President Bush's portrayal of a wilting insurgency in Iraq at a time of escalating violence and insecurity throughout the country is reviving the debate over the administration's Iraq strategy and the accuracy of its upbeat claims.
While Bush and Vice President Cheney offer optimistic assessments of the situation, a fresh wave of car bombings and other attacks killed 80 U.S. soldiers and more than 700 Iraqis last month alone and prompted Iraqi leaders to appeal to the administration for greater help. Privately, some administration officials have concluded the violence will not subside through this year.
The disconnect between Rose Garden optimism and Baghdad pessimism, according to government officials and independent analysts, stems not only from Bush's focus on tentative signs of long-term progress but also from the shrinking range of policy options available to him if he is wrong. Having set out on a course of trying to stand up a new constitutional, elected government with the security firepower to defend itself, Bush finds himself locked into a strategy that, even if it proves successful, foreshadows many more deadly months to come first, analysts said.
Military commanders in Iraq privately told a visiting congressional delegation last week that the United States is at least two years away from adequately training a viable Iraqi military but that it is no longer reasonable to consider augmenting U.S. troops already strained by the two-year operation, said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.). "The idea that the insurgents are on the run and we are about to turn the corner, I did not hear that from anybody," Biden said in an interview.
Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), who joined Biden for part of the trip, said Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and others are misleading Americans about the number of functional Iraqi troops and warned the president to pay more attention to shutting off Syrian and Iranian assistance to the insurgency. "We don't want to raise the expectations of the American people prematurely," he said.
After dialing down criticism of Bush's policy following the successful January elections in Iraq, congressional Democrats are increasingly challenging the president's decisions and public assessments, and developing alternative policy ideas. "The administration has failed to level with the American people," said Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). "It's terrible because they refuse to provide a full picture of what is really happening there."
Reid traveled to Iraq in April and was confined to heavily fortified zones in and around Baghdad and prohibited from visiting some of the most troubled areas where the insurgency is particularly strong. "The place is in turmoil," he said. Since then, Reid said, he has been meeting with former Clinton administration officials in an effort to devise a new Iraq plan, including the possibility of calling for more U.S. troops and requesting additional international assistance.
The White House says the focus on recent killings overshadows substantial long-term progress in Iraq, where the January elections allowed the United States to turn over more control for security to the Iraqis and set the stage for a new constitution to be written and approved this fall. Once that happens, White House officials say, a democratically elected Iraqi government protected by a better trained and equipped Iraqi military will hold off what remains of the insurgency and gradually allow U.S. forces to withdraw. Iraq's recent decision to put 40,000 troops around Baghdad, the most ambitious military move yet by the two-month-old government, proves that the U.S. plan to eventually turn over peacekeeping duties is not only viable, but working, White House officials maintain. Bush and Cheney, however, continue to decline to set deadlines for how long U.S. troops will remain.
"I am pleased that in less than a year's time, there's a democratically elected government in Iraq, there are thousands of Iraq soldiers trained and better equipped to fight for their own country [and] that our strategy is very clear," Bush said during a Rose Garden news conference Tuesday. Overall, he said, "I'm pleased with the progress." Cheney offered an even more hopeful assessment during a CNN interview aired the night before, saying the insurgency was in its "last throes."
Several Republicans questioned that evaluation. "I cannot say with any confidence that that is accurate," said Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), a member of the House International Relations Committee. "I think it's impossible to know how close we are to the insurgency being overcome."
It is not unusual for a president to put the most positive spin possible on U.S. policy, especially during a time of armed conflict when public support is crucial. But the administration's assertions about Iraq have been a source of controversy since the earliest days of the operation, from the insistence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction to Cheney's claim of links between Iraq and al Qaeda to the rosy forecasts about how welcome U.S. troops would be.
A poll conducted last month by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that only 37 percent of those surveyed approved of Bush's Iraq policy, while the number of people telling pollsters the war was not worth the cost has been rising in recent months.
"We are just paying a heavy price for mistakes made before," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
"It's dangerous when U.S. officials start to believe their own propaganda," said David L. Phillips, a former State Department consultant who worked on Iraq planning but quit in frustration in 2003 and has written a book called "Losing Iraq: Inside the Postwar Reconstruction Fiasco." "I have no doubt that they genuinely think that Iraq is a smashing success and a milestone in their forward freedom strategy. But if you ask Iraqis, they have a different opinion."
Phillips added that U.S. officials keep pointing to landmarks such as the January elections as turning points but "at no point have any of these milestones proven to be breakthroughs."
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari last week lobbied Cheney and others for a more assertive U.S. military approach in Iraq, as well as for more help meeting the fall deadline for writing and approving a constitution. But even that carries risks. "Heavy-handed meddling by the Bush administration only undermines Iraq's new political leaders," Phillips said.
Peter Khalil, a former national security policy adviser for the Coalition Provisional Authority that ruled Iraq after Hussein's fall, said the rosy views expressed by Bush and Cheney reflect tentative hopes for progress down the road rather than a focus on day-to-day events at the moment. "They're thinking more long term when they make such optimistic remarks," said Khalil, now a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. "There's some cause for optimism; however, things could turn badly very quickly."
Major Sunni leaders recently agreed to abandon their boycott of the political process; if they can be brought into the drafting of a new constitution and subsequent elections, Khalil and others say, it would undercut the elements of the insurgency that are powered by disaffection among the once-ruling Sunni minority. To do that, Khalil said, the new Shiite-led Iraqi government has to find the right balance in terms of including former members of Hussein's Sunni-dominated Baath Party.
"If you address these issues, it's very, very difficult to see them continue on in the use of violence because they become part of that [governing] structure," Khalil said.
A Western diplomat in Baghdad said victory would have to be won in a drawn-out struggle that will have peaks and valleys. "We should not expect some big-bang breakthrough so that one day the insurgency ends," he said on the condition of anonymity. "We should expect a long grind-it-out." After all, he said, "this is the hardest thing we've done to try to rebuild a state almost from zero."
"If you pull back far enough," he added, "you see a positive trend. . . . The negative is we've had some really spectacular car bombs, really gruesome car bombs and we've had a terrible civilian death toll. . . . The overall trend lines for the last six to seven months are better, but not so much better that we can say it's over or we won."
McCain said Bush needs to carefully balance his reassuring statements to a troubled nation with frank talk about the arduous and unpredictable future. "It's a long, hard struggle and very gradually maybe we are making progress," McCain said. "There are tough times ahead."