Same old, same old

August 01, 2004

HAVE YOU noticed how Iraq is starting to slip off the front pages? Another skirmish. Another kidnapping. Another car bomb. So what's new?

Every time there's a step forward, it seems it's followed by a step back. Last week was supposed to feature a conference that would be a start toward democracy and reconciliation, but then it was postponed after a surge in kidnappings. The insurgents' tactics are evolving, and it appears that U.S. leaders are uncertain how to respond.

Some think the Army should pull back, to be less provocative. But then Thursday night brought air strikes on Fallujah, which (1) is not a way of being less provocative, and (2) took place in a city from which the American military has withdrawn and which has since become something of a center for trouble - and that calls into question the idea of pulling back at all.

Saudi Arabia began talking up a plan to send in an all-Muslim armed force from nations that are not Iraq's immediate neighbors. Washington seemed interested, but some of the countries that would participate declared that they would do so only under U.N. command, and that seems just about impossible for the Bush administration to agree to.

Other drawbacks are that there probably wouldn't be huge numbers of troops involved even if the idea did come to pass, and that most of the armies that would be supplying soldiers are of questionable fighting value, at best.

Pakistan might be an exception to that generalization, but two Pakistani hostages were executed last week, and that has further discouraged any Pakistani enthusiasm for intervention.

By this point, of course, the new Iraqi government should be capable of providing its own security, but the past year of training and equipping police and security forces has been badly mishandled. More than $17 billion in promised U.S. aid of $18 billion has yet to be spent. About one-tenth of the police vehicles that were to be shipped have been delivered. Hardly any communications equipment has arrived in the country.

What this means is that the Iraqi government cannot now ensure the security of the country - which is obvious to anyone scanning the ever-harder-to-find headlines - but that there's plenty of potential for progress. If someone in the U.S. government would only put his mind to it, America really could start delivering on the boring nuts and bolts of nation-building. But Washington right now seems incapable of that sort of concerted effort.

A new U.S. administration might have more luck in persuading Muslim (and non-Muslim) countries to take on helpful roles in Iraq, but the insurgents won't wait until January. The Bush administration has to stop hoping that something will come along, and start coming to grips with the idea that just because the news from Iraq is getting repetitive, that doesn't mean it's getting any better.

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