Phony deadline

April 07, 2004|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- With tomorrow's public testimony of National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice before the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, the spotlight at home in the war on terrorism continues to focus on whether or not the Bush administration was asleep at the switch before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Meanwhile, however, at least as significant is what is going on in Iraq concerning the administration's announced plans to turn over political control to a yet-undetermined new government on June 30, less than three months from now.

Although President Bush said Monday, "It is my intention to make sure the deadline remains the same," Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, one of the Republican Party's most knowledgeable and influential members on foreign policy, has said he doubts that deadline can be met.

Considering the dire conditions in the country we invaded more than a year ago, it's wishful thinking to believe anything more than window-dressing on the turnover of political power can be achieved by then.

Heavy squabbling continues among various Iraqi elements in a divided society that is increasingly undermined now by internal insurgencies against the American and other occupation forces.

Even if the administration goes forward by June 30 with plans for its unelected Coalition Provisional Authority to hand the reins to some other makeshift body, U.S. military forces will remain to cope with the certain continued violence.

Their task has been further complicated by armed religious and ethnic groups moving against not only the occupiers but also nongovernment reconstruction workers, whose security has been placed in the hands of American-paid hired guns.

At the same time, it seems unlikely that NATO, now helping with security in Afghanistan, will step in to assist in the same role in Iraq. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell apparently got nowhere with a pitch for it in a weekend visit to NATO headquarters in Brussels.

On the same trip, Mr. Powell acknowledged that his claim a year ago of mobile labs in Iraq for making biological weapons of mass destruction may have been based on faulty intelligence -- hardly an inducement for more international assistance.

The Bush administration is also still trying to put a U.N. face on the Iraq fiasco, by recruiting a U.N. functionary to negotiate with various Iraqi factions on the shape of a new government.

But according to Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, the administration plans to put a new U.S. ambassador in place in Iraq to run things from the shadows. If so, it will make a farce of the June 30 deadline, only heightening Iraqi bitterness and resistance toward the occupation.

Mr. Biden wrote in a recent newspaper article that "our goal should be to take the `American face' off the occupation so that we are not blamed for everything that doesn't go right in Iraq."

Despite Mr. Bush's assurance that Iraqis "don't have to fear that America will turn and run," the administration seems excessively eager to show progress where the circumstances, both politically and militarily, clearly challenge the assertion.

One of the chief raps against the administration on Iraq, beyond the argument that it is fighting a war that didn't have to be waged, is that it went into Iraq without contemplating the problems entailed or a plan for solving them and getting out.

Setting unrealistic deadlines for reducing the U.S. presence smacks more of public relations than of leveling with the American people about the difficulties in pursuing a policy that in itself was sold with a tissue of misinformation and deception more than a year ago.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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