Jewish World Review Oct. 2, 2003 / 6 Tishrei, 5764

Jim Hoagland

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The need to focus on Iraq | Watersheds and turning points are proclaimed almost daily in the world's only remaining supercapital. But administrations must be especially alert to more subtle moments of truth that can slip by unobserved and untaken. Such a moment is bearing down on the Bush White House and its Iraq policy.

The urgent problem for the White House is not what is happening in Iraq but what is happening here. Policy brush fires and sideshows in Washington divert the attention, energy and resources needed to finish liberating Iraq. The administration can no longer focus either itself or the argument about Iraq on Iraq itself.

Instead, Iraq is becoming a symbol of other causes and hidden agendas both for Bush officials and for their partisan opponents. Nothing could be more dangerous for Iraq's future -- and for that of the administration -- than an unreflective drift into subordinating Iraq's immediate needs to U.S. political and bureaucratic imperatives.

The greatest danger lies in a stiff-necked response that insists on defending the Bush record on Iraq and maintaining tight U.S. control in Baghdad at all costs, as a nasty presidential election campaign unfurls. That would rob the administration of the flexibility it will need to confront the infinite unpredictability inherent in trying to run a foreign country and change its political culture from afar.

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As the U.S. campaign approaches, the Bush team already shows a disturbing tendency to merge political and other agendas with foreign-policy and economic decisions. The recent effort by Treasury Secretary John Snow to jawbone China and Japan into steps that would devalue the dollar against their currencies is an especially transparent example.

China predictably rebuffed Snow's calls to adopt flexible exchange rates. Beijing correctly assessed that Snow was really speaking to American manufacturers and workers disturbed by inexpensive Chinese imports and that China would pay no price for politely brushing off the demand.

The emergency $87 billion supplemental budget request for Iraq and Afghanistan that Bush has sent to Congress raises other concerns about agendas. Even hawkish Republican lawmakers who supported the war against Saddam Hussein are voicing doubts in private as they examine the details of the hastily assembled blueprint for military spending and reconstruction costs drawn up without any meaningful consultation with Iraqis.

Also sensitive to the pressures of 2004, Congress appears set to approve or even add to Bush's $66 billion request for military spending -- even though the size of that request staggers military professionals who think it will be hard for the Pentagon to spend that much effectively on the two conflicts. The suspicion is that other projects geared to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's "transformation" agenda may benefit from Congress's looming largess.

"Transformation" has become a fighting word in Washington, where congressional leaders and the Army brass have dug in against Rumsfeld's efforts to hold the size of the armed forces constant while making them more mobile and more effective. Keeping these arguments from affecting the size and duties of the U.S. occupation force in Iraq is an increasingly difficult but vital task for the administration.

The $20.3 billion reconstruction budget is far more vulnerable to congressional meddling, especially if it is split off in separate legislation from military spending. A request for $9 million to modernize Iraq's postal system and provide Zip codes can be used to ridicule the overall budget. And election-year concerns cause many lawmakers to demand that the money be sent as loans that oil-rich Iraq must pay back.

But that demand flies in the face of the central political reality about Iraq today: There is no sovereign Iraqi government that can encumber the country with new debt, and there is no intention of putting one in place in the immediate future.

The political process that U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer launched in June in Baghdad is bogging down over security problems, the friction of occupation and increasingly bitter Iraqi-American arguments over the pace of turning over control and responsibility to Iraq's Governing Council. Bremer's response is to try to reassert control even as it visibly flows away from the overwhelmed political structure he commands.

Iraq must not be seen only as a test of the Bush team's credibility, competence and coherence, either by the administration or by its foes. Iraq is a complex, living challenge that must be met on its terms and with an understanding and respect for its particularities. That will mean taking chances, even in an election season.

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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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