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Iraq continues to riddle foreign policy

Iraq remains the chief foreign policy challenge for the United States at year's end, the policy that challenges diplomats and generals, and has divided the Atlantic alliance.  NBC News' Andrea Mitchell recalls the highs and lows of U.S. foreign policy during 2004 and the lays out the opportunities and challenges that lay ahead.
/ Source: NBC News

Iraq remains the chief foreign policy test for the United States at year's end, the policy that challenges diplomats and generals, and has divided the Atlantic alliance. 

From the ongoing violence in Iraq, to questions over the justifications for the invasion, to the menace of al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden, 2004 was a year riddled with violence and crisis. Tuesday's attack in Mosul underscored the vulnerability of U.S. forces more than a year after the capture of Saddam Hussein.

Next year looks to be a continuation of many of the same issues, but also offers opportunities for hope in the Middle East and democracy in Afghanistan.

Questions over WMDs
The year began with 500 U.S. troops killed in Iraq, mostly in combat, and 2500 wounded. But the administration was planning to start drawing down troops.

No one in the administration acknowledged the possibility that the American-led coalition was not controlling the insurgency. 

This month, the U.S. toll has risen to nearly 1,000 killed in action since President Bush declared an end to combat on May 1, 2003. And the United States is building up forces to the highest level since the start of the war in March, 2003.

Early this year, CIA weapons hunter David Kay gave the first warning that the rationale for regime change in Iraq was in jeopardy.

Resigning from his post, Kay criticized the intelligence that justified the war, a serious blow to CIA Director George Tenet and the administration's chief salesman to the United Nations, Colin Powell. 

Powell, himself, began to acknowledge that he might not have recommended military action if he'd known there were no weapons of mass destruction, but still said that the war was "the right thing to do." 

But while still playing "loyal soldier," Powell clearly felt misused by the hard-liners at the Pentagon and others who fed him weapons intelligence. 

Powell, in effect, played out his contract for the rest of the year, but never regained the enthusiasm he'd marshaled a year earlier when he was the administration's point man on the war at the U.N.

As the year progressed, so did bombings by Iraqi insurgents, often targeting fellow Iraqis who were helping the United States provide security and attempt to establish order.

It became more and more difficult for Western reporters to travel around the country and report on the good things that were happening — the rebuilding of roads and schools, the opening of hospitals, the restoration of Iraq's oil industry.

Other failures?
During the last year, Americans also began focusing on another failure by their government, the inability of two administrations to prevent the planning by Osama bin Laden that ultimately led to the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

At hearings in March led by the investigating commission chaired by Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton, one official after another testified about missed signals, confused communications, and the lack of inter-agency cooperation. 

Fueling public concern was the insider's account by former counter-terror official Richard Clarke, one of the commission's star witnesses. 

Clarke and other former officials also claimed that administration hard-liners had been so preoccupied with Iraq from the first days of the Bush presidency, that they had neglected recommendations to focus on the growing al-Qaida threat.

After resisting a call for her testimony, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice finally gave in, and showed the poise and self-confidence that by year's end earned her promotion to the job of Secretary of State.

The 9/11 Commission's report at mid-year became an unlikely national bestseller. The 9/11 commissioners went on the road to sell their recommendations that the nation's intelligence agencies be merged under a single National Intelligence Director. 

The report faced stiff resistance from the Pentagon, fighting against any loss of turf. But in an election year, Donald Rumsfeld turned out to be no match for the emotionally-charged arguments of the 9/11 widows.

The intelligence community also took another beating from a unanimous Senate intelligence committee investigation, which also found that the agencies had missed signals and failed to adequately protect the nation against the worst terror threat in its history.

Significantly, the Commission found no evidence that Iraq had had anything to do with the al Qaida attack on the American homeland.

Madrid attacks
While debating who to blame for 9/11, U.S. policymakers were stunned in March by another terror attack, this time in Madrid when 191 were killed when ten bombs went off simultaneously on four commuter trains.

There was also a political explosion: the government's uncertain response to the tragedy led to a collapse at the polls and defeat for Spanish President Jose Maria Aznar.

Al-Qaida claimed the lesson was that it could topple governments with a strategically timed attack. The loss of one of the few European governments that had strongly supported the Iraq war from the beginning was a major diplomatic blow to the administration's coalition.

April proved to be the cruelest month for American forces in Iraq. The violence was sparked by the arrest of a top aide to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and quickly spread to other Shiite cities.

The militants also began abducting foreigners, including employees of Russian, Czech and Italian contractors. Spain's new government announced it was withdrawing its troops. Still, plans advanced for a gradual transition to an Iraqi interim government.    

Threats by al-Qaida continued
But there was no respite from terror. Bin Laden also began to shift his strategy, re-emerging with a taped message to offer a truce to Europe if it withdrew from Muslim countries.

At the same time, his affiliates in Saudi Arabia launched another car bomb in Riyadh, killing 4 and injuring 150. The Saudis claimed they were cracking down on al-Qaida splinter groups, but they were still accused of not doing enough to stop the flow of money to the terror groups.

