Perception Gap in Iraq
By Jim Hoagland
Thursday, July 15, 2004; Page A21
Iraq's newly empowered politicians have not stemmed the violence and instability in their country. But nearly three weeks of partial sovereignty may have helped the Bush administration's drive to reduce its political vulnerability on Iraq at home.
Reducing that vulnerability is now the White House's most urgent goal. What happened at the June 28 handover ceremony in Baghdad was not so much a transfer of sovereignty as it was a transfer of political responsibility -- from President Bush to a willing Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.
Allawi has kept his part of the bargain with Washington by repeatedly appearing before U.S. television cameras on two missions: to thank Bush for freeing Iraq and to take on the responsibility for answering attacks on U.S. forces and Iraqis. U.S. officials took solace recently from Allawi's quickly televised vows of revenge and action for a bloody wave of coordinated bombings.
"This was a good day," one official observed, pointing to Allawi's television performance and passing over the continuing bloodshed.
The Iraqi prime minister has also won points by promising the stick of a 2,000-man Iraqi "strike force" to establish security while dangling the carrot of amnesty for Baathist insurgents who do not, in the words of one of Allawi's associates, have "too many" atrocities on their hands.
Read through or watch Allawi's blunt, sparse statements and you too may be impressed by how much of his message is intended to reassure his American audience, rather than Iraqis. They are more keenly aware of the huge obstacles that Allawi faces in carrying out his ambitious promises.
To the relief of the White House, the American public and media seem to be slowly trying to tune out Iraq's continuing violence. Accounts of all but spectacular assaults slide deeper into network news broadcasts and the inside pages of newspapers as the summer and the U.S. presidential campaign progress.
Allawi -- and therefore Bush -- also benefits from the honeymoon effect granted to a new Baghdad administration, and from the genuine confusion over who is actually running what is partly sovereign Iraq. The visible failures of the occupation led by Paul Bremer now take place behind a more nebulous smoke screen.
Administration officials privately acknowledge that alarm bells went off this spring over sudden, sharp declines in public support for the war in Iraq. "If we lose the critical mass of American public support, we lose everything we are trying to do in Iraq," said one official, avoiding the obvious thought that Bush could lose his reelection bid as well.
"We have now built a floor," the official continued, with "an Iraqi leader who publicly thanks the United States for the past, takes political responsibility for the future and has a strategy."
Political viability -- to use Bill Clinton's term -- is every politician's top priority. John Kerry's criticisms of Bush's Iraq policy are as driven by the electoral demands of Nov. 2 as Bush's defenses are.
But the shift to a policy that depends on declarations -- and targets perception in the United States -- more than on change on the ground in Iraq poses greater risks and challenges for the incumbent.
Bush has to win both politically and in policy terms if Iraq is not to become a disaster that will haunt him and America. But he faces this dilemma: Facts and judgments from the field that are inconvenient to the perception-management priorities of Washington get ignored or suppressed in this situation. Moreover, commanders and troops become confused by sudden switches in strategy and tactics driven by the politicians, as occurred recently in the siege at Fallujah and perhaps at Karbala.
Iraq and the world will benefit if Allawi can deliver on his promises to establish stability and democracy. Wish him well. But a dangerous gap is opening up between the determinedly upbeat pronouncements in Washington and from Allawi, and more disinterested reports from the field.
Last Friday, Jim Krane of the Associated Press quoted unnamed U.S. military officers saying that Iraq's insurgency is led by well-armed Sunnis angry about losing power, not by foreign fighters. They number up to 20,000, not 5,000 as Washington briefers maintain, Krane added in his well-reported but generally overlooked dispatch.
The point is not 5,000 vs. 20,000. The insurgency's exact size is unknowable. The point is that enough officers in the field sense that what they see happening to their troops in Iraq is so out of sync with Washington's version that they must rely on the press to get out a realistic message. That is usually how defeat begins for expeditionary forces fighting distant insurgencies.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company