Trail Mix: A Gaping Hole

In years to come, historians will wonder why this Bush administration enjoyed such a strong reputation for its foreign policy for so long. After all, it was only a few weeks ago that Washington's pundit class, spurred on by the rival presidential campaigns, declared that George W. Bush was a shoo-in as long as the focus remained on Iraq.

How times have changed. The president's grand vision for Iraq--now known as his five-point plan--was supposed to get the full ballyhoo on Monday evening. The magical words "prime time" were thrown around, even though the networks chose to broadcast shows like "Fear Factor" instead of the president's fine words. But no amount of rhetorical flourish can mask the disarray of the administration's policy in Iraq, and the president's continuing struggle to speak convincingly to the American and Iraqi people.

First the strong stuff. The president reached for the rhetorical heights by citing the horrific beheading of Nicholas Berg, as part of his latest to convince Americans that Iraq and Al Qaeda are part of one and the same War on Terror. "The return of tyranny to Iraq would be an unprecedented terrorist victory, and a cause for killers to rejoice," Bush said. "It would also embolden the terrorists, leading to more bombings, more beheadings and more murders of the innocent around the world." A new and free Iraq, he explained, would represent "a decisive blow to terrorism at the heart of its power, and a victory for the security of America and the civilized world."

It's hard to remember how many times Bush has tried and failed to convince the world that the enemy in Iraq is part of the global terrorist plot. But it was clear within hours that he has failed to convince members of his own cabinet on this critical point. Speaking on ABC's "Good Morning America," Colin Powell strained to avoid the T word. "These former regime elements, these anti-Coalition people, as we call them, these terrorists, are determined to keep Iraq from having self-government, to keep Iraq from electing its own leaders," the secretary of State said. "They want to go back to the past, and we can't allow that to happen."

As Powell well knows, there's a wide spectrum of insurgents covered by his comments: Saddam loyalists, Iraqi nationalists, and, ultimately radical Islamists. Who is the Coalition fighting in Iraq? In spite of the president's speech, U.S. commanders don't know the full answer to that question. "We still don't have as good a view as we'd like to have about the nature of the insurgency and who's in charge and where the cells move and how they operate, etcetera," Gen. John Abizaid, commander of U.S. forces in the region, told senators last week. "It's an intelligence-intensive task."

Voters might not care to find out who the enemy is, as long as they're shooting and bombing in the direction of Coalition troops. But they will care about the president's warning, buried toward the bottom of his speech, about what is to come: "There's likely to be more violence before the transfer of sovereignty, and after the transfer of sovereignty." That violence has already driven down support for the war and the president himself. According to the latest Washington Post poll, 58 percent of Americans now disapprove of his handling of Iraq. Those figures are only likely to rise as the violence continues, not least because the bloodshed is directly linked to the political instability in Iraq. As General Abizaid explained last week: "The situation will become more violent even after sovereignty because it will remain unclear what's going to happen between the interim government and elections."

There's a reason why the Bush administration opposed for so long the suggestion that the United Nations--or Iraqi politicians--should take a formal role in running Iraq. It's messy. You spend time negotiating with others, instead of following your instincts. And you may well find yourself, at the end of it all, with vocal and powerful critics who still disagree with you. That's the prospect for the next seven months in Iraq. America's critics--at the U.N. and in Iraq--will grow in stature. Inside Iraq, as political figures emerge, the process will look even messier as rival groups fight (politically) with one another and with the Bush administration. If President Bush wanted to reassure voters he was on course to a free and happy Iraq, he may find himself facing more disappointment this fall.

Then there's the messiness of the U.S. role in Iraq after the scheduled handover of sovereignty on June 30, which is less than six weeks away. Bush suggested at the Army War College that U.S. officials in Iraq would be no different from their counterparts anywhere else in the world. "Our embassy in Baghdad will have the same purpose as any other American embassy, to assure good relations with a sovereign nation," he explained. "America and other countries will continue to provide technical experts to help Iraq's ministries of government, but these ministries will report to Iraq's new prime minister." Normally such technical expertise doesn't include thousands of troops in a combat zone and billions of dollars in reconstruction money. "Our function turns from running Iraq to advising and supporting the Iraqi government," said one senior State department official. "But of course everybody knows we are going to have to do the security because the new Iraqi government can't take on the burden of security, and we have got the money, or most of the money."

That kind of gaping hole between the president's words and the reality in Iraq poses huge political risks for Bush. Many Republicans have blamed "events" in Iraq for driving down the president's numbers. Yet those events look worse if voters are unprepared for them. In Iraq's case, the fanfare of June 30 will give way to reports of U.S. forces and U.S. diplomats engaging with Iraqis in hostile, and sadly fatal, situations.

The Bush years weren't supposed to be like this. This was billed as a team of heavy hitters and big thinkers, led by a president with an historic sense of mission. Compared to the supposedly feckless Clinton crowd, Bush's foreign policy brains were reshaping the world. There were new alliances with countries like Pakistan, new deals with the Great Powers of Russia and China. This time was supposed to be, in the words of Condoleezza Rice, the post-9/11 era--the next phase of history beyond the post-cold-war era.

Instead it looks like the Iraq era, shaped by what the president now acknowledges is an occupation. "Iraqis are proud people who resent foreign control of their affairs, just as we would," he said on Monday. The challenge for Bush is to convince Iraqis and Americans that the U.S. is no longer resented in Iraq. It's not clear his five-point plan can get anywhere close to that goal, any time soon.