It has been one year since Iraqis reclaimed control over their country in the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion. It has been a long year, marked more by disappointment than hope. Political squabbles among Iraq’s political leaders as well as an ongoing — some would say escalating — insurgency have dampened dreams of a unified nation taking command of its destiny. It is still too early to give up on Iraq, but helping that beleaguered country requires, above all, a realistic appraisal of what is going on there and a strategy that adapts to those conditions. Neither seems to be in place.
It is easy to be pessimistic about Iraq’s prospects. In the year since the Coalition Provisional Authority handed power back to Iraqis, violence has dominated daily life. There are an average of 400 to 500 insurgent attacks each week. There have been about 500 car bombs in the past year. It is estimated that more than 1,000 civilians have died since April 28 as a result of terror attacks. More than 1,065 coalition troops have been killed since June 28, 2004 (878 of them Americans).
An Iraqi military has been established, but the insurgents’ strategy of targeting security forces has scared off recruits and many others who had joined. Oil exports are lagging and unemployment still exceeds 25 percent. Baghdad has electricity for less than 10 hours a day, and most other basic human needs, such as clean water, are in short supply. Less than half of the $20 billion that has been allocated for reconstruction projects has been disbursed.
Progress has been made. Most notably, against high odds, a National Assembly was elected in the first free election in Iraq in decades. Despite considerable infighting, a government has been formed. More than 1 million more Iraqi children are going to school now than in 2002. Public works projects are under way, even if more slowly than anticipated. The economy grew 52.3 percent last year. And in an important psychological boost, some 18 Arab and non-Arab Muslim countries and political entities now have diplomatic relations with Iraq.
Continuing movement down the political track is absolutely necessary to build momentum. The transitional National Assembly is supposed to draft a constitution by August, which will be voted on in a national referendum in October. Elections for a permanent government would then be held in December, and elected officials would take office by yearend. Each of those milestones must be met to build the confidence of the Iraqi people and their international supporters.
The insurgents, who oppose peace, stability and democracy in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East, will accelerate their efforts to disrupt the process. After having targeted sources of support for the new government — security forces and the new administrators — they are now turning to Arab diplomats to isolate Iraq within the region. There have been at least three attacks on Arab diplomats in the past week: Kidnappers linked to al-Qaeda have kidnapped and threatened to kill the top-ranking Egyptian diplomat in the country.
Support also depends on a realistic appraisal of the situation. That has been in short supply. U.S. officials report daily on an improving situation. Most notably, Vice President Dick Cheney recently said the insurgency was in its “last throes,” provoking derision from critics and contorted attempts by other U.S. officials to square that remark with reality. The result has been a sharp erosion of support for the war in the United States
Cognizant of the difficulties, President George W. Bush last week explained to the world his thinking. In remarks to U.S. troops at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, he linked the invasion of Iraq to the war against terror. In those comments, like subsequent remarks this week in Brussels, he made no apologies for the decision to go to war and vowed to press forward. The insurgents, he said, are trying “to frighten the people of both our countries. They figure that, if they can shake our will and affect public opinion, then politicians will give up on the mission. I’m not giving up on the mission. We are doing the right thing.”
He is right. Offering the people of Iraq democracy and helping them build a life free from fear in which they control their own destinies is the right thing to do. But saying so is not a strategy to realize those objectives. And in failing to provide a genuine strategy that can defeat the insurgents and shore up the country’s nascent democracy, he appears out of touch. His steadfast determination to stay the course, which Mr. Bush touts as part of his character, just looks like stubbornness.
No wonder then that support for the war in the U.S. has plummeted. History may yet prove Mr. Bush right, but that judgment grows increasingly unlikely as long as the president refuses to accept the reality on the ground in Iraq, to speak plainly to the world about it and to adjust his policies accordingly.
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