By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 19, 2008
For a majority of Americans, today marks the fifth anniversary of the start of an Iraq war that was not worth fighting, one that has cost thousands of lives and more than half a trillion dollars. For the Bush administration, however, it is the first anniversary of an Iraq strategy that it believes has finally started to succeed.
It has been about a year since Army Gen. David H. Petraeus arrived to command U.S. forces in Iraq, Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker took over as the chief U.S. diplomat, and the military deployed 30,000 more troops to protect and rebuild neighborhoods.
Officials now running the U.S. effort express frustration that the gains wrought by their new political, security and economic policies -- in particular, sharply reduced violence -- are continually weighed against the first four years of the war, when Iraq unraveled in insurgency and sectarian strife.
"I came to Washington to describe what we're doing," Charles P. Ries, Crocker's senior deputy in charge of reconstruction and the Iraqi economy, said during a visit last week. "At almost every meeting, somebody wants me to describe what we used to do. . . . I know why people raise these questions, but I don't feel it's something I can speak to. The times were different then."
Today's policy is fundamentally different from the impatient mind-set of 2003, in both lowered U.S. expectations and a less imperious approach to dealing with Iraqi authorities. "In those days," Ries said, "we decided what [the Iraqis] needed, and we built it." Today, he said, Iraqis are asked what they want, and then told that while the United States will help, they will have to pay for most of it themselves.
Yet as the administration requests additional war funding and calls for a pause in promised troop withdrawals, some question its right to a second chance. "Like a tourniquet," the troop increase "has stopped the bleeding," Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), a former Army Ranger and senior member of the Armed Services Committee, reported last week after his 11th trip to Iraq. What he has not seen, Reed said, are the surgery and recovery that would begin to heal the wound that Iraq has become. And even U.S. officials acknowledge that the "surge" has not led to the political reconciliation the administration had hoped for.
Others see the past year's successes as fragile and reversible, and less consequential than the pain that preceded them. "I think they have it righter than they ever have before," Daniel P. Serwer, an Iraq expert with the U.S. Institute of Peace, said of the administration. "But the fact is that those four other years did exist, and they condition a lot of what can and cannot happen now. There's a history here, there's a lot of blood and guts on the floor -- literally."
The White House tends to dismiss such longer memories. While it recognizes the inclination to "relitigate the past" when a milestone such as the fifth anniversary is reached, National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said, "our focus is on the way ahead and making sure that the current situation and the future situation gets better."
In addition to new directions on the ground in Iraq, officials point to a newly effective structure designed to avoid the kind of ad hoc decision-making that led to early bureaucratic gridlock and mistakes, such as decrees dissolving the Iraqi army and banning Baath Party members from government jobs. President Bush's appointment last spring of Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute as deputy national security adviser for Iraq and Afghanistan has "helped streamline the process and made sure that there is . . . a senior-level official who can devote his full, undivided attention" to the subject, Johndroe said.
The once-bickering State Department and Pentagon are reporting new levels of cooperation. Diplomats who recall Donald H. Rumsfeld's insistence that the Defense Department control all aspects of early postwar policy note approvingly that it was his successor as defense secretary, Robert M. Gates, who recently called on Congress to increase the State Department's budget.
Many U.S. officials participating in the new efforts talk about those years as though they belonged to another administration. "We weren't here five years ago," said one who, like several interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity about past policy on the grounds that it would undermine the present.
"In the early days, they had an idea of something, a plan, of how it was going to be," the official said. "They would remove Saddam, and democracy would flower. They took this plan and rammed it down into the reality of Iraq, which nobody understood. What did they know about Iraq? Who were they listening to?" In the past year, the official said, "there has been a coming to grips across the board with Iraqi reality."
One of the more troublesome realities is that Iraqi leaders have been slow to take advantage of the "breathing space" that the troop increase was supposed to create. The administration has often noted that Washington and Baghdad operate on different clocks, with the U.S. timetable for demonstrable progress running far faster than its Iraqi counterpart. In an interview last week, Petraeus, the U.S. military commander, acknowledged that "no one" in the U.S. and Iraqi governments "feels that there has been sufficient progress by any means in the area of national reconciliation" or in the provision of basic public services.
In congressional testimony scheduled for early next month, both Petraeus and Crocker are expected to make the case that enough forward movement has been made to justify continuing the current strategy, and to warn that an abrupt withdrawal of U.S. troops could jeopardize the gains of the past year.
But while a strong congressional appearance by the two men last September quieted talk of funding cutoffs and brought a brief rise in public attention, their upcoming testimony appears to have sparked little anticipation.
As the administration struggles to focus on Iraq's future, it is competing with a presidential race locked in debate about how the war began and how to end it, a Democratic Congress determined to fight over every additional dollar, and a weary, distracted public.
Indeed, once a top public concern, Iraq has been muscled aside by the economy and the political campaigns. In a survey released last week by the Pew Research Center, more people knew the names of the head of the Federal Reserve Board and the president of Venezuela than knew the approximate number of U.S. casualties in Iraq.
Some public views about the situation in Iraq have eased over the past year. But others, including baseline judgments about the war itself, have hardly budged. In the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, nearly two-thirds said the war was not worth waging. Less than half, 43 percent, think the United States is making significant progress, and majorities continue to judge the war's benefits as not worth its costs.
Polling director Jon Cohen contributed to this report.