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Hirsh: Rice Admits Error on Iraq

Condoleezza Rice is, by her own admission, not "that self-reflective." But in an interview in her office on Thursday the secretary of state took a moment to contemplate the improved security situation in Iraq. Asked whether she and the Bush administration had made any mistakes early on "that you're perhaps trying to redeem yourself for," she responded with her trademark steely smile. "I'm sure there are lots of things we might have done better," she said. "I'll give you one with Iraq. If I had to do it all over again, we would have had the balance between center, local and provincial better. But that's the kind of thing you learn over time."

Rice has admitted on occasion that the U.S. government made "tactical" mistakes in Iraq, but rarely has she gone into specifics. Reminded that Mideast scholars had long advised that controlling Iraq would require winning over local, provincial and tribal authorities, Rice said, "I would like to go back and find out who gave that [advice] … Arab states can be very centralized. This is actually a fairly new model of local and provincial responsibility. I don't think it was self-evident that this was the case." Rice said that the U.S. occupation began to grapple with this reality in earnest in 2005, when the State Department began pushing to send so-called provincial reconstruction teams outside of Baghdad. She said the creation of a democratic central government and "the transition to administrative law, I think, is going to be judged very well" over time. But, she added, "I think we didn't identify a lot of the kind of provincial and local leaders that might have been able to deliver services as well as politics on a more localized level early on."

Her comments appeared to be an implicit criticism of L. Paul Bremer III, the administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq until the end of June 2004. Bremer, in an interview from his home in Maryland, said he had done all he could to reach out to localities and tribal leaders but might have been able to do more if he'd had more resources. "It's important to remember that we had what we called governance support teams in all of the provincial capitals by the fall of 2003. We certainly had the concept there. Could we have done more? We were chronically understaffed throughout the CPA. We never had enough in the provinces. So I don't really know." He also notes that it took a long time before Sunni leaders in Anbar province, for example, were ready "to recognize that they were no longer going to be running the country as they had," and therefore would be willing to end their resistance to the U.S. occupation. "Could they have come to that solution in 2004? I devoutly wished they had. That's not to say we couldn't have done more."

Rice has some reason to feel satisfied—even somewhat redeemed—at the moment. Violence in Iraq has declined to the point where many Iraqis are returning from exile—in large part because of much greater attention and resources directed to local, provincial and tribal leaders. Now, U.S. officials are asking the faltering and fractious "center"—the national government in Baghdad—to "match the kind of cooperation now taking place at local and provincial levels," as Vice President Dick Cheney put it in a Nov. 1 speech. In addition, after an exhausting series of visits to the Mideast, Rice has revivified talks between the Israelis and Palestinians over the creation of a Palestinian state. Also on Thursday, Pakistani autocrat Pervez Musharraf, responding at least in part to pressure from Rice and President Bush, announced that he would hold elections by Feb. 15—despite the state of emergency he declared on Nov. 1.

Critics of the administration, including some experts who served in Iraq, say Rice's concession of error comes far too late. "The overarching comment you can make about administration policy in Iraq is not that they haven't learned, it's that they've always been behind the curve," says Larry Diamond, a Hoover Institution scholar who once advised the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq. "And that at every historical moment they've been racing to catch up with reality. Now they're catching up with that problem [of the locals and tribes], but they haven't caught up with the problem at the political center. There's no constitutional consensus on what the relations between the center and provinces should be."

Both Diamond and another Iraq scholar, Judith Yaphe of the National Defense University (NDU), say that just about every expert in the region, going back to the British occupation after World War I, has known how crucial it was to build relations with the provinces and tribal leaders in Iraq. Prewar reports by both the Future of Iraq Project, run out of the State Department, and NDU had emphasized this at a time when Rice was national security adviser, Yaphe says. "If you look at Saddam's rule, he knew very well how important local and tribal leaders were," says Yaphe. She also says that Rice's idea that this was a "fairly new model" is wrong. "It seems to me anybody in that area understands that full well. That's how that system has operated there for a long time."

Perhaps, but Rice is also representative of a tradition of American nation building by trial and error—one of which she herself is acutely aware. That's one of the reasons she often harks back to how difficult it was to develop a cold war strategy "in this building between 1946 and 1953," she says. Too many commentators tend to think that good outcomes in the past—like the successful conclusion of the cold war—were inevitable, when in fact they were often developed piece by piece, feeling one's way in the dark. The same is true of the rebuilding of a peaceful Europe and Asia after World War II, which came about after many false starts, she notes. "Of course France and Germany would never fight again," Rice said facetiously, referring to the now-conventional wisdom that these two longtime enemies would make up, as they did under U.S. guidance after World War II. "Of course it was going to turn out with democratic-aligned Japan and South Korea where we would be partners in Asia. Of course it was going to work that you would get through failed reconstruction in Europe in 1947. Of course you'd rearm Germany and then France would not fight by creating this thing called NATO … This is the way big historical events unfold, and they tend to be pretty messy and difficult." Or as Winston Churchill once remarked, "The Americans will always do the right thing—after they have exhausted all the alternatives."