News analysis: Iraq's reality outpaces ideology

Posted in Iraq | 03-Sep-03 | Author: Christopher Marquis| Source: The New York Times

In U.S., both hawks and doves are changing view on policy

Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who had pressed for five years to topple Saddam Hussein, admitted last week to mistakes in planning the war in Iraq. He said, for the first time, that the administration was considering placing U.S. and British forces there under a UN flag, provided their leader would be American. Armitage declined to give details. "I don't think it helps to throw them out publicly right now," he said.

Too late. The deputy secretary's comments became part of a nascent chorus - tentative but unmistakable - of officials, lawmakers and others who have been re-examining their preconceptions about Iraq and calling for a midcourse correction. Reality has poked ideology in the eye. For conservatives, this has meant considering the idea that America cannot go it alone and may have to appease allies who benefited from the war but failed to support it. It means acknowledging that Iraq is so badly broken that it could well require a lengthy and extremely costly process of nation-building, a term that makes many on the right cringe.

For liberals - many of whom opposed the invasion - it may mean admitting there can be no swift departure because the stakes have become too high. Leaving now would place Iraqis under violent usurpers and set a precedent that could haunt the U.S. government for years.

America's Iraq policy has always been about more than just Iraq, and both left and right have viewed the situation through a prism of ideological convictions. The country has become a testing ground for competing notions of U.S. power and leadership, and of when the unilateral use of force is legitimate. It is a laboratory for ideas about the limits of diplomacy, the difference between imperialism and liberation in a unipolar world.

But Iraq today is a messy, superheated reality that seems to defy neat ideological assumptions. More and more people on both sides are finding they must temper their beliefs for the American effort to succeed.

"Pragmatism must prevail over ideology," said Lee Hamilton, the director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a former Democratic congressman. "We really have fallen into an almost foolish argument - no more troops versus more troops - without a pragmatic analysis of what is needed."

There are signs of a change. Richard Perle, the hawkish member of the Defense Policy Board, told the French daily Le Figaro that America had blundered by failing to prepare an Iraqi opposition capable of taking charge of the country after its liberation. An ardent advocate of going into Iraq, Perle is now looking for the exit. "The answer is to hand over power to Iraqis as soon as possible," he said.

Armitage himself had conceded that planners had underestimated the extent to which Saddam's terror had permeated Iraqi society.

Some say such a reassessment is long overdue. Supporters of the war - including most of the Democratic contenders for president - had clung to a notion that criticism was disloyal to the troops or to a wartime president. Critics of the administration's approach, in turn, had clamored for more UN involvement, only to witness the vulnerability of the United Nations' humanitarian presence when a bomb destroyed its Baghdad headquarters.

Military leaders in Baghdad plan to meet with the top U.S. civil authority, L. Paul Bremer 3rd, and his aides this week to rethink their current strategy.

The administration of President George W. Bush, having led and financed the war, wants to own it as an American war, whatever the frustrations that brings, critics say. Yet it is increasingly obvious that the administration cannot solve Iraq's problems without substantial help. Bremer said last week that several tens of billions of dollars would be needed to rebuild Iraq's infrastructure at a time when the federal budget deficit is at a record high.

"Why does the U.S. want to be on the front lines? Why does it want to have the exclusive burden of casualties and costs?" said Robert Malley, who was an official during Bill Clinton's presidency and who is Mideast program director of the International Crisis Group, a research organization focusing on crisis prevention.

Establishing security is the most pressing concern, and much of the discussion, from both left and right, has focused on troop strength. General John Abizaid, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, said last week that no more American troops were required beyond the 140,000 there.

The general's boss, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, has stated that position for weeks. Rumsfeld's view is reinforced by his distaste for using U.S. forces in nation-building tasks over combat operations. His stock reply on sending more troops is that the generals have not asked for them.

James Dobbins, a diplomat who helped manage U.S. policy in the past two administrations, from Afghanistan to Haiti to the Balkans, says Iraq needs a security force of 500,000 - including Americans, Iraqis and coalition members - to stabilize the country. Although the United States is planning to train more than 28,000 Iraqis as security forces, that project will take at least two years, leaving the country dangerously volatile, he said.

"Everyone agrees that we need more," Dobbins said.

This consensus quite likely comes as cold comfort to General Eric Shinseki, former chief of staff of the army, whose suggestion that several hundred thousand troops would be needed to stabilize post-Saddam Iraq was dismissed as exaggerated by Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz.

Dobbins, who is now director at the Center for International Security and Defense Policy at the RAND Corporation, said leaders at the Pentagon were clinging to World War II-era notions of reconstruction and disregarding the lessons of Bosnia and Kosovo. The United States contributed only 22 percent of the armed forces in Bosnia, he said, but no one doubted America's dominance in setting the policy. Both on the political right and left, the goal of reduced troop levels is desired; conservatives want the military free to do what it is best trained for - fighting wars - not playing police officer or guarding buildings. Liberals like reducing the U.S. presence because it compels Washington to seek international consensus.

A main ideological sticking point for administration planners is how to encourage the participation of foreign nations without ceding too much control.

Even before the war, Bush administration officials displayed a distrust of the United Nations. That only grew when the Security Council refused to authorize the war to uphold its resolutions.

However difficult it is for administration officials to contemplate placing U.S. troops under UN sponsorship, said Johanna Mendelson-Forman, a senior program officer of the United Nations Foundation, who recently visited Iraq as a member of an advisory committee to Rumsfeld, "they're just fooling themselves" if they expect substantial resources without a UN imprimatur.