U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Sums Up Atmosphere on the Ground: ‘Fear’

Before a war-weary Senate yesterday, Ambassador Ryan Crocker gave a candid assessment of the security situation in Iraq, but downplayed the significance of the Iraqi government’s poor progress on meeting congressionally mandated benchmarks.

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Appearing via video link from Baghdad yesterday, Ryan Crocker, the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, provided testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee amidst eroding support for the war among the committee’s Republican members. Chuck Hagel (R-NE) has long been a critic of the Bush administration’s handling of Iraq, but in recent months he has been joined by Norm Coleman (R-MN) and John Sununu (R-NH), who are facing tough reelection races in 2008. The latest GOP defectors are two of the Senate’s most influential Republicans, George Voinovich (R-OH) and Dick Lugar (R-IN), the committee’s ranking member.

It was Lugar who pointedly asked Crocker if there is currently any preparation for “Plan B,” the Republicans’ euphemism for withdrawal. Lugar added that such preparation will prove vital if the decision to withdraw is made, and that he suspects high-level figures in the Bush administration have been stymieing efforts to plan for this outcome. Crocker gave no indication that any serious consideration is being given to a withdrawal strategy, saying, “My whole focus is involved in the implementation of ‘Plan A.'”

Voinovich told Crocker that disengagement is “inevitable.” “We must start to face reality…. Our commitment is not open-ended.”

While Crocker may have seemed a likely target for the ire of war-weary members of Congress, it was the administration’s policy, not Crocker himself, that came under attack. A former envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan who has a reputation as a straight-shooter, Crocker recently sent a memo to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice complaining that the Baghdad embassy he oversees is not receiving top-notch talent. The very public missive was an embarrassment for the administration and made clear Crocker is more than a White House mouthpiece.

Still, when Crocker was called to testify on the political progress made by the Iraqi government, on the heels of a recent National Security Council report noting a lack of progress in this department, Crocker responded by downplaying the importance of the benchmarks for progress set out by Congress. “The longer I am here, the more I am persuaded that progress in Iraq cannot be analyzed solely in terms of these discrete, precisely defined benchmarks,” he said. “These benchmarks do not serve as reliable measures of everything that is important—Iraqi attitudes toward each other and their willingness to work toward political reconciliation.”

Perhaps it was a ploy to lower expectations—Senator John Kerry accused him of “moving the goalposts”—but if so, it is Crocker’s ploy alone. The White House in recent days has reaffirmed the importance of benchmarks.

While criticizing the benchmarks, Crocker could point to little that would serve as a better measure of progress. In a TV appearance from Iraq a week earlier, Crocker said that electricity was probably more important to everyday Iraqis than “all 18 benchmarks rolled up into one.” The comment came back to haunt him yesterday. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) pointed out that electricity output is actually below 2006 levels, and that citizens of Baghdad sometimes only have an hour or two of electricity a day. Senator Joe Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, added that if political reconciliation were achieved, sectarian operatives would stop blowing up the power grids.

Crocker did argue yesterday that there were signs of progress in Iraq, though his examples were weak. He noted, for example, that the president of Iraq, a Kurd, is holding meetings with the prime minister of Iraq, a Shiite. This failed to impress the assembled senators. Crocker also said that Iraqi citizens generally have a positive feeling about the country’s security forces, a claim that is widely contradicted in the media and by experts on Iraq. Still, he was candid about the deteriorating security situation: “If there is one word, I would use to sum up the atmosphere in Iraq—on the streets, in the countryside, in the neighborhoods, and at the national level,” he said, “that word would be ‘fear’.”

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