One More Chance to Get It Right

Lawrence J. Korb
Lawrence J. Korb

When I was in Iraq a couple of weeks ago, an American soldier told me that if one-time baseball team owner George Bush was judged by the baseball standard of three strikes and you are out, he would be gone. Since we are not playing by baseball rules, the Bush administration will get another run at pursuing an effective policy to achieve its goals in Iraq. For the sake of this country and the Iraqis let’s hope he gets it right this time, because at the end of the day this is not a game. This is a matter of life and death.

Bush’s first strike was rushing into war in March of this year. The President and his advisors refused to wait for the U.N. inspectors to complete their work or to employ the diplomatic skill and patience required to secure a second U.N. resolution that could have legitimized the invasion. Bush’s justification was that Iraq was an imminent threat because it already possessed chemical and biological weapons and was on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons. More ominously, the President stated that Saddam Hussein was making common cause with Al Qaeda and would very probably give Osama bin Laden’s group these weapons of mass destruction for use against the United States or our interests. It has since been shown that these assertions were, at best, overstated – and that the administration had little cause to rush into war in a manner that forfeited any hope of our attaining any significant assistance in achieving our objective of creating a secure, stable and democratic Iraq.

Bush’s second strike was overruling the advice of those with experience about how difficult and bloody the “stabilization” phase of this war would be.

Bush and his advisers paid no attention to the president’s own Army Chief of Staff, who had extensive personal experience in Bosnia; to his own State Department, which had spent a year gathering expert advice on the issue; to their British allies, who, after all, had overseen the rise and fall of their own empire; or the French, who – whatever their stance on U.S. policy – had learned valuable lessons in dealing with insurgents in Muslim Algeria. Instead, Bush relied on the advice of exiles like Ahmed Chalabi, who hadn’t been to Iraq for decades. The net result was that the U.S. did not have enough troops or even a plan to deal with the chaos that erupted after the fall of Baghdad. As a recent review by the Army reveals, there was no real high level military and political planning to manage the aftermath of victory. Consequently, there was no guidance given the troops about establishing security.

And then there was Strike Three. Bush assumed that the end of the major conflict meant that there would be no organized resistance to the American occupation and that the nations who had opposed the war would line up to make significant military contributions.

From May through October, the administration spoke confidently about the progress it was making in rebuilding Iraq, and the decline in the number of attacks, even calling them strategically and operationally insignificant. They blamed the media for harping on the problems and distorting the picture. The Pentagon counted on and planned for the introduction of two international divisions. But then 60 coalition forces were killed in the first two weeks in November and South Korea, Japan and Turkey changed their minds about sending troops, and another assumption bit the dust.

Now that he has struck out, the president is taking a huge gamble. His latest policy, announced on November 15, will have two components. First, despite the increase in resistance against our troops and against the Iraqis and allies who cooperate with us, the number of U.S. troops will be reduced from 130,000 to 105,000 by next May. With no new international troops committed, the increasing security responsibilities will be turned over to the Iraqi security forces very rapidly. In order to get large numbers of Iraqi security forces into the field quickly, their training time will be cut by more than half.

Second, in order to change the image of the U.S. from one of occupiers to that of liberators, the administration will dissolve the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) run by Ambassador Paul Bremer and turn sovereign power over to a provisional Iraqi government by the end of June 2004. Members of this new government will be chosen by a transitional national assembly elected by caucuses in Iraqi’s 18 provinces. This provisional government will produce a constitution within nine months.

Transferring security to inadequately trained Iraqis and setting a fixed timetable for transferring sovereignty constitutes an enormously risky policy. Already it has meant increasing the size of the Iraqi forces but reducing the extent of their training. Two months ago, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said that there were about 50,000 Iraqis in the security forces and that by the end of 2004, there would be 100,000; now, with a new policy in place, there are supposedly 100,000 ready now, and twice that many will be “ready” by the end of next year.

But fixing the math is not fixing the problem, and once again the Bush administration’s sequencing has no bearing on reality. The United States cannot produce 200,000 Iraqi security personnel by the end of 2004 without sacrificing the background checks necessary to prevent infiltration by insurgents and abandoning the in-depth training that they require.

Similarly, how can we expect the Iraqis to choose a provisional government that will be seen as legitimate by the Shiites, the Sunnis and the Kurds within the next six months but before there is a constitution? Until last week, the Bush administration was arguing that a constitution must be produced before legitimate elections could be held.

Regardless of whether one supported the invasion of Iraq, all Americans now have a stake in ensuring that it becomes a stable nation. Tragically, however, it appears that the Bush administration is once again following the path of error. But only when the president and his advisers realize that they alone can neither craft nor pursue a strategy aimed at reversing this mounting crisis can we realistically get back into the game.

Lawrence J. Korb is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.