Bush's Iraq Policy: A Quagmire of Confusion

As the Bush administration searches with increasing desperation for a viable "exit strategy," its so-called Iraq policy grows more muddled with each passing day.

The latest example -- and an especially spectacular one -- was when George Bush personally asked key European and other leaders on Wednesday to forgive tens of billions of dollars of Iraq's crushing debt. The very same day, the Pentagon announced on its website that companies from these countries will not be permitted to bid on 18.6 billion dollars in reconstruction contracts in Iraq.

Needless to say, the Pentagon's directive and its timing were unlikely to put the leaders of Russia, France and Germany -- the most important of the excluded countries -- in the mood to entertain the president's request. To add to the White House's sorrows, the deputy prime minister of Canada, also on the Pentagon's blacklist, suggested that Ottawa may reconsider its plans to add to the $190 million that it has already contributed to the reconstruction effort.

It's not surprising that, in the words of the New York Times, White House officials were "fuming" over the Pentagon's announcement. Foremost among the irate administration honchos was, no doubt, former Secretary of State James Baker. The Pentagon move coincided with Baker's first day on the job as Bush's special envoy in charge of reducing Iraq's debt. As part of his appeal, Bush had asked German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, French President Jacques Chirac, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, among others, to welcome Baker when he comes calling for assistance.

Wednesday's snafu, while embarrassing and potentially costly in itself, is symptomatic of a larger problem facing a White House that seems increasingly at sea over what to do about Iraq as various constituencies within the administration desperately jostle to protect their own interests.

The price of internal division has become especially clear over the past month in Iraq. Since November, the U.S. military has adopted aggressive counter-insurgency tactics in order to reduce insurgent attacks, but at the expense of the larger struggle being waged by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) to win the "hearts and minds" of Iraqis, including the residents of the so-called "Sunni Triangle."

The CPA's job is to convince Iraqis that U.S. troops are there to help them to rebuild Iraq and help it progress toward a democratic future. However, the military itself, which lost a record number of troops to hostile fire last month, has now embarked on a military campaign based to a large degree on Israeli tactics. It is not a strategy designed to win popular acceptance, to say the least. Razor-wire fences, checkpoints, night-time raids and roundups, bombing, and the demolition of houses and other buildings have not to date persuaded Palestinians that Israeli soldiers are in the West Bank to help them.

The CPA and the military now have "opposing goals", noted ret. Rear Adm. David Oliver, who just returned from a high-level CPA job. "The military's goal has nothing to do with the (Coalition's) success", Oliver said.

This incoherence -- or rather the exasperating difficulty of reconciling military tactics to political goals -- was best expressed this week by Lt. Col. Nathan Sussaman, the commander of a battalion that has surrounded the town of Abu Hishma with a razor-wire fence. "With a heavy dose of fear and violence, and a lot of money for projects," he told the New York Times, "I think we can convince these people that we are here to help them".

Adding to the dangerous confusion is the continuing bureaucratic infighting in Washington over control of the Iraqi occupation. Neoconservative hawks around Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney are fighting for power with the "realists" and regional specialists in the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

While the neocons continue to bolster their favorites on the Iraqi Governing Council, primarily Ahmed Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), the "realists" are more inclined to work with others on the Council, notably Ayad Alawi, leader of the Iraqi National Accord (INA), who has long been a CIA favorite.

During the '90s, the INA and INC, both of which boasted high-ranking secret contacts within the Iraqi army and intelligence services, competed for influence in Washington. When the neoconservatives skyrocketed into prominence after 9/11, and Bush decided to give the Pentagon the lead role in fighting the war on terrorism, the INC became the clearly dominant player.

The two groups fundamentally distrust and detest each other. The INC contends that the INA was heavily infiltrated by Iraq's intelligence services when Saddam was in power, and that many of its operatives are former Ba'athists whose democratic credentials are questionable at best. The INA, on the other hand, claims that the INC is essentially a vehicle for Chalabi's personal ambitions and not a party that can mobilize significant numbers of the Iraqi people.

The primary bone of contention at this moment is the CPA's "Iraqification" plan. Chalabi, who persuaded the Pentagon neocons to summarily disband the Iraqi army after the war, has long called for a thorough de-Ba'athification of Iraq, particularly within the military and police. INA, on the other hand, has long argued that purges should be kept to a minimum in order to ensure the cooperation and loyalty of competent officials and military officers in post-war Iraq.

In the run-up to the transfer of sovereignty to a provisional government scheduled for next June, both parties are aggressively pursuing their separate and conflicting agendas.

The Pentagon leadership continues to support Chalabi's efforts to launch a wide-ranging de-Ba'athification. For example, companies close to Saddam Hussein have been banned from bidding on new contracts. The Pentagon is also sponsoring new laws that will enable tribunals to prosecute even mid-ranking Ba'athist officials. Meanwhile, Alawi's INA is working with the CIA and U.S. military authorities in Baghdad to recruit former Ba'athist intelligence officials into a new military service to help fight the insurgents. INA is also lobbying hard for accelerating the "Iraqification" of the army and other security forces.

These conflicting and contradictory policies reflect the absence of a coherent underlying strategy that has the support of all the key factional interests back in Washington -- the kind of policy unanimity that has long eluded the Bush administration. And while Bush has clearly been tilting away from the hawks in favor of the realists over the past two months, muddled policymaking is here to stay, as each side retains sufficient power to undermine the other.

That Baker was the latest victim of this malaise on his first day of work is in some ways encouraging. It may serve as an incentive for him to take greater control of the presently rudderless Iraq policy. Among all of Bush's advisers, Baker is a dyed-in-the-wool realist who, as Ronald Reagan's chief of staff and secretary of state during the first Gulf War, showed little patience for bureaucratic or ideological intrigue, least of all from neoconservatives. He may well be Bush's only remaining hope for a lasting resolution.

Jim Lobe writes on international affairs for Inter Press Service, Oneworld.net, Foreign Policy in Focus and AlterNet.org.

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