Spin vs. reality in Iraq

By Harlan Ullman
July 6, 2005

Make no mistake. Despite the president's speech last week at Fort Bragg, N.C., the United States and Iraq are not winning the battle to make that country into a democracy. Worse, we may not be winning the struggle to bring peace, stability and the rule of law to Iraq.

So far, much of the American public is willing to "stay the course" in both fights. However, unless the administration is more forthcoming in listening to criticism, to taking a harder look in re-examining what it believes is true and is not, and then levels with the American people, public support will dissipate and we will fail in our efforts in Iraq.

Beyond the sheer magnitude of the task, three reasons are particularly important in understanding our failings. First, supporters and opponents of the president both rely more on "spin" than fact and truth to defend or attack current policies in Iraq. Second, collectively, the United States government still does not appreciate or understand the nature of the Iraqi culture and continues to act as if it does. Third, despite the spate of investigations, commissions and reform legislation, we are not yet organized to deal with the tasks outlined by the administration in waging any war against terror, even assuming that the term terrorist is applicable to all of our adversaries.

The president's speech and the White House offensive to convince the public to stay the course in Iraq, as well as the arguments of the critics, put spin over fact. Take the glossy hype given to the $34 billion so far pledged to rebuilding Iraq. The fact is that the United States is responsible for two-thirds of that amount. Of the rest, it is doubtful how much will actually get to Iraq and reconstruction. Also, the figure obscures larger issues about where Iraqi resources are being spent or are obligated in ways that retard and erode rebuilding.

Iraq is required to pay Kuwait hundreds of billions of dollars in reparations for the 1991 war. Currently, about 5 percent of its annual oil revenues go to Kuwait as partial payment. This is ludicrous.

Oil-rich Kuwait, as well as the other major Gulf oil producers, should be providing Iraq with billions for reconstruction as it is in their security interests to do so. Yet no one has proposed rectifying this imbalance.

Second, Americans have never been particularly good at understanding other cultures. Historically, we have expected that other people tend to reason or behave as we do or are in need of education to bring them up to our level. U.S. training of Iraqi security forces underscores this trait.

The president noted three "new" military initiatives, none of which is really new: working with the Iraqi ministries to improve their capabilities to coordinate anti-terror operations; embedding coalition transition teams inside Iraqi units; and partnering coalition units with Iraqi forces in operations. All of this is important. Yet, regarding cultural misunderstanding, the president pointedly and proudly observed that these "combined operations are giving Iraqis a chance to experience how the most professional armed forces in the world operate in combat."

What a chance! The U.S. military is manned not only with volunteers but very well-educated, highly motivated and exceedingly well-trained people armed with the most modern weapons and the best in the world at destroying other armies. Unlike the British in Malaysia and Northern Ireland, fighting and winning insurgencies have not been the American military's longest suit. The Iraqi army must defeat a determined insurgency. The danger is that this training will end up with Iraqi forces becoming a smaller version of the U.S. Army with its preference for high-intensity battle rather than a force specifically designed to beat the insurgents.

Finally, this nation remains desperately disorganized for these missions. Who, for example, is the single authority in charge in Iraq and what is the chain of command that directs the embassy, military, intelligence and reconstruction assets and efforts? The same questions apply to the government organization in Washington, and how are authority, responsibility and accountability delegated and defined questions that members of Congress need to examine closely in how those chambers function, or in too many cases, do not.

Let there be no doubt. Unlike Vietnam, Iraq has and will have profound strategic consequences. The Bush administration is absolutely correct in understanding that neither we nor the Iraqis can fail in bringing stability and a modicum of security. This mission must be accomplished.

But a strategy of merely staying the current course without taking into consideration these larger issues will not succeed. Perhaps sooner rather than later the American public will come to recognize the dangers. By then it may be too late. At this point, gaining a happy conclusion is far from certain.

Harlan Ullman is a columnist for The Washington Times.