Groping In The Dark

Iraq may be spinning out of control, but in the Bush administration, the spin was strictly controlled. From Baghdad to the White House, administration spokesmen went to elaborate lengths to argue that the presence of terrorists in Iraq was somehow a positive development. Paul Bremer, the U.S. civil administrator in Iraq, adopted a tone of "we've got 'em right where we want 'em." Bremer said: "Better to fight it here than to fight it somewhere else, like the United States." At a White House briefing, a senior administration official echoed, "I would rather fight them in Baghdad than in New York." If Al Qaeda has popped up in Baghdad, the Bushies defiantly proclaimed, it only goes to show that the administration was right all along to label Iraq as a terrorist haven. "Those who said there was no link between Iraq and the war on terror were dead wrong," said the White House official. (Writing in The New York Times, Harvard lecturer and former Clinton national-security official Jessica Stern caustically observed, "America has taken a country that was not a terrorist threat and turned it into one.")

The administration strained even harder to find "I told you so" parallels between the bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad and the Palestinian suicide bombing on a bus in Jerusalem that killed 18 people on the same day. "It's emblematic of the kind of problem that we are fighting," said the senior official at the White House. "There is a movement out there that simply doesn't want to see a different future for the Middle East, and everybody is beginning to understand that."

Never mind that the Jerusalem bombing and inevitable Israeli retaliation (a rocket attack on a Hamas leader) threatened to demolish the rickety Middle East peace process. There is a certain doggedness, if not willful denial, in --President George W. Bush's public avowals about the war on terror. "Our will cannot be shaken. We will persevere through every hardship," Bush ritually intoned last week. Taking the president's lead, top administration officials mocked the hand-wringing of the TV talking heads and the "liberal" press, as well as what they regard as the timidity of America's allies. Politically, Bush has not yet suffered much: the new NEWSWEEK Poll shows his approval rating dipping only slightly to 53 percent. His negatives are creeping up, however, and one deadly bombing of a U.S. barracks could cause popular support to plunge.

The Bush team can rightfully point to all the terrible things that have not happened in Iraq: no chem-bio attacks on U.S. troops, no torched oilfields, no refugee crisis. And it's true that during the Afghanistan conflict and the invasion of Iraq, the cries of the doomsayers on cable TV generally signaled that victory was right around the corner. Nonetheless, the Bushies are not quite as cocky as they sound.

For all their public "bring 'em on" bluster, top administration officials are privately worried about the course Iraq is taking. "Stay the course is not their true feeling," one insider told NEWSWEEK. "They do not think they are on track to succeed in Iraq." One measure of the Bushies' concern is the appointment last month of Robert Blackwill to a high-level job on the national-security staff. The former Bush "41" staffer, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, is known as "a force of nature," said a former colleague. "He can break a lot of crockery." Blackwill has no particular ideology; he is likely to be evenhandedly blunt with neocons and internationalist moderates alike. It will be Blackwill's job to help chart a new strategic course for the Bush administration in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan and, just as important, to ride herd on feuding government agencies and Congress to make sure the new direction gets followed, and quickly.

But where to? There is no clear Plan B, and there was barely a Plan A. The administration's somewhat lax attitude to postwar planning has come home to roost, without any obvious way out. Bush's principal advisers don't seem to agree with each other on basic strategy (as usual, Secretary of State Powell favors a more internationalist approach, while the Defense Department neocons prefer to go it alone). The administration would like to have most of its troops out of Iraq in a year or so, but there is no sign that Iraq will be ready to stand on its own by then.

One obvious step is to increase the number of U.S. troops in Iraq. Strong conservative voices on Capitol Hill and in the media, including Sen. John McCain and columnist George F. Will, have called on the president to face up to the need for more boots on the ground. But the administration seems very reluctant. Before the Iraq war, the Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Eric Shinseki, was publicly upbraided by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz for suggesting that "several hundred thousand troops" could be required to stabilize occupied Iraq. "Wildly off the mark," said Wolfowitz. The top brass seems to have gotten the message. With 139,000 U.S. troops on the ground, are more necessary? NEWSWEEK asked JCS Vice Chairman Gen. Peter Pace last week. "Not a single commander has said that's the correct solution," Pace replied.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is known to dislike the whole idea of the American military's serving as an army of occupation for any longer than is absolutely necessary. He wants the soldiers to be war-fighters, not peacekeepers--to get in, then get out. "American troops are good at killing people and breaking things. They're not good at policing," said one insider familiar with Rumsfeld's thinking.

