Four years later, Bush finally assembles right team for Iraq

February 20, 2007|By TRUDY RUBIN

PHILADELPHIA -- As House members were debating their Iraq resolution Friday, a very different Iraq drama was going on in the Senate, with hardly any attention paid. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee was holding confirmation hearings for Ryan Crocker, the new U.S. ambassador-designate to Baghdad. Even Iraq skeptics heaped praise on Mr. Crocker, one of the country's most talented and intrepid diplomats.

Mr. Crocker's hearing underlined one of the most startling ironies of America's Iraq venture: Late in the day, the administration has filled its top military and civilian posts in Iraq with officers and diplomats who have been critical of the conduct of Iraq policy.

They include not only Mr. Crocker but also the new coordinator of America's Iraq reconstruction effort, Timothy Carney; the new commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus; and a circle of outstanding military experts on counterinsurgency warfare assembled by General Petraeus. The administration has asked them to rescue a near-impossible situation that might have been avoided had it heeded their warnings years earlier. The theme that runs through these warnings: If you don't grasp the nature of the society and people you are supposed to be helping, you will fail.

Mr. Crocker, whom I first met when he was a young political officer in 1982 in Beirut, always wanted to be out in the field, learning about the local people. He was one of the first Westerners at the scene of the infamous massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. An Arabic speaker, he has been ambassador to Lebanon, Syria, Kuwait and Pakistan, and served several frustrating months in Baghdad in 2003 under U.S. occupation czar L. Paul Bremer III.

In the run-up to the war, Mr. Crocker spent sleepless nights worrying about the U.S. decision to invade Baghdad. He predicted that toppling Saddam Hussein would unleash violent sectarian and ethnic tensions. Top Bush administration officials and advisers believed Iraq would be stable after an invasion.

Mr. Carney also confronted the administration's willful blindness. In 2003, when I met him in Baghdad, he was tasked with getting Iraq's Ministry of Industry and Minerals up and running. But he couldn't get the small amounts of cash necessary to restore the factories to create desperately needed jobs. Mr. Bremer's team preferred to pursue ideological dreams of privatization and dispense contracts to big U.S. firms. Mr. Carney left Baghdad in disgust.

As commander of the 101st Airborne in Mosul in 2003 and 2004, General Petraeus arrived with a plan to stabilize the city, provide jobs and security for Iraqis, and then turn responsibility over to them. Had that model been followed elsewhere in Iraq, the situation might not be so dismal.

Now he is back with a military brain trust of outstanding colonels with expertise on counterinsurgency war.

So here you have the dream team: officers and diplomats who are free of ideological delusions, who want to stabilize Iraq, create jobs and make it possible for U.S. troops to leave.

They all understand that military action can only buy them time to work for an Iraqi political solution. "Successful military action can provide the space," Mr. Crocker said at his confirmation hearings. "But it is only political solutions that can resolve the conflict."

If they have the guts to take on this near-impossible task, I believe they deserve a chance, not just from Congress but also from President Bush.

General Petraeus and Mr. Crocker can't achieve reconciliation within Iraq without reconciliation between Iraq's Shiite and Sunni neighbors. This will require a regional negotiating process, which must be promoted by the White House and must include dialogue between Washington and Tehran.

And the White House must now pay close attention to recommendations by General Petraeus and Mr. Crocker. "It's been made clear to me that whatever I need ... the phones will answer," Mr. Crocker said at his hearings.

Let's hope so. If he and the general fail, the onus won't be on them but on those who sent them to Baghdad.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column usually appears Tuesdays in The Sun. Her e-mail is

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