Jewish World Review Oct. 30, 2003 / 4 Mar-Cheshvan, 5764

Jim Hoagland

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Listen to the Iraqis | Saddam Hussein's assassins will not defeat George W. Bush in Iraq. Neither will the Islamic jihadists who now practice their mayhem in the streets of Baghdad rather than in the skies over Manhattan and Northern Virginia. The only person who can defeat Bush in Iraq is Bush himself.

Bush and an exceptionally experienced national security team can lose in Iraq by circling the wagons and closing their minds -- by interpreting criticism and divergences of view as political assaults designed to undermine the president and his policies. Lyndon Johnson operated that way in Vietnam and stumbled into defeat, as the cautionary voice of Sen. John McCain recalled this week.

Such a disastrous outcome in Iraq is no more inevitable than it is desirable. The United States has justifiably rid the Middle East of a murderous tyrant. Americans have the capability to overcome the assassins and to help mend a devastated society. But the administration will not accomplish these ends if it treats the struggle in Iraq as an exercise in wisdom and resolve by the president that must be defended in every detail at all costs.

An atmosphere of mutual distrust -- or at least mutual suspicion -- has formed in recent weeks as the occupation authorities and Iraqi political leaders on the Governing Council have sparred with each other over authority and sovereignty.

Efforts by Governing Council members to rally international support for their cause were interpreted in Washington as attempts to provide comfort to America's foreign critics. Worse, in the eyes of the administration, were critical comments delivered by Iraqis to House and Senate members about the administration's $20 billion reconstruction budget as that budget was being attacked by Democratic candidates.

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Paul Bremer, Bush's representative in Baghdad, has bluntly told council members who voice frustration over not being given greater authority that they have yet to effectively use the powers he has already ceded to them.

The atmosphere has become so strained that many members of the council no longer show up for meetings with Bremer.

These conflicts, largely unnoticed in the United States, reverberate instantly through a country such as Iraq, where politics is a matter of life and death rather than of "governance," and is often practiced in subterranean or indirect fashion. Hesitations and divisions at the top can only deepen the essential political problem the U.S. occupation faces: the refusal by Sunnis who live in the area around Baghdad to take sides in a conflict whose outcome they still see as uncertain.

Fortunately Bush gave signs in his news conference Tuesday of being ready to make subtle but important midcourse corrections in Iraq -- and in other areas of foreign policy -- that might help defuse the tensions between Washington and Baghdad.

He laid emphasis on the need to involve Iraqis more deeply in coalition intelligence and security efforts. This came as the Security Committee of the Governing Council was making its first specific proposals on these subjects in meetings with occupation authorities in Baghdad.

Bush was adamant that he will see through the challenge in Iraq. In private he is even more insistent, I am told, about not declaring a false victory and running out, as some prominent Democrats predict he will do. Bush aides say that is neither in his nature nor in his political interest.

But the president did acknowledge Tuesday that he is capable of "looking at the enemy and adjusting" in Iraq, and presumably elsewhere. He pointed out that, on North Korea, "we've chosen to put together a multinational strategy to deal with Mr. Kim Jong Il. Not every action requires" a military response, a point not always made by an administration that has emphasized its reliance on American power and determination.

Bush could have extended the point to Iran, where the administration has quietly helped shape and push forward the European initiative that last week secured new Iranian pledges to forgo nuclear weapons. But to take credit would not help the Europeans, and would risk provoking fresh arguments within the administration over how to handle Tehran.

Having acted on Iraq, Bush may now be edging toward making deals with North Korea and Iran -- if they are ready to sign verifiable nonproliferation agreements. Bush's threatening "axis of evil" rhetoric toward these two countries may yet help produce positive multilateral results.

But the most urgent deal is the one that Bush has to make with an Iraqi leadership that is capable of taking on greater responsibilities, especially in identifying and catching the authors of the latest terrorist spectaculars.

Respectfully listening to Iraqi advice, and even dissent, is the best protection Bush can have against losing, there and here.

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10/24/03: Playing Games With Pyongyang
10/16/03: A King's Appeal
10/10/03: Europe vs. Bush
10/02/03: The need to focus on Iraq
09/25/03: Two world leaders passing in the night
09/22/03: Bremer's Tug of War
09/18/03: Can anything change The Saudi Syndrome?
09/15/03: Giving Iraqis a Stake
09/11/03: What's going right
09/08/03: 007 on Trial
08/25/03: In Iraq, Merchandising Mass Destruction
08/18/03: Doing democracy right
08/13/03: Israel's Red Flag on Iran
08/11/03: The Devil You Know
08/07/03: Saving The Saudi Connection
08/04/03: The Arab Stake in America's Success
07/28/03: The Kurdish Example
07/25/03: A Baghdad 'Roots' Story
07/21/03: Wolfowitz of Arabia?
07/18/03: Linking Liberia And Iraq
07/14/03: Why do they hate them?
07/09/03: In Africa, it pays to think small
07/07/03: Cherchez de Gaulle --- but not in France
07/03/03: If Bush asks, who will help?
06/30/03: Fool's gold in Pakistan
06/23/03: Waking up to Europe's uncertain future
06/19/03: Fusing force with diplomacy
06/16/03: All too prepared for the real world
06/12/03: The Limits Of Saudi Openness
06/09/03: Energized on Foreign Policy
06/02/03: Clarity: The Best Weapon
05/27/03: Talk plus muscle on North Korea
05/22/03: The war isn't over
05/19/03: Europe on its own
05/14/03: Globalization's evil offspring
05/12/03: No time for mixed messages
05/05/03: The case for patience on North Korea
04/30/03: Eroding Principles
04/28/03: Wars tailor made
04/25/03: De-Baathification, root and branch
04/21/03: Victims of civic passivity
04/14/03: Three miscreants
04/11/03: Saddam's final mistake

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