Iraq Rethink

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President Bush and his advisors have come up with a novel response to criticisms that they’re screwing up the occupation and reconstruction of Iraq: more White House control.

Earlier this week, the administration launched the all-new Iraq Stabilization Group, an interagency coordinating body headed by National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and her National Security Council. The move smacks of panic: with Bush’s approval numbers on the slide, the White House knows it has to get it together in Iraq well before the 2004 elections. What isn’t clear is the practical effect rejigerring the organizational chart will have on the ground in Iraq, or even in Washington. The buzz in D.C. is that it sidelines Donald Rumsfeld. Or Colin Powell. Or both, or neither.

The group will coordinate administration efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan in four areas: counterterrorism, economic issues, political institutions and communications.

The Washington Post reports:

“The purpose of the new Iraq Stabilization Group is ‘to crack the whip, frankly,’ said a senior administration official, who described a sense of urgency amid persistent trouble in Iraq and polls showing declining confidence in Bush.”

The move is seen by some as a last-ditch effort to save a failing plan in Iraq. After all, this is the same administration that underestimated the cost of occupation, overestimated Iraqi oil revenue, unsuccessfully begged countries like India and Pakistan to contribute troops, and recently made a failed, not to say belated, partnership pitch to the United Nations.

Some analysts are convinced the reorganization was a sign of desperation and failing policy in Iraq. Ehsan Ahrari, writing in the Asia Times, sees the move as fundamentally misconceived. The problem, he says, is not that Washington has too little control; it’s that the U.S. is in Iraq at all:

“…the current attempt to reorganize the U.S. mission in Iraq is akin to saving a sinking ship by appointing a new leader of the crew whose mission is to bail the rising level of water. Instead, the objective of the U.S. ought to be to bail out while it still can.”

According to Rice, the new plan grew out of discussions she had with the president in August, along with the support of Secretary of State Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, two officials that some say have less power under the new arrangement. An official told the Post, “this is a high priority. It’s not business as usual.”

That was news to Rumsfeld who according to the Financial Times says he wasn’t told about the change, but that the structure was no big deal. “That’s what the NSC’s charter is,” Mr Rumsfeld said. “The only thing unusual about it is the attention.”

The discrepancy between Rumsfeld’s and Rice’s accounts only fueled speculation that the new group was formed because the White House thinks the Pentagon isn’t getting the job done. The Financial Times reported:

“Even neo-conservative supporters of the administration have described an air of desperation in the White House since the sharp deterioration in security in Iraq since August.

“As a proponent of more limited goals in Iraq, namely the removal of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, Donald Rumsfeld, defence secretary, is seen to be at odds with Mr Bush and Ms Rice, who regard Iraq as the key to what they believe will be a political ‘transformation’ of the Middle East.

“‘Condi is seizing the reins,’ one European diplomat said, commenting on the perception in Washington that she has failed to put a brake on disputes between the Pentagon, the State Department and the CIA.”

White House Spokesman Scott McClellan was acting as if this massive reorganization is no biggie. It’s just that “we’re entering a new phase in Iraq, and Bush wants to cut through the red tape and make sure that we’re getting the assistance there quickly so that they can carry out their priorities,” he said. Paul Bremer — head of the U.S. coalition authority in Iraq — will still report to Secretary Rumsfeld, and the new group will ostensibly focus on coordinating efforts between departments and agencies. This is, according to the administration, simply an inter-agency coordination group that is crucial for the proper management of the $87 billion war supplemental that the Bush asked of Congress.

Some critics, like Sen. John Edwards, a Democratic candidate for president, said the reorganization is a good idea, but it’s way overdue, a view shared by Ivo Daalder of the Brookings Institution, who worked on President Clinton’s National Security Council. He toldUSA Today,”It should have been done on Day 1. The NSC exists to coordinate the different agencies and make sure their voices are heard.” The Christian Science Monitor reports:

“Still, the management recast reflects a void some experts say has been evident for months. I’ve been wondering for a while now who really is in charge of the Iraq process back here, says Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. In most any administration, you would have had a Mr. Iraq here in Washington responsible for the inter-agency coordination.”

Given Bush’s poor relations with Congress, it’s easy to see this as a power grab. The administration has been criticized on both the right and left for ignoring lawmakers, in particular on national security issues. Bush didn’t consult Congress before sending troops to Liberia, didn’t give accurate cost estimates for Iraq, and hasn’t shared intelligence with relevant congressional committees. Result: as the National Journal reports, a testy relationship between the White House and the Hill:

“‘There is a real sense among senior administration officials that they have a solemn obligation to reclaim lost territory, that Congress has overstepped its bounds,’ said James M. Lindsay, vice president and director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. ‘When they talk about reversing the impact of Vietnam, which Rumsfeld has alluded to on a number of occasions, they are not simply talking about re-establishing American power abroad. They are talking about re-establishing presidential power here at home.'”

Some say the decision is all about politics. University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato, quoted in the Christian Science Monitor, says, “Their real goal is to stabilize Bush’s public approval rating,” which means “sending the message [to people on the ground] to produce – and fast.”

The reasons behind the new Iraq policy team seem likely to be the inevitable result of a variety of factors: the administration’s disdain for oversight and accountability, the deterioration situation in Iraq, and the need for policy streamlining. Whatever it may be, it is certainly not the action of someone who is trying to distance himself from Iraq and Afghanistan. And as the senior administration official who spoke to the New York Times says, the new consolidation reflects, above all, that, “The president knows his legacy, and maybe his re-election, depends on getting this right.”


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