The Quandary Called Iraq

There is growing concern being voiced in the US over the quandary called Iraq. At issue is both the Bush Administration’s handling of the war and the role that Iraq plays in shaping the President’s overall vision for the Middle East.

The problem for Bush is not just that the war is going badly, but that he can’t find a way to make it right, and is no longer able to use spin to convince the public otherwise. As a result, a strong majority of Americans are losing confidence in the ability of the Administration to find a successful outcome to the war. Recent polling, for example, shows that almost two-thirds of the public disapproves of the President’s handling of the war effort, with an equally high percentage now saying that the war was not worth fighting in the first place.

This loss of confidence is both striking and, at the same time, disturbing.

The war in Iraq was to have gone so differently. Even after it became clear that the Administration’s case for the war was less than truthful and the initially projected fantasy scenario (“flowers in the streets” and “democracy spreading throughout the Middle East,” etc.) would not materialize, there was still public support for the war effort. With each setback, the Administration was able to spin a new line changing the war’s raison d’etre and redefining the meaning of victory. In this, the White House benefited from a compliant media and divided Democratic Party too weak to challenge the Administration’s case for war. For at least two years, therefore, President Bush was somewhat successful in holding public support. But no longer.

While official spokespersons continue to make a valiant effort to tamp down bad news and give positive shape to the war’s story, it has become increasingly clear to both the public and press that something is very wrong in Iraq, and it’s not just the mounting casualties. For a time the Administration attempted to drown out the stories of blood and chaos by focusing attention on successes on the political front (a new government here, an election there). But this, too, has now become a matter of concern to many. As Iraq reaches the deadline to complete its new constitution, press accounts of bickering sects and ethnic groups, and debates over the application of Shari’ a and limits on women’s rights now compete with reports of bombings, assassinations, and failed “clean-up” operations against an insurgency that will not die. The result: a loss of public trust and a growing debate about both the war the Administration’s strategy in the press and among both Democrats and Republicans.

The Administration’s response to this crisis of confidence has been two-fold. They have stepped up public pressure on Iraq’s elected leadership to complete the constitution by the August deadline and to produce a document more saleable in the US. Additionally, after rejecting calls to set a date for withdrawal from Iraq, the White House had tried to play the troop issue both ways, suggesting that beginning next year (after Iraq’s elections) the US will begin a substantial “draw down” of forces, while more recently maintaining that the US will stay in Iraq until the job is done, whatever that now means.

There are problems with both efforts. Iraq’s newly elected leadership is showing little interest in pleasing the US’s political needs. Kurdish and Shi’a parties have ideological platforms and constituencies of their own. Consensus, if it occurs, over critical issues like the extent of Kurdish control, the role of Islamic law in governance and the identity and power of the central government, will be decided, for good or bad, by the parties themselves.

The waffling on timetables and troop strength and the continued effort to redefine downward the meaning of victory has only served to further expose the Administration’s lack of a clear plan. Instead of winning support, this back peddling and obfuscation has only increased the concerns of a war weary public.

There are real dangers in all of this for Iraq and the broader Middle East. It has become increasingly difficult to square the current reality of Iraq with the early projections by the Administration that it was to be the “beacon” and model for Middle East democracy. Instead, poor Iraq has become much less, and a breeding ground for a new generation of terrorists, who may, like their Afghan precursors, spill out into the broader region. And if, as its neo-conservative architects saw it, this war was intended to project American power and resolve and help establish respect for American values, the US’s performance to date, has had a decidedly negative and opposite impact.

While the consequences of failure loom large over the entire region, the chances for success, as long as the Administration pursues its present course, appear slim.