Three years ago, as they ordered more than 150,000 U.S. troops to race toward Baghdad, Bush administration officials confidently predicted that Iraq would quickly evolve into a prosperous, oil-fueled democracy. When those goals proved optimistic, they lowered their sights, focusing on a military campaign to defeat Sunni-led insurgents and elections to jump-start a new political order.
As the conflict enters its fourth year today, the Bush administration faces a new challenge: the prospect of civil war. And, in response, officials again appear to be redefining success downward.
If Iraq can avoid all-out civil war, they say, if Baghdad’s new security forces can hold together, if Sunni Arabs, Shiites and Kurds all participate in a new unity government, that may be enough progress to allow the administration to begin reducing the number of U.S. troops in the country by the second half of this year.
In increasingly sober public statements -- and in slightly more candid assessments from officials who insisted that they not be identified -- the administration is working to lower expectations.
“It may seem difficult at times to understand how we can say that progress is being made,” President Bush said Saturday in his weekly radio address, acknowledging that much of the recent news from Iraq has been bad. “But ... slowly but surely, our strategy is getting results.”
“We may fail,” said a senior official directly involved in Iraq policy. “But I think we’re going to succeed. I think we’re going to nudge this ball down the road.... It’s not going to be easy, and it’s going to take time.”
The more sober tone is not entirely new; officials, from Bush on down, have tacitly acknowledged for more than a year that trying to stabilize Iraq is proving more difficult than they expected when they launched the war in 2003.
But independent foreign policy analysts say they see signs of a more fundamental shift in the administration’s position -- a creeping redefinition of U.S. goals in Iraq that increasingly allows for the possibility that the nation may remain unstable for years to come.
“It isn’t going to be perfect,” Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said last month. “It isn’t going to be pretty. It isn’t going to look like the United States of America. It’s going to be an Iraqi solution politically, and Iraqi solution economically and an Iraqi solution from a security standpoint.”
“Initially, we were going to stay until the insurgency was defeated,” noted James F. Dobbins, a former special envoy under Presidents Clinton and Bush. “About a year ago, we amended that in a fairly important way by saying we were going to stay until the Iraqi government and its army and police were capable of coping with the insurgency. We redefined victory in terms of the Iraqis’ capability instead of the defeat of the insurgency.”
“Now even that measure of success has proven elusive,” said Dobbins, who is now with Rand Corp. “At this point I think we would be content if we could diminish our presence, allow the Iraqis to simply hold their own against the insurgency and prevent the country from rupturing into an even more serious civil war than the one that now exists.”
The violence between Sunni and Shiite Arabs in recent weeks, which increased after the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra, touched off what one official called “a moment of fear” within the administration -- a sense that events in Iraq could spiral beyond any measure of U.S. control.
In the aftermath of the bombing, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said, “We have opened the Pandora’s box.... There is a concerted effort to provoke civil war.”
And Rumsfeld, asked whether U.S. forces would intervene in an intra-Iraqi conflict, said, “The plan is to prevent a civil war, and to the extent one were to occur ... from a security standpoint, have the Iraqi security forces deal with it to the extent they’re able to.”
Before the recent violence, U.S. military officials said they hoped to reduce the number of troops in Iraq from about 130,000 to about 100,000 over the year. Officials said last week that the violence could slow the U.S. drawdown but that they still expected some troop reduction to occur.
The good news, Rumsfeld and other officials noted, was that U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces did not disintegrate, and Iraqi political leaders, particularly in the Shiite community, quickly intervened to stop the violence from escalating further.
But the senior official said the U.S. strategy of nurturing a unity government and building multi-ethnic Iraqi security forces was still dangerously vulnerable.
“Sectarian violence ... is not going down as [quickly] as we would like to see,” he said. “A surge further in sectarian violence, way below what I would call a civil war, is still enough to really threaten what we’re trying to do there, because it strengthens the militias, it strengthens the radicals, it weakens the security forces.”
The most important immediate step, President Bush and other officials said, is for Iraqi politicians from all three major communities to form a unity government. “I urge them ... to form a government that can confront the terrorist threat and earn the trust and confidence of all Iraqis,” Bush said Saturday.
But that is proving difficult. Sunni and Kurdish leaders are unhappy with the decision by the Shiite bloc, the largest in the new parliament, to reelect Ibrahim Jafari for the post of prime minister. U.S. officials are unhappy with the choice, too; many of them consider Jafari incompetent and divisive. The result, at least in the short run, has been a political deadlock.
“They have to step up to the plate,” the senior official said, reflecting the administration’s frustration with the Iraqi leaders. “They cannot just sit aside and press their short-term interests.”
Unless a unity government succeeds, said a civilian advisor to the Pentagon, “you are heading for a de facto independent Kurdistan, a Shia Iraq that is very close to the Iranians and a Sunni Iraq which is rebellious in perpetuity.”
One of the major goals of U.S. policy in Iraq has been to avoid choosing sides. But that goal may be slipping away, outside analysts said.
“In a sense, as your own forces diminish, you have to choose sides,” Dobbins said. “We may be forced to do that. We already have to some degree.”
“The Sunnis already see us as having chosen sides,” said Steven Biddle, a former professor at the U.S. Army War College who is at the private Council on Foreign Relations.
Biddle has argued that by building new Iraqi security forces dominated by Shiites and Kurds, the United States in effect has armed and trained two of the sides in the Iraqi conflict. The Sunnis, he wrote in a recent article, “perceive the ‘national’ army and police force as a Shiite-Kurdish militia on steroids.”
“I think we’re in a civil war now. We’ve been in a civil war for more than a year. It’s just a civil war that’s being fought at low intensity,” he said in an interview.
Instead of trying to build Iraqi security forces quickly, Biddle argues, the United States should slow down its training program, slow its own military withdrawal, and concentrate on strengthening political leaders -- especially among the Sunnis -- who can make compromises.
But Biddle acknowledges that there is no political support in the United States for a longer or larger troop deployment.
“If we had the troops, I’d increase the troops,” he said. “But we don’t have the troops.”
Administration officials say that waning U.S. public support for the war has become one of their major concerns, if only because Iraqis on all sides increasingly wonder how long the Americans will stay.
A poll released last week by the Pew Research Center found that public support for keeping U.S. troops in Iraq had reached its lowest point since the 2003 invasion. Half of the respondents said they wanted to bring U.S. troops home as soon as possible, compared with 44% who said the troops should stay “until the situation is stabilized.”
Reflecting the increasingly partisan cast of the issue, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, in the Democratic response to Bush’s radio address Saturday, called on the president to give the Iraqi government more responsibility for security “so our troops can responsibly be redeployed.”
“The administration’s dangerous incompetence has made the job harder,” she said.
A former senior official said that he did not expect political pressure to affect Bush’s decisions on Iraq this year but that the 2008 presidential election could be a different story.
“There is deep concern in the White House that 2008 will be a referendum on Iraq,” he said. “I don’t think the president will be affected by the congressional elections. But in 2007, at some point, does he say, ‘I’m going to do what’s right, no matter what the political consequences?’ Or does he say, ‘We gave the Iraqis every chance; we can’t want a successful Iraq more than the Iraqis want it?’
“Leaving Iraq in its current state would be a very serious strategic setback for us,” he said. “It would be a defeat. We can dress it up. We can try to recover from it. But it’s a defeat.”