Time for an Iraq Accounting

By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, May 29, 2005

American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan deserve the nation's thanks and respect this Memorial Day. But they deserve more. They deserve a clearer, more realistic explanation from President Bush of their strategic mission, and they deserve directives that show them precisely how to accomplish it. The American public also needs explanations and, yes, directives. The White House seems to underestimate the fraying of national support that is occurring for the U.S. military presence in Iraq and, to a lesser extent, in Afghanistan. Freedom may be on the march, but Americans need to be told more specifically and persuasively how U.S. and allied combat deaths abroad advance that march now, not years from now.

A similar initiative is needed on homeland defense. Confusion and drift mark public understanding of how individuals, communities and the nation as a whole should respond to terrorist strikes on U.S. soil. Citizens can learn more about how cities would be evacuated or other responses to a future Sept. 11-type event from watching doomsday television dramas such as "24" than from the administration.

A refocusing of the war against terrorism needs to come in several forms, from high-profile presidential speeches to secret strategy documents that will shape campaign orders to troops in the fields.

The effort should start with Bush's public declarations during this year's commemoration of American valor on the battlefield. His visionary rhetoric about freedom and American values helped rally the nation during the shocks of the past four years. The reassuring approach, he can argue, has kept public anxiety to a minimum.

But the time for reassurance alone is over. It is time for details, for a sense of a blueprint, for a progress report that goes beyond listing what has happened to the top nine or 15 or 25 al Qaeda leaders targeted for capture or elimination. That simple, clear report should trace as well where the United States stands in fighting the Salafi extremist networks that intend to rule or destroy Muslim lands.

There is, in fact, progress to report. Middle Eastern and European governments increasingly understand that they, too, are targets of al Qaeda or its associates. This leads them to provide Americans with counterterrorism help denied in the past.

There is also a spreading awareness of -- or perhaps a spreading willingness to talk about -- the disastrous global consequences that an abrupt American retreat from Iraq would bring, even as ideas of retreat become more seductive here. One example: Islamic nations are renewing conversations among themselves about a possible peacekeeping force to help in Iraq, Arab diplomats report.

Despite the bloodshed and horror there, Iraq also records progress. Elected Kurdish and Shiite leaders practice democratic and responsible politics and reach out to the Sunni community to join the process. U.S. forces are increasingly confident in the ability of newly formed Iraqi battalions to handle security duties, and the Americans will soon demonstrate that confidence by increasing Iraqi command responsibilities in joint Iraqi-U.S. units.

These are elements on which the administration can build a bridge out of Iraq for American combat units before the end of Bush's second term. Any discussion of timelines and adding Islamic or other peacekeepers must be carefully handled, but Bush needs to do and say more to establish that U.S. control in Iraq is not only finite but is urgently dispersing.

That would also help the White House's effort to redefine American strategy in the global war on extremism to be contained in a new national security presidential directive. A revised strategy should emphasize the use of special operations units on tightly targeted missions rather than deployment of conventional forces to large bases.

The United States fights a movement as well as individual terrorist chiefs such as Osama bin Laden or Abu Musab Zarqawi. The diffuse nature of the enemy requires greater international cooperation to clamp down on transfers of money and terrorists across borders. It also requires effective counter-ideology efforts to discredit and disgrace the jihadists in Muslim opinion.

The need for a public accounting from the president is also made urgent by the revulsion that many Americans and others feel over the confirmed abuse, torture or, in a very few cases, executions of prisoners by American forces.

It is not enough to say these incidents are isolated and are being investigated and to leave it at that. They will undermine cohesion at home and falsely symbolize American values abroad as long as the broader context of the struggle is not explained by the nation's leaders and in more direct and compelling terms.