the slow “pace of the transfer of responsibilities to the Iraqi people” envisioned by Washington was courting disaster. This week, the Bush administration agreed and the pace quickened.
UPON HEARING NEWS of the latest shift in U.S. policy in Iraq — a shift aimed at accelerating the handover of sovereignty and security responsibility to Iraqis — Dominique de Villepin, the French foreign minister, must have been overcome by a feeling of déjà vu. In the lead-up to the Oct. 15 vote that conferred the U.N. Security Council’s blessing on the Iraq occupation, the United States, backed by Britain and Spain, had insisted that Iraq would not be ready to govern itself so quickly.
Senior Bush administration officials were predicting two years minimum before anything approaching an Iraqi government would be convened and insisted that a constitution had to be in place before any elections could be held.
Now, that’s all out the window. But far from conceding his difficult European allies might have been right on this one, President Bush on Thursday remained upbeat. “That’s a positive development,” Bush told reporters. “That’s what we want. We want the Iraqis to be more involved in the governance of their country.”
It was decidedly not what the United States wanted just a few short weeks ago, as U.S. diplomats wrangled with Security Council member states over the wording of the resolution it hoped would provide the “legitimacy” that many nations said they needed if they were going to send troops and financial aid to secure and rebuild Iraq.
“The French plan which would somehow try to transfer sovereignty to an unelected people just isn’t workable,” U.S. national security adviser Condoleezza Rice told reporters Sept. 23.
Other officials are willing to concede that the Europeans were right in this case. However, they argue that what is important is America’s willingness to adjust when an approach isn’t working.
“We have to take into account the realities on the ground in this, and people should appreciate that we’re not being dogmatic in our approach,” says a U.S. official, requesting anonymity. “It’s not about gloating, about the French or us. It’s about how we get the situation under control and return democracy to Iraq.”
Though the U.S. casualty rate has been deemed “militarily insignificant” by the commanders of the Iraq occupation, the political cost, both on the domestic front and among coalition allies, is causing a major reevaluation of what can be accomplished, especially if the deadline for judging these accomplishments is set, as it seems to be, at November 2004.
Since that October U.N. vote, heralded as a victory by the Bush administration, a series of “firsts” have produced an echo of adjustments and finally, this week, a major retrenchment.
The Oct. 27 car bomb attack on the Red Cross headquarters in Baghdad led to further pullouts of relief workers and U.N. and coalition diplomatic staff.
The rising daily attack rate — now around 35, according to U.S. Central Command — and the worst monthly U.S. combat death toll (October, 34) since “major combat” ended, brought an acceleration of the already accelerated effort to train Iraqis as police and security guards. Already in November, 31 U.S. troops have been killed in action.
The apparent vulnerability of every corner of Baghdad to attack, evidenced by the Oct. 26 missile strike that nearly killed deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz as he visited the coalition headquarters compound last month, has led to a shift in power away from the Coalition Provisional Authority of Paul Bremer and back to the Pentagon, which has been arguing for months that counter-insurgency, not reconstruction, is the right way to look at the situation right now.
The carnage in Nasiriyah on Wednesday, which took the lives of 19 Italian soldiers, prompted Japan to suspend its plans to send a small force to Iraq and whatever hopes Washington may have had of winning significant foreign help evaporated. The prospect of the withdrawal of some smaller contingents, Italy’s included, cannot be ruled out.
NOT ALL BAD
The administration has labored hard to accentuate the positive in Iraq, and for good reason. There is a huge part of that formerly forlorn dictatorship now running its own affairs — not officially, of course, but because of the vacuum created by the relatively small occupation force. The local economy is showing signs of life, and the northern oil pipeline — so often the target of sabotage early in the occupation — is only a week from coming back on line, complete with a security force to protect it. Add the schools, hospitals, newspapers and human rights groups that have sprouted in recent months, and the simple fact that most Iraqis feel free to express their opinions, and the picture is brightened somewhat.
But the violence afflicting coalition forces has been just as numbing to Iraqis working on behalf of a democratic future. Senior officials of the Iraq Governing Council, Iraqi police, journalists and innocent bystanders alike have been targeted by the insurgency — part Saddam Hussein loyalist, part Islamic militant, and, according to the CIA, increasingly joined by grass-roots Iraqi civilians who resent the occupation. Others have become caught up and killed in U.S. counter-insurgency strikes, stoking resentment and alienating the very people that Bush vowed to liberate.
ONE YEAR AND COUNTING
While no single event appears to have prompted the rethink, it is clear that domestic factors are playing an increasing role. Even as an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows Bush’s job rating at a respectable 51 percent, the country appears to be weary, already, of the Iraq war. The same poll indicates the public is split just about down the middle when asked whether the ouster of Saddam had been worth the lives and money expended so far.
Another important development: validation, by the CIA, of low-level military intelligence assessments that warned that average Iraqis increasingly were disillusioned by the occupation. As far back as August, unit-level military intelligence officers told reporters they were seeing signs, particularly in Sunni-dominated areas, that the United States was failing to win “hearts and minds.”
This week, a far more comprehensive CIA assessment amplified those warnings, which were previously swept aside as anecdotal by administration spokesmen. Among the warnings: that Iraq’s border is turning out to be impossible to patrol, that average Iraqis are being alienated by incidents in which bystanders are killed by coalition forces and a fear that Iraq’s Shiite majority may join the Sunnis to oppose the occupation.
Speeding the transfer of sovereignty and security responsibility to Iraqis, of course, is no silver bullet for what ails that country. Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican, argues that these are cop-outs that undermine faith in U.S. resolve among the Iraqi people.
“The United States will fail in Iraq if our adversaries believe they can outlast us,” McCain argued in the Senate last week. “If our troop deployment schedules are more important than our staying power, we embolden our enemies and make it harder for our friends to take risks on our behalf. When the United States announces a schedule for training and deploying Iraqi security officers, then announces the acceleration of that schedule, then accelerates it again, it sends a signal of desperation, not certitude.”
Others point out that “Iraqification,” as the process has become known, might be a prescription for civil war as Iraq’s factions begin to taste power and jockey for dominance, as they have throughout the history of the state.
Still others, the French included, believe that the United States still isn’t moving fast enough to put Iraq back in Iraqi hands. U.S. forces, de Villepin argues, are seen as conquerors, even by those benefiting from Saddam’s fall. Echoing Democrats who opposed the war, he says the Iraq occupation should be turned over to a multinational force like the ones that pacified Bosnia and Kosovo, and that elections should happen before the end of the year.
“I hear people talk about (a government) by summer 2004 — that is much too late,” he added. “How many deaths must we count before we realize we must change approach?”
Given the changes over the past three weeks, another “acceleration” could be just a car bomb away.