New Course for Iraq
By David Ignatius
Friday, April 23, 2004; Page A23
If you're in a hole, stop digging. The Bush administration seems at last to have embraced that simple wisdom in its Iraq policy and is beginning to undo some of the earlier mistakes that got the U.S. occupation into such trouble.
The new, new Iraq policy has three basic components. Each reduces the risks of the previous U.S. approach. But the revised plan carries dangers of a different sort, and it's important to understand them up front:
• Politically, the administration is tossing the ball to the United Nations and hoping the U.N. (and its still-to-be-chosen team of Iraqi transitional leaders) can catch it after the June 30 transfer of sovereignty. This strategy may bring a calmer Iraq by America's Election Day, but it could have the opposite effect of producing a sectarian power struggle. It's what football enthusiasts like to call a "Hail Mary pass."
• Militarily, the administration appears to have backed away from its strategy of "capture or kill" in dealing with the popular uprising that exploded this month among Sunnis in Fallujah and Shiite followers of Moqtada Sadr. An assault on Sadr's militia in Najaf, which would have thrown U.S. troops into an open-ended urban war, now seems less likely. But the price of compromise is that the insurgents are still on the loose.
• Strategically, the administration wants to undo its earlier mistake of disbanding the Iraqi army and banishing bureaucrats of the old regime. The new idea, outlined by The Post's Robin Wright this week, is to rehabilitate salvageable parts of the old infrastructure by rehiring former military officers and Baath Party members. Unfortunately, it's a little late. The old army and bureaucracy are now shattered, and it will be years before Iraq has new institutions that can provide security and good governance.
Britain played an important role in reshaping U.S. strategy. That was obvious at Bush's joint news conference last week with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Bush explicitly backed U.N. Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, saying he had "identified a way forward to establishing an interim government." Blair signaled the stand-down in Najaf by saying the coalition would deal with Sadr and his militia "with the right balance of firmness in the face of terror and a clear offer to all people in Iraq, including those who might be tempted to support lawbreaking."
The big problem with the new Iraq policy is that it's at war with the old one. That is, the administration is embracing a new U.N.-centered approach at the same time it is enhancing the power of Iraqis who were part of the old Governing Council that Brahimi plans to abolish.
The lightning rod continues to be Ahmed Chalabi, the mercurial Iraqi exile leader whom neoconservatives at the Pentagon once hoped to install as head of a provisional government on the opening day of the war. That half-baked plan was abandoned by the administration at the eleventh hour, but Chalabi and his formidable lobby in Washington have never given up the fight. Iraqis who are described as his allies recently took control of the two most important interim ministries, Interior and Defense. And just this week, Chalabi's nephew, Salem Chalabi, was named to oversee the most visible symbol of the new Iraq, the trial of Saddam Hussein.
Will Brahimi replace Chalabi and other former Iraqi exiles with the U.N. envoy's own appointees? Will Bush put teeth into his rhetorical support for Brahimi by curbing Chalabi's influence? Will the U.S. National Security Council at last impose one Iraq strategy on the feuding agencies of the U.S. government? Stay tuned.
Chalabi has a potent survival weapon in captured Iraqi files detailing the corruption in the U.N.'s oil-for-food program during Hussein's time. Some of us were writing about that corruption when it was happening, and it was indeed outrageous. But that information shouldn't become part of a back-alley fight for political control of the new Iraq.
Bush would be wise to trust the Americans who know Iraq best -- the military commanders in the field. They can channel money and other assistance to political, tribal and religious leaders around the country. The Army general chosen to oversee training of Iraqi security forces after June 30, Maj. Gen. David H. Petraeus, showed how to make this strategy work when he was commander of U.S. forces in northern Iraq. These reconstruction efforts will be more important after June 30, not less.
Washington needs to make sure it has just one Iraq policy, rather than several competing ones, and then fight hard to make it work. The bad times are far from over in Iraq, but at least Washington will have international help in trying to cope with them.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company