President Bush has instituted some overdue anger management for the State and Defense departments. His appointment Tuesday of veteran diplomat L. Paul Bremer III, who enjoys the support of both departments, as top civilian advisor for Iraq will help dampen feuding over reconstruction.
But unless the administration can settle on a longer-term plan for creating a more democratic Iraq, one that goes beyond getting U.N. sanctions lifted, Bremer may stumble like the man he’s replacing, retired Army Lt. Gen. Jay Garner. An Iraqi interim government is supposed to be forming under U.S. protection, but its popular support is in doubt and the fragile coalition binding it could be quickly torn apart by infighting.
State and Defense Department tensions are nothing new. In the Reagan administration, Secretary of State George Shultz and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger squabbled over American intervention abroad, including in Lebanon. The Clinton administration saw a replay of such a dispute over the Balkans.
Today, crusading neoconservatives in the Pentagon led by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul D. Wolfowitz butt heads with the more cautious Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. The standoff infects almost every postwar event in Iraq, from the composition of a new Iraqi government to whether to include the United Nations and European allies in reconstruction. Instead of figuring out how to help Iraq, leading government officials have wasted precious time and energy battling each other. The administration is also now getting sidetracked in confrontations over how hard to pressure Iran over its nuclear facilities.
First things first: Iraq’s oil fields aren’t producing enough oil for domestic consumption and there have been three-day lines at some gas stations. Kuwait has had to supply Iraq with cooking fuel. That’s aside from the mountains of garbage, still-unsafe streets and flickering lights, if there is any power at all. Iran has used the chaos to increase support for radical Iraqi Shiites who want power for themselves.
Garner has relied partly on Saddam Hussein’s old governing apparatus of senior Baath Party members because this is the easiest course. Granted, any functioning Iraqi government will have to employ some ex-Baathists, whom the administration obviously regards as a better choice than the candidates of the Shiite mullahs. But subtlety is required. U.S. authorities need to vet police officers, university administrators and other officials by interviewing them and their neighbors and associates to weed out the torturers and the utterly corrupt.
Bigger questions still hang in the air. Will the European allies participate in economic reconstruction bidding, and if not, how will the administration persuade them to forgive billions in Iraqi prewar debt? What will be the U.N. role?
No matter how capable Bremer is, he can’t reinvent Iraq single-handedly. The longer the mystery remains about the administration’s intentions, the less confidence Iraqis will have that it actually has a plan, even a secret one.