The much anticipated June 30, 2004 "hand off" turned out not to be much of an event and didn’t even occur on the designated date. One observer noted, "this is not what it was supposed to look like." After a day or so of headlines, eclipsed by the bizarre happenings in a Baghdad courtroom, the news from Iraq returned to what has become unfortunate normality.
The June date had been set for what appeared to be transparent political reasons. The Administration had hoped that by summer the situation would be sufficiently in control to allow for a formal ceremony that would send the message of progress and victory. Every effort, including some questionable corner cutting, was exhausted to get there. Compromises were made to resolve crises in Fallujah, Najaf, and the Kurdish north. Even the selection of the interim government itself was the result of an accommodation with a variety of internal and external conflicting political forces.
If the Administration had hoped for a public relations replacement for the now embarrassing May 1, 2003 "Mission Accomplished" debacle, it was not to be. Persistent violence and Iraq’s stubborn political realities made clear that despite initial media hype (as in, "Countdown to …"), it was necessary to tamp down expectations.
In fact, the President’s only "photo op" was so discrete that it had to be translated to the press. At the NATO summit, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld can be seen passing a note from National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice to President Bush informing him of the transfer. He then writes a note "Let Freedom Reign" and whispers to Prime Minister Tony Blair (who is seated to his right) who then gives Bush a congratulatory handshake.
While the White House continues to insist that "full sovereignty" has been restored to the Iraqi people-that may explain the courtroom scene with Saddam Hussein-a more sober assessment is in order. Over 140,000 US troops will continue fighting in Iraq for, we are now told by the Pentagon, at least three more years. According to an "agreement" reached before the "transfer," US forces will continue to have immunity from Iraqi justice and will remain under US command.
The Coalition Provisional Authority is now gone and has been replaced by what is reported to be the largest US Embassy presence in the world. The US also retains control of over $18 billion in unspent reconstruction projects. And over 100 decrees and appointments to critical ministry posts made by CPA head Bremer will remain in place for the foreseeable future.
The new Iraqi government inherits a mess. That is largely due to the Pentagon’s penchant for allowing ideological fantasy to trump reality. Insufficient manpower, lack of effective post-war planning and a failure to understand Iraqi society and its needs all contributed to creating the current sad state of affairs.
While all of this will continue to play out to an uncertain end on the Iraqi stage what is clear on the US domestic front is the toll it has had on US public opinion.
Polls continue to show that the race for the White House remains a dead heat. But that appears to be more a function of the political divide among American voters than enduring support for President Bush and his policies. In fact the public support for this war is at an all time low. A majority of Americans now believe that President Bush "deliberately misled people to make the case for the war." When asked whether removing Saddam Hussein was worth the cost and causalities, a majority now say "it was not worth it." Similarly a majority of Americans now express the concern that the war has only served to increase the danger of terrorism and has, therefore, made the US less safe. Almost 6 in 10 US voters now say they disapprove of the President’s handling of the war.
A final impact of this troubling war that is now being actively debated in the US press is its impact on the Bush Administration’s effort to replace traditional foreign policy with a neo-conservative-driven doctrine. It appears that as that ideology ran up against political realities, it failed rather miserably. While not reducing the fervor of its adherents, this war has made it less likely that neo-cons will embark any time soon on another preemptive adventure.
History will ultimately judge these events and the actors who set them in motion. But even at this early point in time it seems clear from the reality on the ground and the public’s reactions to them that this war was more than policy makers bargained for. Far from being a sweet and easy victory, it has become a long-term burden with difficult consequences. It has, for the time being, left Americans more divided and feeling less safe. It has tarnished the US’s image and left our policy and several important relationships in tatters. There is not yet a "mission accomplished," nor, in any real sense, a "handoff" to point to.