The New Seriousness. How to read the Bush administration's commitment to Iraq

por Tom Donnelly, 10 de diciembre de 2004

(Published in The Weekly Standard. From the August 12, 2004)
You don't know what you don't know. And in war, you really don't know. At war in the Middle East, you never really know. Apparently, President Bush's reelection has allowed his lieutenants to embrace this certain uncertainty in regard to the situation in Iraq.
The administration's actions and rhetoric over the past month have been the most realistic and sensible since before the invasion in March 2003. For perhaps the first time, the administration is broadly acknowledging and acting as if the American commitment to Iraq and the region is truly a generational one, or even longer.
Begin with the president himself. Meeting at the White House this week with Iraqi President Ghazi al-Yawar, President Bush reiterated his commitment to holding elections in Iraq next January 30, despite the accelerating efforts by the insurgents to derail the process.
At the same time, he warned that 'the American people must understand that democracy just doesn't happen overnight. It is a process. It is an evolution. . . . It takes a while for democracy to take hold. And this is a major first step in a society which enables people to express their beliefs and their opinions.'
This message was well tailored to the meeting with Yawar, the senior Sunni leader in the current Iraqi government. The length and ferocity of the war in Iraq will largely be measured by the willingness of the Sunni minority, for decades the politically dominant faction, to accept a diminution of power. Yawar strongly backed the Bush line: 'Right now we are faced with the armies of darkness who have no objective but to undermine the political process and incite civil war in Iraq,' he said. 'But I want to assure the whole world that this will never, never happen.' Yet he also complained that there was 'unfairness [in] calling [the insurgents] Sunni insurgents--these are not Sunni.'
President Yawar is right to try to reclaim the Sunni mantle from the insurgents, but it's likely to be a long, hard slog. General John Abizaid, commander of U.S. Central Command, made it clear that he has no illusions that backward-looking Sunni leaders in Iraq and in the region are indeed the problem.
Leading a group of journalists through Iraq, Abizaid made the crucial link between the traditional Sunni power structure, in this case the Baath party remnants, and the Sunni revolutionaries, in Iraq represented by the terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
'Baathists seem to think that they can temporarily make an alliance of convenience with Zarqawi and al Qaeda,' Abizaid told Bradley Graham of the Washington Post. 'We have no illusions about the hardest core of this enemy,' Abizaid said to Graham's Post colleague, columnist David Ignatius. The Baathist and fundamentalist rejectionists 'will have to be killed or captured.' With the clarity and bluntness of a soldier, Abizaid captured the administration's new message: 'It is all about staying the course. No military effort that anyone can make against us is going to be able to throw us out of this region.'
The lone note of uncertainty has been sounded by--surprise!--Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Having survived the cabinet shake-up and foreign-policy purge of the post-election period, Rumsfeld declared that he 'enthusiastically' accepted President Bush's request that he stay on as Defense chief.
He looked forward to continuing the process of military transformation, including reposturing U.S. forces abroad, and then said he 'hoped and expected' U.S. forces to be out of Iraq by the end of the second Bush term. While Rumsfeld's real commitment to Iraq and the Middle East has long been one of the unanswered questions of administration policy, it might be a mistake to read too much into his remarks.
For one, the secretary, like Buddha, always speaks cryptically. Like Bill Clinton, his purpose in speaking publicly is to hide in plain sight; you've got to know what the meaning of 'is' is when parsing Rumsfeld-speak. In this case, Abizaid probably provided better insight into the meaning of 'out' of Iraq: the general says the role of U.S. forces will change to focus less on direct combat and more on training and building the new Iraqi security structure.
And Rumsfeld is correct to concentrate his efforts on building a set of military institutions that will be appropriate to the long-term fight in the greater Middle East and elsewhere. Rumsfeld is not the real problem with Bush administration policy--the problem has been, and remains, the unwillingness of the White House to increase defense spending sufficiently and to enlarge U.S. ground forces, especially the Army. This has much more to do with macro political judgments and the president's second-term agenda than anything inside the Pentagon. If told to rebuild the Army, Rumsfeld and Army chief of staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker would build the right kind of force.
Indeed, next year's federal budget and the Pentagon's Quadrennial Defense Review will prove the ultimate signals of this administration's new seriousness. If the president really accepts that victory in the Middle East won't happen overnight, then he needs to create a defense establishment capable of winning a long war.
* Tom Donnelly is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing writer to The Daily Standard.