Making it so

May 26, 2004

BARELY MORE than a year ago, these were the expectations along the Potomac:

By now, the remaining 30,000 or so U.S. troops in Iraq would be spending most of their time in friendly soccer games with adoring children. The country would be getting ready for a complex system of caucuses to choose a governing body. Grim-faced but laconic American inspectors would be stockpiling and cataloging a terrifying arsenal of discovered weapons of mass destruction, while the world -- by turns horrified, grateful and chastened -- looked on. So much oil would be flowing into the world market that Iraq would be rebuilding itself on the income, while the price of gas here in the United States would be flirting with new lows. Democracy movements would be budding in Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia. The veteran anti-Saddam Hussein agitator, Ahmad Chalabi, would be in line to become the first leader of a free Iraq, practically by acclamation; one of his first acts would be the recognition of Israel.

That was the fond hope of the Bush administration. But it was also the administration's Plan A for postwar Iraq -- and as the world discovered, there was no Plan B.

Today, just five weeks remain until the hand-over of some form of sovereignty to some form of government. President Bush and his aides are considerably more subdued now than they once were, and have even begun to recognize a few of the more salient points about Iraq as it is.

The president, for instance, acknowledged Monday that Iraqis are not much inspired to work alongside Americans, or for Americans.

Yet there is still a strong element of wishful thinking masquerading as constructive planning. Americans will bring freedom to Iraqis; they will take control of their own country; the terrorists will be killed or captured.

That is not a blueprint. It is not enough to proclaim that, once a transitional government is in place, Iraqi security forces that up to now have been indifferent will suddenly be moved to corral and eliminate those who wish them tyranny and death. It is not enough to proclaim that failure in Iraq would be a staggering blow to American security, as true as that might be. The United States faces an insurgency in Iraq; victory, if it is to come, will be difficult, tedious and painful. And it will require an end to the foolish optimism and naivete that have marked this administration.

Mr. Bush said he sent troops to Iraq to defend America's security, but neglected to mention that the Iraq under Saddam Hussein posed much less of a threat to America's security than does the Iraq under L. Paul Bremer III. He said the United States will be safer when hope is restored to the Middle East, but from the Gaza Strip to the streets of Mosul, there is little his administration has done to give grounds for hope.

On Monday, the United States and Great Britain asked the United Nations to give its approval to a vague resolution that endorses American expectations. The French are balking: They believe that if a transfer of sovereignty is to have any meaning to Iraqis, it has to be genuine -- and they want to see the details spelled out. They are not wrong. Muddling through, without a plan, isn't good enough.

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