Iraq Setbacks Change Mood in Washington

Times Staff Writer

President Bush is hearing increasingly bleak warnings that the U.S. occupation of Iraq is heading for failure -- from Republican and Democratic members of Congress, current and former officials and even some military officers still on active duty.

But so far, at least, the White House says it hasn’t heard anything that makes it want to change course.

Weeks of military and political setbacks have produced a striking change of mood in the capital about the prospects for success in Iraq, where U.S. and allied forces are struggling to establish security to allow a new Iraqi “caretaker government” to begin work June 30.


A series of Senate hearings last week showcased the growing fears of many foreign policy experts -- a mood some described as “panic.”

“I believe we are absolutely on the brink of failure,” retired Marine Gen. Joseph P. Hoar, a former commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “We are looking into the abyss. We cannot start soon enough to begin the turnaround.”

“If the current situation persists, we will continue fighting one form of Iraqi insurgency after another -- with too little legitimacy, too little will and too few resources,” warned Larry Diamond, a former advisor to the U.S. occupation authority in Baghdad. “There is only one word for a situation in which you cannot win and you cannot withdraw: Quagmire.”

Hoar and Diamond’s assessments were grimmer than most. But the two men were far from alone.

Maj. Gen. Charles H. Swannack Jr., commander of the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, which returned from Iraq in April, has given reporters an equally blunt view. “We are winning tactically, but have made a few tactical blunders ... [which] created strategic consequences in world opinion,” Swannack said in an e-mail message. “We are losing public support regionally, internationally and within America -- thus, currently, we are losing strategically.”

He added: “I believe Operation Iraqi Freedom is a just cause, America needs to stay the course and we must regain the moral high ground.”


Another active-duty officer who recently returned from Iraq -- and spoke on condition he not be identified -- was crisper. “We could not have screwed up more if we had set out to do it deliberately,” he said. “We gave ourselves all the disadvantages of occupation, but none of the advantages.”

Even Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R.-Ind.), the cautious chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, warned that the U.S. might be headed for a dead end unless the administration outlined a clearer strategy.

“A detailed plan is necessary to prove to our allies and to Iraqis that we have a strategy, and that we are committed to making it work,” Lugar told administration officials at a hearing. “If we cannot provide this clarity, we risk the loss of support of the American people, loss of potential contributions from our allies and the disillusionment of Iraqis.”

Leslie H. Gelb, a former president of the private Council on Foreign Relations -- and a top Pentagon strategist during the Vietnam War -- said he had never seen confidence sink as quickly in Washington as it has in recent weeks.

“I’ve never heard the kind of dark defeatism I’m hearing now, both in and out of government, including the worst days of the Vietnam War,” said Gelb, a Democrat. “Support for this war is plummeting. In Vietnam, that happened much more slowly, and only after much higher casualties.”

Not everyone agrees. Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a House committee Friday that he thought Hoar and other critics were wrong.


“It’s going to be tough, but no, I don’t think we’re on the brink of failure; I think we’re on the brink of success here,” Myers said. “I think that as the new transitional government stands up, that there will be traction there with the Iraqi people that will be very important to them. And I think we’ll continue to move forward.”

“Don’t panic,” counseled Phebe Marr, an Iraq expert formerly at the National Defense University. “It is worse than I had thought it was going to be, worse than most people thought it was going to be. But no one is considering just leaving -- because the [result] would be not just that Iraq would go down the drain, but that it would be a center of terrorism.”

Still, Marr said that when she briefed mid-level State Department officials recently, the mood she encountered was: “Help! Help! We can fail here!”

To counter that spreading sense of disorder and shore up public support, Bush plans to give six major speeches on Iraq in the six weeks remaining before the transfer of sovereignty to the transitional government, White House officials said. The first speech is scheduled Monday at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa.

Officials said Bush planned to explain his strategy in Iraq in greater detail and warn that there would probably be more setbacks -- and more U.S. casualties -- ahead.

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said Bush would outline “a clear strategy on how we need to move forward ... the security front, the sovereignty front, humanitarian and civil infrastructure, and the international and diplomatic fronts as well -- all in a context of keeping Iraq on a path of progress to democracy.”


Officials said there was no immediate sign that Bush was planning to announce any major new initiatives or shifts in policy in Monday’s speech. The main theme, one aide said, will be a familiar one: “Stay the course.” But it may be delivered in a more sober tone than before. “We’ve been pretty clear that this is going to be hard stuff. It’s going to be tough,” he said.

A major aim, the aide added, is to help set “rational expectations for what we’ll see over the next weeks and months in Iraq.” The White House wants to avoid a politically damaging letdown if the transfer of sovereignty does not visibly improve the military situation.

Senior officials have long warned that the June 30 milestone could produce an upsurge in violence.

“I would predict ... that the situation will become more violent even after sovereignty,” warned Army Gen. John Abizaid, chief of the U.S. Central Command. “So it’s possible that we might need more forces.”

If Bush decides to make a serious change in strategy, there is no shortage of suggestions.

Some hawks, such as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), have called for a significant increase in troop strength in Iraq. But Abizaid has said that he didn’t believe more troops were necessary at this time.

Several foreign policy experts, including Diamond and Gelb, have proposed that the United States set a target date for withdrawing its troops to make it clear that the occupation won’t last forever. Bush aides dismiss that idea. “It would just encourage the bad guys to wait us out,” said one.


Others, such as Lugar, have suggested that speeding up Iraq’s elections would help. But the administration says early elections are impractical, and Iraq expert Marr said that in any case, it isn’t elections that Iraqis crave most.

“We keep thinking that when we have these elections, somehow this is miraculously going to create legitimacy for some government,” she said. “Iraqis aren’t used to these kinds of elections. They’re used to services. They’re used to security.... And that will confer a great deal of legitimacy.”

Yet other critics have proposed that different regions of Iraq begin to govern themselves on their own schedules -- enabling the Kurdish north, for example, to hold elections before the rest of the country. But Marr and other experts argue that such a plan would lead to partition and civil war.

The most widespread suggestion, from Bush supporters and critics alike, is that the president lower his sights and accept that his dream of bringing democracy to Iraq may have to take second place -- for years, in all likelihood -- to restoring security.

Some traditional Republican conservatives have begun to charge that “neoconservatives” have led their party -- and their president -- astray with expansive foreign ambitions.

“We need to restrain what are growing U.S. messianic instincts, a sort of global social engineering where the United States feels it is both entitled and obligated to promote democracy, by force if necessary,” Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), the conservative chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a speech. “Liberty cannot be laid down like so much Astroturf. Law and order must come first.”


Some administration officials acknowledge that they are already thinking about deferring the original goal of a thriving multiethnic democracy in Iraq to seek a more modest target of stabilizing the country under a more-or-less “representative” government.

In public, Bush still says he is aiming at nothing less than democracy -- and that Iraq is getting there.

“An Iraqi democracy is emerging,” the president said last week. “Iraq now has an independent judiciary, a free market, a new currency, more than 200 newspapers in circulation, and schools free of hateful propaganda.... In time, Iraq will be a free and democratic nation at the heart of the Middle East. This will send a message -- a powerful message -- from Damascus to Tehran: that democracy can bring hope to lives in every culture.”

But at lower levels of the administration, Marr said, the goal has changed.

“We are in a desperate state there,” she said.

“We don’t have any security in the country.... The big agenda now has to be jettisoned. The big agenda was: We’re going to create a democracy and spread it around the region,” Marr said. “They have a much more realistic goal now in Iraq: stability.”


Times staff writers Ronald Brownstein and Mary Curtius contributed to this report.