At the end of May, another al-Qaida attack killed 22 oil workers in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, including one American. American intelligence feared that the Saudi security services were riddled with infiltrators.

In May, violence escalated between Palestinian groups and Israel, as American diplomacy virtually stopped any efforts to break the spiral of violence. 

And America suffered its worst loss of respect and influence in the Arab world after charges revealed widespread abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

Years of painstaking efforts to build confidence in the United States were destroyed with worldwide circulation of the pictures showing humiliating abuse of the male prisoners, sometimes by female guards.

Interim government in Iraq
At the same time, an interim government was taking shape in Iraq. On June 28, a couple of  days in advance of the deadline, the U.S.-led coalition officially transferred power to Iraqis.

Coalition administrator Paul Bremer's work was done, but he could not escape criticism for what many believed was a fatal error at the beginning of his tenure: disbanding the Iraqi military and permitting them to return home with their weapons.

They then became foot soldiers in the insurgency, and left the hopelessly under trained Iraqi security forces without the command and control necessary to create a true fighting force.  The handoff was not without violence. 

On June 24, militants had attacked five cities, killing 100 people, including policemen and three Americans.

Iraq and U.S. election
The continuing violence in Iraq all summer guaranteed that the election would turn into a national security referendum.

But despite the setbacks overseas, Karl Rove and his White House strategists persuaded a majority of Americans that the Iraq engagement was part of the war on terror, and that George Bush should be re-elected because of his handling of 9/11.

Although foreign policy dominated much of the election debate, it became a plus for the incumbent, rather than a negative. 

In the closely fought campaign, John Kerry's sometimes confusing explanations for his votes on the Iraq resolution and spending bills became major issues, despite his twenty years of foreign policy experience in the Senate.      

CIA shake-up
The resignation of CIA Director George Tenet guaranteed that there would be a major shakeup at the intelligence agency, but no one anticipated how dramatic the changes would be when former Congressman Porter Goss took charge.

Goss fired most of the agency's top officials, and brought in congressional aides who made it clear that it was to be a total 'regime change.’ 

Critics said Goss was getting rid of some of the most experienced analysts the agency had. But supporters, including John McCain, said it was a necessary overhaul of an organization that had made fatal errors before 9/11 and in its recommendations about weapons of mass destruction before the war with Iraq.

Presidential mandate
The re-election of the president gave him what he called "political capital."

The year ended with Bush on the cover of Time Magazine as the "Person of the Year," but also on the defensive at his final news conference for 2004 over the continuing strength of the insurgency in Iraq. 

With so much at stake in Iraq's elections, and the U.S. military pinned down for the foreseeable future, he was out of military options to confront two other members of his "axis of evil," Iran and North Korea. 

North Korea had reprocessed plutonium and was believed to have produced as many as six or eight nuclear weapons.

Iran had resisted international efforts to control what the U.S. suspects is an extensive underground, covert nuclear weapons development program. Both countries were far more advanced in their nuclear technology than Saddam Hussein. But the President was prepared to counter them with diplomatic, not military, initiatives.

After the election, Bush changed his team at the State Department. 

Colin Powell made good on his longstanding intention to resign, to be replaced by Dr. Rice. Her move to Foggy Bottom will test her legendary access to the Oval Office. But her relationship with the president is so unique that she is expected to still be his closest, if not most powerful, foreign policy advisor. 

And her replacement at the National Security Council, her former deputy, Stephen Hadley, will not be creating any barriers to her continued influence in the corridors of the West Wing.

U.N. questions
The next few weeks will help determine whether the U.N. Secretary General, Kofi Annan, can restore his reputation after months of criticism.

A report in January from former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker will give the first independent analysis of Annan's responsibility for the spreading oil for food scandal. 

The administration has been holding Annan at arms length since his opposition to the war in Iraq. A negative report will fuel administration efforts to de-legitimize the U.N. leader, despite strong support for him in other world capitals.  

Challenges, as well as opportunities, ahead
There are more than enough challenges in the coming year. Despite the president's praise of his friend "Vladimir" at his final news conference for the year, relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin are brittle, given his crackdown on democratic institutions. Bush will be under pressure to hold Putin to account. 

There could likely be more violence and political instability in Ukraine. The U.S. believes Iran and Syria are meddling with peaceful political change in Iraq. 

Still, there are opportunities: the death of Yasser Arafat creates possibilities to revive peace negotiations after the Palestinian elections in January.

Israel's efforts to form a new coalition government with Labor may soften its approach at the peace talks. And the new secretary of state may want to show that the United States can sustain a greater degree of commitment to the region than it exhibited in the first term.

In Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai's inauguration is a major step toward self-governance, despite the continuing stranglehold on that country by its feudal warlords. 

If the administration can produce a peace agreement in the Middle East and somehow overcome the insurrection in Iraq, it can well argue that the Bush Doctrine has something to show for all the military sacrifices of the last year.