. . . And the Infighting
By David Ignatius
Friday, October 10, 2003; Page A27
The Bush administration works hard to obscure the inner workings of its foreign policy team. But Donald H. Rumsfeld's snippy comments this week about a new Iraq initiative by his colleague Condoleezza Rice suggest some of the tensions that lie beneath the surface.
Rumsfeld, a man for whom the expression "short fuse" might have been invented, complained in an interview Tuesday with four European news organizations that he had not been consulted about creation of an Iraq Stabilization Group that will be chaired by the national security adviser. When a German reporter pressed him, Rumsfeld snapped: "I said I don't know. Isn't that clear? You don't understand English?"
Rumsfeld, Rice and various administration press wranglers have been scrambling ever since to pretend that everything is chummy with Rummy.
But the truth is that there is more debate and disagreement behind the scenes than the administration's public "happy talk" would suggest. That's all to the good, in my view: A more vigorous debate earlier might have prevented some of the administration's mistakes.
Because this administration covers its tracks so well, it's hard to be sure about the Iraq reassessment. But here are some developments looming amid the fog of postwar:
First, there is growing tension between occupation czar L. Paul Bremer and the Iraqi Governing Council, which he appointed. Some leading members want the council to become a provisional government that can assume sovereignty; Bremer thinks the council isn't ready.
What's interesting is that some key administration officials disagree with Bremer and think the provisional government approach has merit. Arab sources tell me, for example, that Paul D. Wolfowitz, the deputy defense secretary, was briefed recently on a plan for a provisional government formulated by Lebanese political scientist Ghassan Salameh.
A second trend is that Ahmed Chalabi, a member of the Governing Council and once the Pentagon's favorite Iraqi, has fallen from favor. One insider told me Chalabi "has burned most of his bridges" in Washington. He quarreled too often with Bremer, to the point that even his friends in the administration concluded that he was making a difficult situation in Iraq worse.
An early sign of Chalabi's loss of influence came during last month's visit to Washington by Jordan's King Abdullah. The Jordanians are passionately anti-Chalabi because of a bank fraud allegation against him dating back to the 1980s. Bush assured Abdullah that the administration would take their concerns about Chalabi into account. I'm told that an administration emissary (from Vice President Cheney's entourage, says my source) later tried to soften the blow by telling Chalabi to lie low and wait for the storm to pass.
As Chalabi's influence wanes, his push for wholesale de-Baathification of Iraq is likely to be modified. Already, Bremer is moving to rehabilitate some officers from the old Iraqi army, which he disbanded last May. And out in the field, commanders such as Maj. Gen. David Petraeus of the 101st Airborne Division are said to be achieving success by bypassing parts of the de-Baathification order.
Rumsfeld's halo has been tarnished, too -- partly as a result of his turf consciousness. The defense secretary was determined that postwar Iraq would be his show, run through Central Command and Bremer, and not the CIA or the State Department. That meant Rumsfeld would get the credit if things went well and the blame if they didn't.
That's why Rumsfeld's outburst this week is important. He undoubtedly understands that it was President Bush (not Rice) who decided to create a broader interagency process for Iraq.
If Rumsfeld is down, then his rival, Colin L. Powell, must be up. And some observers think they see growing influence on Iraq policy for the secretary of state. He remains close to his former colleagues in the Army, such as the Centcom commander, Gen. John Abizaid. And under Rice's Iraq Stabilization Group, the State Department is likely to have more say over policy.
A final question mark is Rice herself. Rumsfeld was right when he said that the new Stabilization Group will simply be doing what the National Security Council is supposed to do.
But Rice's NSC has often failed in that coordinating role in the past. Interagency disputes over postwar policy have festered, rather than being resolved. Now Rice must make the policy process work.
An issue that needs prompt resolution is Iraq's billions of dollars in foreign debt. The Treasury insists it must be renegotiated; some Pentagon officials favor forgiveness.
Given the stakes in Iraq, the administration should probably have more feuds rather than fewer. The current internal debate is healthy, so long as it results in clear, sensible policy. If it simply amplifies the bickering, then Iraq policy -- and U.S. national security -- are in trouble.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company