From Hope to Fear in Iraq

By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, September 16, 2007

Dreams of spreading democracy through the Arab world shaped President Bush's decision to invade Iraq in 2003. But nightmares keep him -- and U.S. troops -- ensnared there.

The transformation from dream to nightmare illuminates Bush's goals and forward strategy in Iraq more clearly than does last week's deluge of reports, testimony to Congress, stump speeches by presidential candidates and Bush's own statements. In fact, the word-storm served to obscure the shift from hope to fear as the driving force in U.S. policy on Iraq.

The thrust and parry of spin and counter-spin resembled the stuff of ephemera rather than the stuff of history. Cool, competent performances by Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker on Capitol Hill aimed at buying six to nine more months for something to turn up, as the two men honestly if indirectly acknowledged.

In Washington power terms, the ballyhoo around their appearances reflected Bush's deepening weaknesses and his limited remaining strengths. This besieged president must now share the stage with more credible aides such as Petraeus and Crocker -- whose institutional agendas ultimately are not the same as those of Bush -- as well as with the war's opponents in and outside Congress.

But Bush can still frame the debate on his terms when that is necessary, as he also demonstrated last week. Understanding the forces that drive Bush on Iraq is essential to understanding the reshaping of the U.S. presence there for his final months and, he hopes, beyond.

"We have to hold together a core of responsible Democrats and Republicans in Congress who will support a sustainable U.S. force in Iraq for the rest of this president's term and into the next administration," a senior official told me not long after the surge of 30,000 troops was announced last winter. Last week's overload of verbiage on the success and durability of the surge did little to alter this White House template -- with "sustainable" being a euphemism for "smaller and retargeted."

What that means on the ground, and diplomatically, is becoming clearer. Two groups of U.S. Special Operations Forces are now in Iraq with distinct assignments split off from the broad U.S. mission of "population security." One group exclusively hunts and destroys the insurgents of al-Qaeda in Iraq. The other targets members of the al-Quds branch of Iran's Revolutionary Guard operating inside Iraq. Both have priority call on U.S. intelligence and operational assets.

While the surge is malleable, these two missions are not. That is, while Petraeus and Crocker try to strike deals with "reconcilables" in Anbar province and the Shiite militias -- perhaps in hope of declaring stability and getting out -- the "black" and "white" special-ops teams deal in their own way with the "irreconcilables" in both camps.

The week's political melodrama overshadowed statements by Crocker and Petraeus that suggest U.S. troops will continue to be part of a multinational force authorized by the United Nations for 2008, but Washington will then sign a security agreement with Baghdad for the stationing of U.S. forces in 2009 and beyond. Among other things, this legalistic step makes possible the resizing of U.S. forces and their refocusing on the missions Bush believes are paramount.

As the dream that Iraq could serve as a model for democracy in the Arab world has died a bitter death, Iran has become the source of the president's darkest and most important nightmare.

He has warned of a "nuclear holocaust" if Tehran develops atomic weapons. In his speech to the American Legion last month, Bush also made clear his determination to keep Americans in Iraq -- to fight Iran -- as long as necessary. The web of terrorist networks being spun through the Middle East by Iran demands no less, he argued.

An inordinate fear of Iran has in fact paralyzed U.S. policy in Iraq since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and his ruling Sunni elite, preventing Bush from reaching accommodations with Iraq's Shiite majority and with Tehran that were possible in 2003. But today's far more radical Iranian government gives weight to Bush's fears.

Nor can the other nightmare he has publicly outlined be discounted. That is of a horrific bloodbath in Iraq if U.S. troops are withdrawn precipitously. A stasis of power, of defeat and victory, has yet to be established in Iraq.

But policy dominated by nightmarish fear inevitably incurs unbearable costs at home and abroad. What Washington witnessed last week was not a true reassessment of America's involvement in Iraq. Bush, Petraeus and Crocker left events to force a reassessment that is still to come.

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