The Mess in Iraq

The president's post-invasion policy has been a big failure

Another year has passed and the war in Iraq carries on, but discontent—in Iraq, across America and throughout the world—has grown stronger. Repeated errors in intelligence, appalling security failures for the Iraqi people, startling revelations of corruption and cronyism in the rebuilding efforts, photographs of egregious abuses of Iraqi prisoners—all of these events over the past year have shocked the world. At the end of this month, the recently appointed Iraqi administration will take over “full sovereignty” of Iraq—at least in name. It is hopeful, although highly doubtful, that this changeover will mark the beginning of the end of the Bush administration’s tragic foreign policy miscalculations in Iraq. The Iraqi people, the American people and indeed people worldwide, deserve better.

Although our concerns about Bush’s commitment to nation-building in Iraq date back months prior to the war, we have been stunned at the president’s stumbles over the past year. The pace of recovery was expected to be slow, but over the past year we felt as though the American effort was running in place—if not taking steps backward in the war on terror. As we feared prior to the war, America’s invasion has heightened anger toward the United States and turned Iraq into a rallying point for terrorist recruitment. America seems poised to hand the world another failed state mired in internal strife—a breeding ground for the terrorists the United States is ostensibly fighting. The world has become less safe—not safer—since the United States invaded Iraq.

This September saw the White House’s first half-hearted attempt to swallow its pride and ask the international community for help. After circumventing the United Nations Security Council and ignoring weapons inspectors in the run-up to war—and refusing for nearly five months after the invasion to consult with the General Assembly—Bush returned to the U.N. to rally support. We were pleased that the president recognized—implicitly, if not openly—the errors of his unilateral approach and the need for assistance from an institution he once wrote off as “irrelevant.” But emblematic of the Bush administration’s general policy toward the international community, the president arrived late, missing a speech from U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and came up short in his own address. Rather than showing humility, Bush delivered an aloof and defensive speech. He stubbornly stuck by his dismissive stance, opposing a meaningful role for the U.N. in Iraqi reconstruction. The president asked the international community to “contribute greatly,” calling on the U.N. to “assist” the United States in drawing up an Iraqi constitution, training civil servants and overseeing elections. But he pointedly—and unwisely—refused to relinquish U.S. control of Iraq and make way for U.N. control of the reconstruction, stabilization and democratization of the country.

At the time, Bush’s tone was frustrating; today, after nine more months of violence, his September speech is upsetting. We have since witnessed the destructive failure of his arrogant go-it-alone approach. To be sure, at critical junctures in the past year and increasingly over the past several months, Bush has turned to the U.N. for assistance, relying on Annan to lend legitimacy to the coalition-imposed election timetable, asking the U.N. to play a role in the selection of Iraq’s next slate of leaders. But the president’s chronic inability to admit mistakes and his extreme arrogance have made a difficult reconstruction effort all the more trying.

We are also concerned with Bush’s determination to proclaim democracy established as soon as possible—before Iraq is adequately prepared for it. After prematurely declaring “mission accomplished” a year and several months ago, Bush has set a firm date for the transfer of power to local authorities—June 30, just weeks from today. Mired in the paranoia of an election year, this deadline ensures ample time to dissociate his presidency from the ongoing violence and volatile events on the ground. The president will be able to blame the mess—the suicide bombings, random violence, rampant unemployment and poor social services that plague the country—on the Iraqi administrators nominally in charge, rather than take responsibility for his unimpressive reconstruction policy.

But as politically convenient a June power transfer might be for the president, we hope that domestic political calculations will not keep him from doing what’s right in Iraq. We fear that as June 30 approaches, given the chaos on the Iraqi street and the perceived illegitimacy of the Iraqi leadership, an effective handover of authority—that isn’t dismissed as a farce—will be impossible. We hope for the best outcome, but fear that this administration, which has never had a genuine reconstruction plan, is playing politics with people’s lives.

At a press conference last month—only the third prime-time press conference of Bush’s presidency—the president tried hard to deflect blame for everything from the Sept. 11 attacks to Iraq’s missing weapons of mass destruction. But by refusing to accept the slightest blame, or answer the most straightforward questions about his actions, Bush continues to undermine progress abroad. The Iraqi people, the international community and increasing numbers of American citizens are learning to distrust and dismiss statements from this White House, and in the global war on terror, such lack of credibility and worldwide cooperation will be disastrous.

In recent Memorial Day speeches, President Bush attempted to equate the war in Iraq with America’s honorable efforts in World War II. But in today’s war, U.S. troops are largely viewed as occupiers—not liberators. It is true that removing Saddam Hussein provides the potential for great improvements and new freedoms, but this divisive war is far from righteous. America has replaced tyranny with chaos, and it is the responsibility of the U.S.-led coalition to ensure lasting stability wins out in the end. That might mean that Bush has to eat his pride and humbly approach the international community or that American troops and administrators will have to remain in harm’s way longer than what would be politically convenient for the president. But it’s time for Bush to start doing what’s right instead of continuing to live in a neoconservative pipedream.