From the White House: Some Candor, But Not Enough

In the lead-up to the Iraq elections, the White House has embarked on a new public relations strategy. For months now, the President has responded to critics of the war by presenting an exaggerated rosy picture of success. Not only has this failed to win converts, it has made the President appear either out of touch with reality or dishonest. As a result, not only has Bush’s performance poll numbers dropped to record low levels, but almost 60% of the public indicate they no longer trust the President to tell the truth.

And so during the last two weeks the White House changed direction. In delivering what were called four major speeches on Iraq, Bush mixed candor with admissions of mistakes and appeals for support until the war is won.

On November 30th, in the first in the series of speeches, the President acknowledged that the training of Iraqi troops hadn’t gone well. On December 7th, he acknowledged similar problems with the reconstruction effort. On December 12th, Bush, for the first time recognized publicly the number of Iraqi civilians killed in the war (he put the number at 30,000) and added with regret that “things didn’t always go as planned.” Finally, on December 14th, Bush accepted that “much of the intelligence [used in pre-war arguments] turned out to be wrong” and then went on to accept full responsibility for the decision to invade Iraq.

All of this is refreshing candor from a President who, it will be recalled, in a press conference a year ago, could not name a mistake he had made during his career. It may help him rebuild some public trust, but it remains to be seen whether or not these acknowledgements will build support for the war effort itself.

What may be helpful to the White House are the just completed Iraqi elections, and if they are smart, they will use this milestone to declare, whatever the outcome, “mission truly accomplished,” and begin the process of extricating US forces from this war.

They won’t do that, of course, because even with the candor, what the Administration is seeking in this public relations effort, is a vote of confidence allowing them to remain in Iraq until some still undefined “victory” is won.

What the White House still cannot acknowledge is the reality that the continued presence of US forces in Iraq only serves to inflame the insurgency while making a target of Iraq’s government, infrastructure and those whom the insurgency identifies as collaborating with the “occupiers.” It is disturbing to note that a recent poll shows that 80% of Iraqis don’t support the “occupation” and almost one-half of Iraqis support attacks on US forces!

Having said this, it must be clears that the US should not withdraw from Iraq as unilaterally and irresponsibly as it entered in 2003. They should, however, set a date and begin a redeployment of troops out of Iraq, all the while, using political leverage to seek a United Nations mandate to create a permanent political and security arrangement to assist Iraq in the post-US withdrawal period. Such an effort, for example, could build on the recently convened all-party conference held in Cairo. The point here is that it is clear that Iraq’s government can and must solve its own internal problems and will continue to need security and reconstruction assistance. But this should no longer be under a US umbrella.

While the President’s new candor is refreshing, it is neither complete, nor is it sufficient. The original sin of this war was not just the failed intelligence on WMDs and the supposed 9/11 connections. It was also the failure to understand the consequences of the war, its costs and the commitments it would require. One thousand days ago, the White House entered Iraq, believing the war would be a “cake walk.” Fantasy and ideology combined to create this mess; providing no security or services for the civilian population; dismantling the apparatus of the state and military; enabling cronyism and corruption and all the rest.

One thousand days later, some candor and some admission of mistakes, but still no strategy and no clear sense of what will constitute real victory.

Because the US presence has become a part of the problem plaguing Iraq today, and because the legitimate government in Iraq still needs help, it is time for the US to leave. But to leave responsibly, there must be in place an internationally recognized support system that can assist the new government in making needed changes in its constitution, provide security, reconstruct its infrastructure and end the insurgency.

This, not just a public relations effort, is what is required.