The experience of the American GIs on the ground supports this view. In the south, where the Shiite population is friendlier towards their liberators, U.S. Marines and British troops have moved fairly freely among the people, doffing their Kevlar vests and playing soccer with schoolboys. But in the Sunni triangle around Baghdad, where the resistance stages more than a dozen attacks a day, American soldiers understandably do not like to get out of their armored personnel carriers and Humvees. Instead they drive around until they become targets. Then, hot, young, homesick and angry, they sometimes overreact, kick in doors, humiliate the men, offend the women and alienate the very people who are supposed to be providing intelligence about terrorists and Baathist holdouts. Lori, an unhappy 21-year-old private who has relatively safe and comfortable quarters at Baghdad airport, said: "I feel like I've died and gone to hell... On my good days, I feel like maybe we're at least doing something worthwhile for these people. There aren't many good days. On my bad days, I feel like getting my machine gun and opening up on everyone of them."

Top American officials suggest the only answer is for the Iraqis to help themselves. "Iraqis need to take ownership of their own future," said General Pace. The vice chair of the JCS says the U.S. commanders on the ground do not want more coalition troops, but rather more Iraqi police and civil-defense forces. Pace says there is no shortage of volunteers, but he acknowledges that Iraqis who work with the Americans risk being targeted as stooges. (From the town of Diwaniyah, a young Marine officer e-mailed friends in Washington, D.C., to report that 2,000 men showed up recently to apply for jobs on the police force. Some 500 were chosen; the other 1,500 rioted for two days.)

And it's not entirely clear that Iraqi policemen can be trusted not to work with the enemy. In the bombing of the U.N. headquarters, suspicion immediately fell on the local guards. Many of them had been informants for Saddam's regime and had once spied on the United Nations. The bombing had earmarks of an inside job. The truck bomb, filled with explosives liberated from an Iraqi arms depot, blew up just below the office of the chief U.N. representative, Sergio Vieira de Mello. Noting that suicide bombings are more the style of Al Qaeda than Saddam's secret police, U.S. intelligence officials wondered if some of Saddam's "dead-enders" had formed an unholy alliance with Islamic extremists. In the past, the largely secular Baathists have loathed the zealous Jihadis. But have they joined forces against their common enemy?

The Americans don't know for sure. "We think they're in the same room," said General Pace. "Whether they're in the same bed, it's hard to tell." Since the first requirement of winning the war on terror is good intelligence, the uncertainty --among top officials is not encouraging. While U.S. forces have had good luck rolling up Baathist leaders, capturing 42 of the 55 named on playing cards printed up by the CIA (last week: the King of Spades, Ali Hassan Al-Majid, Saddam's murderous cousin known as Chemical Ali), U.S. intelligence remains largely in the dark about foreign terrorists who have infiltrated Iraq to wage jihad. One reason: the terrorists have learned to use couriers instead of mobile phones that can be traced by spy-in-the-sky satellites.

Are Iraq's neighbors allowing Jihadis to cross the border and join the fight? Rumsfeld fingered Syria last week. But some intelligence officials suspect that most of the Jihadi recruits are coming from America's oil-rich ally, Saudi Arabia. Some 3,000 Saudi men have been reported to have gone missing in recent weeks. (It is an inconvenient fact for U.S.-Saudi relations that 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Saudis.)

Stretched thin, short of military policemen (many of whom are reservists and National Guards, upset at long tours away from home), the U.S. military could use some help from abroad. A few nations may, reluctantly, send troops to Iraq to join the Americans and the British. The Eastern Europeans have already sent small detachments, and the Turks, Indians and Pakistanis are thinking about it. But while adding Muslim troops to the occupying force would be highly desirable from the American standpoint, Muslim political leaders are understandably wary about being seen as collaborators with Uncle Sam, especially as the violence escalates.

America would also welcome a NATO presence, but the Pentagon strongly insists that American troops will only follow American commanders. Though the French will be balky as ever, there may be ways to work around this impasse. Divided or joint commands have succeeded elsewhere, notably in Bosnia; in Afghanistan, NATO (a largely German force) has taken over security in the capital of Kabul. In Iraq, American troops could continue to take the combat roles fighting the resistance, while foreign troops, under international command, could guard relief organizations and "soft" targets.

Economic progress is probably the best hope for peace in the long run, but before Iraq can revive its oil industry and rebuild its infrastructure, it must have security. How bad is crime in Iraq? At a recent Washington conference on restoring the Iraqi electricity industry, one expert observed that so much copper has been looted from Iraqi power plants and smuggled out of the country that the price of copper has dropped in the Middle East. Seems there is a glut.

Rebuilding Iraq will take years and billions of dollars not yet budgeted by Congress. Iraq is far from self-determination. The members of the Governing Council are split by ethnic differences and live and work under heavy guard, afraid of being the resistance's next victims.

Meanwhile, the mothers of American soldiers watch the hellish images on TV and listen to the gloomy commentators and want to know when their children are coming home. Perpetually conditioned by Vietnam, the pundits see a deepening quagmire and draw invidious comparisons between turning over power to the Iraqis and the ill-fated "Vietnamization" program of the early 1970s. The Vietnam analogies are facile and exaggerated. But the United States is not coming home any time soon.