U.S. Faces Growing Fears of Failure
Wolfowitz Concedes Errors as Damage Control Continues
By Robin Wright and Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, May 19, 2004; Page A01
The Bush administration is struggling to counter growing sentiment -- among U.S. lawmakers, Iraqis and even some of its own officials -- that the occupation of Iraq is verging on failure, forcing a top Pentagon official yesterday to concede serious mistakes over the past year.
Under tough questioning from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, a leading administration advocate of the Iraq intervention, acknowledged miscalculating that Iraqis would tolerate a long occupation. A central flaw in planning, he added, was the premise that U.S. forces would be creating a peace, not fighting a war, after the ouster of Saddam Hussein.
"We had a plan that anticipated, I think, that we could proceed with an occupation regime for much longer than it turned out the Iraqis would have patience for. We had a plan that assumed we'd have basically more stable security conditions than we've encountered," Wolfowitz told the senators.
The testy hearing reflected growing anxieties with only six weeks left before political power is to be handed over to Iraqis. The United States is now so deeply immersed in damage control -- combating security problems and recriminations from the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and making a third attempt at crafting an interim government in Baghdad -- that lawmakers and others say Iraq faces greater uncertainty about the future than it did when the occupation began with great expectations a year ago.
"There are a lot of people across this country who are very, very worried about how this is progressing, what the endgame is, whether or not we are going to achieve even a part of our goals here -- and the growing fear that we may in fact have in some ways a worse situation if we're not careful at the end of all this," warned Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), echoing comments of several committee members.
President Bush acknowledged yesterday that the United States is facing "hard work" in Iraq that is "approaching a crucial moment." But he said he will not be swayed from the goal of helping Iraq become a "free and democratic nation at the heart of the Middle East."
"My resolve is firm," he said in a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. "This is an historic moment. The world watches for weakness in our resolve. They will see no weakness. We will answer every challenge." But lawmakers challenged Wolfowitz with their fears that the U.S.-led coalition still does not have a viable plan in place for the transition -- and that failure could be costly.
"A detailed plan is necessary to prove to our allies and to Iraqis that we have a strategy and that we are committed to making it work. If we cannot provide this clarity, we risk the loss of support of the American people, loss of potential contributions from our allies and the disillusionment of Iraqis," said Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), chairman of the panel.
U.S. successes in Iraq have been "dwarfed" by two deficits created by the administration -- a "security deficit" and a "legitimacy deficit," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden (D-Del.).
The public criticism on Capitol Hill mirrors growing alarm expressed in private throughout the U.S. foreign policy community as well as among Iraqis about the political transition and deteriorating security. The U.S.-led coalition has dramatically lowered its goals, they say, from an early pledge to create a stable, democratic country that would be a model for transforming the greater Middle East, to scrambling to cobble together an interim government by June 30 that will have only limited political authority and still depend on more than 130,000 foreign troops.
"We've sacrificed the preferable to that which is most expedient," said a U.S. official involved with Iraq policy. "We've gone from hoping for a strong and empowered government to one that can survive, literally, until a new constitution is drafted."
With mounting instability, from the assassination of a top Iraqi politician to kidnappings for ransom of prominent professionals and their children, Iraqis close to the negotiations by U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi are now warning that credible politicians or technocrats may not be willing to accept jobs in the interim Iraqi government.
"Anyone in his right mind would say, 'What you're giving me is an impossible task and a no-win situation,' " said an Iraqi adviser to a member of the Iraqi Governing Council.
The crisis over mistreatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib has also complicated the political transition, with fears among Iraqis that any association with an interim government named by U.N. and U.S. diplomats will undermine their political aspirations.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company