The White House Commemorates a Very Special Day

By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, April 10, 2007

As Iraq observed the fourth anniversary of the fall of Saddam Hussein yesterday, the lead item on the White House Web site, under the heading "LATEST NEWS," was a photograph of Clifford the Big Red Dog at the annual Easter Egg Roll on the South Lawn.

"There were many children's characters in attendance including Charlie Brown, Bugs Bunny, Arthur, and Curious George," said the caption under the photo, which alternated with a shot of Laura Bush and two Easter bunnies on the Truman Balcony and a painting of one of President Bush's Scottish terriers with a fiddle-playing butterfly.

The president marked the anniversary by going to Arizona to give a speech -- about immigration. In his 24-minute address, he didn't so much as mention Iraq. The vice president, secretary of state and secretary of defense had no public events on their schedules yesterday.

That pretty much ceded the field to Iraqi politician Ali Allawi, who gave a speech in Washington yesterday as he released his new book, "The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace." Allawi was not the most recognizable of figures; the Washington Times and his host, the National Press Club, both identified him as "Ari" Allawi, giving him a rather Jewish-sounding name for an Iraqi leader. But Allawi's somber presentation may have been the ideal way for a war-weary Washington to remember Baghdad's fall on April 9, 2003. Allawi brought grim tidings and no obvious solutions.

The book condemns the "monumental ignorance" of American war planners and the "rank amateurism and swaggering arrogance" of the occupation authority. Allawi had previously written that the Middle East is in a "death spiral" and that "another 100 years of crisis are being sown" in Iraq.

A former trade and finance minister in Iraq's post-Saddam government, Allawi describes himself as a "senior adviser" to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki; if so, Maliki probably hasn't seen Allawi's latest comments.

"In many ways, from a pure, say, engineering point of view, the running of the Saddamist state is much better than what we have now," he said yesterday. "The state is more corrupt now. It has more incompetents in more positions of authority than it ever had before. And it's doing a terrible job of managing the affairs of the country."

Nor does he have much faith in Bush's "surge" plan to pacify Baghdad with Maliki's government. "I think if things continue along the track that we have, I don't think we could expect things to improve drastically in the near term," he forecast. "We may get a reasonably stable central state, but which is unable to exercise its authority beyond maybe 60 or 70 percent of the country."

So what's the solution? "I think the time has come for the United States to take the lead, actually, in doing a U-turn," this "adviser" to Maliki announced. "And by a U-turn I mean a fundamental turnaround in thinking in terms of -- strategic thinking in terms of what's important and what's not important in the Middle East. And you have to move from this military fixation to this new architecture."

Allawi's presentation was at times dreary (it took him 20 minutes to get to 2002) and academic (he spoke of "the instrusiveness of the administrative and support mechanisms that were left behind by the CPA"). But the bespectacled graduate of MIT and Harvard managed, perhaps by accident, to encapsulate the hopelessness of the Iraq debate.

Stay the course? "The seeds of instability and insecurity will remain," he predicted.

Withdraw U.S. forces? That "will lead to, in my mind, greater insecurity and instability, or it will lead to a free-for-all."

Allawi described his "perplexity" at how badly the Iraq occupation was bungled. "How can this be allowed to be the governing program of a country that had embarked, at least publicly, on what seemed to be a civilizational makeover of the Middle East?" he asked.

Now, he continued, U.S. forces, opposed by the Iraqi masses, are propping up the "ruling elite," who "will find any excuse to keep American troops there not only to establish security, but to enhance their own relative power." As for the benchmarks the administration has set for Maliki's government, "nothing works in this Cartesian way in Iraq," the Maliki adviser advised.

Whenever talk turned to a solution, however, Allawi became less confident. His solution -- an "international congress" authorized to "negotiate a security architecture for the Middle East" -- is a nonstarter at the White House. And his preconditions for that architecture -- for Sunnis to accept their minority status and for Iran, Syria, Shiites and Kurds to "pull back in terms of their demands" -- seem little more likely to occur anytime soon.

Even Allawi didn't have much faith in his proposal. "If there's a recognition that the trajectory of the past has failed, then you have no choice," he said. "So if there's still a chance, a last chance in this exercise, we have to see what will happen. But my own prescription is that it won't happen."

No wonder the White House preferred to talk about Clifford.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company