"June 30," Tim Russert asked Paul Bremer on Meet the Press Sunday, "You're going to turn the keys over to the Iraqis. Who do you turn them over to?"
"Well, that's a good question," Bremer replied. Eighty days from a U.S.-imposed deadline set because of the American – not Iraqi – political calendar, this is a telling response. The American people deserve better answers on Iraq.
While the Bush administration insists on describing the insurgency as a fight with a small group of "bitter dead-enders," in truth, Iraqi opposition to the U.S. occupation is growing in strength. Should rebellious Shias and insurgent Sunnis find common cause strategically, we risk losing control of the country. The challenge we face today is less a matter of eradicating a residual "poison" than a consequence of Bush administration failures in planning before and execution after last year's invasion.
First, President Bush and his advisers came into office opposed to the very concept of nation-building. As a result, they believed their own rhetoric that we would be welcomed as liberators and that we could make a quick exit after removing Saddam by installing Ahmed Chalabi and making minor reforms to the existing Iraqi military. Reconstruction was an afterthought and planning for combat and stability operations were not integrated.
Second, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, wishing to validate his vision of transformation, refused to support a larger military invasion force for Iraq that would have more effectively dealt with the security and stabilization needs that we should have anticipated. Today, there are simply not enough U.S. and international forces to decisively reverse the spiraling security maelstrom. We are pushing newly minted Iraqi security forces into the fray before they are ready, resulting in high casualties and embarrassing defections.
The lack of security also prevents us from adequately protecting our current $18 billion reconstruction investment. Even USAID, a government agency, has been forced to contract out its security because military protection is unavailable. Not only do we have unregulated contractor armies operating in Iraq, but also increased security costs leave fewer resources to improve the lives of average Iraqis, meaning more disaffection that in turn fuels turmoil. It also provides more targets of opportunity for the insurgents. Contractor deaths and hostage-taking undercut security, Iraqi confidence and international support.
Third, after the invasion, Bremer decided to abolish rather than rehabilitate the Iraqi Army. While the administration has claimed the Army "disbanded itself," as one of the few functioning institutions within Iraqi society, there was sufficient senior military command and control to bring a substantial number of Iraqi forces back if called. Not only did Bremer put 400,000 young men in the unemployment line, he also decided not to pay them – a fateful decision he later had to reverse. Many Iraqi soldiers with unique capabilities, such as the ability to mount coordinated rocket propelled grenade and improvised explosive device attacks, have marketed their skills to the highest bidder – the insurgents.
How do we climb out of the hole we're in? First, the Bush administration needs to put down its shovel and formally give the entire political and reconstruction mission to the U.N. While the Bush administration has quibbled over whether the UN should have a "vital" vs. "central" role, the fact is that now it has virtually an exclusive role. All of our current hopes are pinned on U.N. Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi's efforts to negotiate a new political agreement with the Iraqi stakeholders. The irony is stunning. All of the transition details – the size of the Iraqi Governing Council; election of an interim government; the shape of a new constitution; and definition and election of a permanent government – now rest with the very United Nations that President Bush challenged as irrelevant less than two years ago. In truth, the United States has lost so much credibility with Iraqis and lacks the necessary legitimacy to force difficult compromises among the Iraqi factions.
Second, increase the size of the U.S. military force in Iraq. Iraq was not the front line in the battle against terror when the Bush administration chose to invade. It is now. Our security and credibility in the greater Middle East are now on the line in Iraq. This does not redeem the Bush administration's ill-founded and precipitous decision to invade Iraq, but we can't afford to fail. Any international help that might come in the foreseeable future is far more likely to be in money than in soldiers. In fact, given the spike in violence, the administration will be hard-pressed just to prevent defections from its ad hoc coalition of the willing.
Third, the Bush administration needs to be honest with the American people. Its current posture, "We'll stay in Iraq as long as it takes and not a day more," is a great sound-bite, but has no meaning. Getting Iraq right will take years, not months. From Korea and the Sinai to the Balkans and Afghanistan, when peacekeeping is attached to significant national interests, it requires substantial resources for extended periods. The Bush administration should be held to account for misleading the American people into thinking that the operation would pay for itself in relatively short order and that major combat operations ended a year ago. But Iraq has become the "long hard slog" that Rumsfeld acknowledged in his leaked memo.
Will the Bush administration be honest about Iraq in an election year; admit it has made mistakes; and take corrective action? To quote Paul Bremer, "That's a good question."
P.J. Crowley is senior fellow and director of national defense and homeland security at the Center for American Progress. He is a retired Air Force colonel and was a member of the National Security Council staff during the Clinton administration.