October 17, 2005

News Analysis

Administration's Tone Signals a Longer, Broader Iraq Conflict



WASHINGTON, Oct. 16 - For most of the 30 months since American-led forces ousted Saddam Hussein, the Bush administration has argued that as democracy took hold in Iraq, the insurgency would lose steam because Al Qaeda and the opponents of the country's interim government had nothing to offer Iraqis or the people of the Middle East.

Over time, President Bush told troops at Fort Bragg, N.C., this spring, "the terrorists will lose their sponsors, lose their recruits, and lose their hopes for turning that region into a base for attacks on America and our allies around the world."

But inside the administration, that belief provides less solace than it once did. Senior officials say the intelligence reports flowing over their desks in recent months argue that even if democratic institutions take hold, the insurgency may strengthen. And that possibility has created a quandary for an administration that desperately wants to equate democracy-building with winning the war, but so far has not been able to match the two.

That internal struggle was evident this weekend, as Mr. Bush returned to Washington sounding less celebratory about Iraq's constitutional referendum - whose outcome is suspected but still unknown - than he did after Iraq's elections last January. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, speaking from London on "Fox News Sunday," was somewhat more definitive: "The Sunnis are joining the base of this broad political process," she said. "That will ultimately undo this insurgency. But of course, they can still pull off violent and spectacular attacks."

Mr. Bush's own way of talking about the future, in Iraq and beyond, has undergone a subtle but significant change in recent weeks. In several speeches, he has begun warning that the insurgency is already metastasizing into a far broader struggle to "establish a radical Islamic empire that spans from Spain to Indonesia." While he still predicts victory, he appears to be preparing the country for a struggle of cold war proportions.

It is a very different tone than administration officials sounded in the heady days after Saddam Hussein's fall, and then his capture.

After an extensive debate inside the White House, Mr. Bush has begun directly rebutting the arguments laid out in manifestos and missives from Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, Mr. bin Laden's top aide.

He did so again on Saturday, quoting from one of Mr. Zawahiri's purported letters - one whose authenticity is still the subject of some question - which predicted that the Iraq war would end as Vietnam had, and that, in Mr. Bush's words, "America can be made to run again." The president argued anew that the terrorist leader was "gravely mistaken."

"There's always the question of whether we give these guys more credibility by directly addressing their arguments," one of Mr. Bush's most senior aides said recently. "But the president was concerned that we hadn't described Iraq to the American people for what it is - a struggle of ideologies that isn't going to end with one election, or one constitution, or even a string of elections."

For an administration that has recalibrated and re-explained its strategy in Iraq many times in the past 30 months, this latest turn may be a recognition of changed realities.

A year ago, Mr. Bush interpreted his re-election as the nation's embrace of his strategy and its willingness to bear the cost in lives and money to get Iraq on its feet. But now, the pressure is building for a pathway out. The passage of the constitution, some of Mr. Bush's political aides say, would be bound to fuel those calls.

"All fall, we've been hearing the question, 'When does this begin to end?' " one of Mr. Bush's senior strategists said a few weeks ago, insisting on anonymity because of the delicacy of the issue inside the White House. The White House, he added, was trying to head off what some officials fear could be a broader split in the party over the war come spring, as midterm elections approach and Republicans seeking re-election are tempted to join the call for a timetable for drawing down troop levels.

The change is clear in what Mr. Bush is saying - but also in what he and his aides are no longer saying.

In the prelude to the war and in the early days of the occupation, Mr. Bush and top members of his national security team compared the effort to remake Iraq to the American occupations of Japan and Germany. As the insurgency grew - a feature missing from those two successful occupations - they dropped that comparison. Richard Armitage, the deputy secretary of state under Colin L. Powell, argued in an interview recently published by an Australian magazine, The Diplomat, that it was a flawed way of thinking from the start.

"Those who argued at the time that the acceptance of democracy in Iraq would be easy, and who drew on our experience with Japan and Germany, were wrong," he said. "First of all, Germany and Japan were homogeneous societies. Iraq is not." He added that the German and Japanese populations were "exhausted and deeply shocked by what had happened," but that Iraqis were "un-shocked and un-awed."

Now administration officials are beginning to describe the insurgency as long-lasting, more akin to Communist insurgencies in Malaysia or the Philippines, but with a broader and more deadly base. Even conservatives who supported Mr. Bush's decision to go to war say the change in tone is welcome.

"I think the president has been consistent," said Eliot A. Cohen, a professor at Johns Hopkins University who has written extensively on the nature of civilian command and is sometimes consulted by the administration. "But they've had people, myself among them, beating them up for happy talk and not making an argument" about the nature of the struggle.

"I do think they are making more of an effort to explain themselves," he added. "But it took pressure from their friends, and political pressure as well, to overcome a reluctance about what they were really doing."

Others take a harsher view. Kenneth Pollack, a former C.I.A. analyst and now a scholar at the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution, said Mr. Bush's new tone reflected "the fact that their whole theory about how this is going to work out isn't working, and almost certainly isn't going to work." He added, "The theory that democracy is the antidote to insurgency gets disproven on the ground every day."

The real test may come after parliamentary elections, which, if the constitution is found to have passed this weekend, are scheduled for Dec. 15. After that date, a senior administration official noted with some dread in his voice, "there are no more democratic landmarks for us to point to - that's when we learn whether the Iraqi state can stay together."