Heady U.S. Goals for Iraq Fall by Wayside
Despite continuing violence and instability, President Bush has stuck doggedly to his central message on Iraq: There is no need to change course because the administration’s plan for planting democracy in the Middle East is working.
Yet behind the unwavering public posture, there is evidence that the Bush administration has altered its approach. It has lowered its hopes for the type of democracy that can be achieved, changed course on its plans to privatize Iraq’s economy and reordered its priorities by devoting more money to improving security as fast as possible.
Gone -- at least for now -- is the lofty ideal of Iraq serving as a free-market democratic model that would ignite the forces of change throughout the Middle East and lay the seeds of a settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said administration officials have told him privately that they have lowered their expectations. “They’ve definitely recalibrated their goals,” he said. “One of them told me: ‘When we went in there, I thought we would build American-style democracy. Hell, I’d be happy with Romanian-style democracy now.’ ”
“It doesn’t mean you abandon” the Iraqis, Kolbe added. “It reflects what is realistic, what is doable.” Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld echoed that sentiment Friday, when asked what it would take for the United States to declare victory and begin to withdraw.
“Any implication that that place has to be peaceful and perfect before we can reduce coalition and U.S. forces I think would obviously be unwise because it’s never been peaceful and perfect and it isn’t likely to be,” he said. National security advisor Condoleezza Rice this month defined success in more modest terms than the administration used in the war’s early stages. “Success will be an Iraqi government that has gone through the legitimacy process of being elected and an Iraqi government that can defend itself,” she said.
Many experts believe the administration will be hard-pressed even to pull that off.
Chaotic security conditions in large parts of the country and delays in preparation are jeopardizing plans to hold national elections in January, according to administration officials and independent experts.
Early last week, opinions within the administration appeared to be divided, with some privately suggesting that election day should slip into the spring while others argued for keeping to the current timetable, even if the balloting is incomplete. The administration now appears to be willing to risk holding an election marred by violence and, quite possibly, incomplete balloting to keep to its schedule.
On Thursday, Rumsfeld became the first senior figure in the administration to suggest that elections should proceed even if violence prevents voting in as much as a quarter of the country.
“Nothing’s perfect in life,” he said in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Bush and Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who visited the United States last week, said voting for a national assembly would go ahead as scheduled in January.
Days earlier, however, administration officials dealing with Iraq appeared resigned to a delay. “The way things are going, the fact that the U.N. has not come forward with its support means we may have to settle for the spring,” said a State Department official who declined to be named.
The official indicated that initial timetables had called for thousands of United Nations election workers to be deployed around the country by this time, registering voters, setting up polling stations and training Iraqis to staff them.
Friday, a U.N. spokesman in New York said just eight non-Iraqi staff members were in the country preparing for the balloting and that no significant buildup would begin until a military force assigned to protect election workers was in place.
Carlos Valenzuela, the top U.N. electoral official in Iraq, has said that the election timetable is very tight and that preelection violence “could be a show-stopper.” Further complicating matters for U.N. officials is that three elections -- for a national assembly, regional councils and a Kurdish parliament in northern Iraq -- are to be held simultaneously.
Independent specialists following Iraq worry that an election so flawed that its legitimacy becomes a major issue could set back, rather than promote, democracy in the region.
The Bush administration has declined to say what the minimum acceptable conditions would be. “I don’t think anybody’s thinking in those terms right now,” said a senior official who declined to be identified by name. “In December, we’ll know where we are.”
The stakes are high. A successful vote would constitute a strategic setback for insurgents who are trying to bring down Allawi’s government and force the Americans to leave.
The administration has long viewed elections in Iraq -- and those scheduled next month in Afghanistan -- as potential models for the broader Middle East. Speaking at the United Nations last week, Bush repeated that concept, but his description of the potential domino effect was less expansive than the vision he had sketched on the eve of the war.
“Success in Iraq could also begin a new stage for Middle Eastern peace and set in motion progress towards a truly democratic Palestinian state,” he told the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, last year. In his U.N. speech last week, Bush omitted any suggestion that democracy in Iraq might nurture hope for peace in Israel and the Palestinian territories.
In the economic arena, the administration was forced to change course from plans to privatize Iraq’s public-sector businesses -- almost 200 firms employing about 650,000 people.
The state-owned enterprises’ obsolete equipment and bloated staffs made it difficult to find buyers. The International Crisis Group, a nonpartisan research organization based in Brussels, found that while Iraq’s state-owned enterprises generated revenue of $73 million in the first five months of 2004, they paid out $85 million in salaries. Security concerns scared away many potential suitors. Finally, legal questions were raised about whether international law allows an occupying force such as the U.S. to sell off state assets.
In the end, the effort was all but abandoned after only a handful of partial privatizations. The “privatization schemes were both unrealistic and ill-advised, given Iraq’s condition,” the ICG report concluded.
Noted American Enterprise Institute Vice President Danielle Pletka: “I don’t think anyone has let go of [privatization] as an imperative, but it can’t work in present conditions. To privatize, someone has to buy, and buyers aren’t there right now.”
Today, White House officials point to the spawning of rural small businesses as the primary success of private enterprise.
Bush administration hopes for the Iraqi oil industry have also foundered. Initially, there were predictions that Iraq could step up production to 6 million barrels a day in a matter of years.
Now, however, U.S. officials in Iraq concede they may not even be able to meet the goal of pumping 2.8 million barrels of oil a day by the end of this year. Constant insurgent attacks on oil infrastructure have produced losses of up to $1 billion this year, slashing the funds available for reconstruction.
In addition to the barriers to reviving oil production, plans to privatize much of Iraq’s oil industry ran into ideological resistance.
“There was an emotional reaction to the idea [of privatizing oil], a belief that the state has to protect oil assets,” Pletka said.
The administration is also shifting priorities on security to do a better job of confronting the insurgency, whose success has undermined Iraqis’ confidence in the ability of the interim government and the U.S. to maintain order. The economy and Iraq’s fragile experiment in democracy have suffered as a result.
The most visible element of the change of U.S. direction involves redirecting money initially meant for reconstruction projects mainly into strengthening Iraq’s fledgling security forces. There is also new pressure to accelerate spending the $18.4-billion reconstruction budget that Congress approved in November and to heighten its impact on individual Iraqis.
So far, only $1.2 billion has been disbursed, and so much of that has been eaten up in project overhead and payments to foreign firms that less than half of it has reached Iraqis, according to nongovernmental experts.
Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage told a House subcommittee Friday that only 77,000 Iraqis were employed on rebuilding projects.
“That’s woefully inadequate,” he said.
Times staff writers T. Christian Miller, Mary Curtius and Edwin Chen contributed to this report.