Coming up to the first anniversary of President Bush declaring "Mission Accomplished" in Iraq, U.S. Iraqi policy has degenerated into a series of confusing flip-flops.
First, Coalition Provisional Authority chief administrator L. Paul Bremer III was adamant that U.S. troops were going to arrest firebrand Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Now, they are not.
Second, President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld were adamant that the United States was not going to the United Nations to seek more support in Iraq at the expense of delegating any authority there. But in his nationally televised press conference last week, the president took pains to praise the mission of UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and emphasize his determination to back it to the hilt.
Indeed, on Monday Bush named Ambassador to the UN John Negroponte as his first ambassador to an at least titular independent Iraq after the scheduled handover of sovereignty on June 30. This move has also been widely taken as a sign that eschewing previous Pentagon-run policies, Bush is finally prepared to let the world body have more of a say in helping restore Iraq.
Third, in his 2002 State of the Union speech, Bush boldly condemned Iran along with Iraq as a fellow member of the so-called "axis of evil." Yet now, Bush is eagerly courting Iran as a key facilitator in negotiations with the Shiite rebels in Iraq. Washington has sought Iran's good graces to get hostages released in Iraq and to reach a compromise consensus in dealing with the militias in the Shiite holy city of Najaf.
Fourth, after the murder and mutilation of four U.S. civilian employees in Fallujah in central Iraq a few weeks ago, U.S. officials in the country were adamant that overwhelming force would be applied to go into Fallujah and impose law and order, U.S. style. But now, U.S. forces are holding back from Fallujah and U.S. Marine forces have been given the go-ahead to return to their old "softly-softly" policy that senior officials angrily repudiated after the killings.
Fifth, U.S. military commanders gave a grim ultimatum to rebel forces in Fallujah to surrender all their weapons or be crushed. But now that ultimatum has already been watered down. Only heavy weapons are to be surrendered. The rebels will be allowed to retain their light weapons, including automatic rifles. That is a crucial concession to any militia or guerrilla force, as possession of such weapons gives them the power to continue to enforce or even extend their political control over the population.
Sixth, the Pentagon and the CPA surrounded the Shiite holy city of Najaf with 2,500 troops. But then they reined those troops in and, for the moment, are doing nothing with them.
To some degree, it can be argued that these flip-flips represent a long overdue and welcome concession to reality by an administration that in its Iraq policy had previously had never exhibited any. Wars are not won through fearlessly jutting one's jaw out and refusing to acknowledge messy, complex and rapidly changing realities. They are only lost that way. Often, the most important function of stirring rhetoric in war is precisely the opposite: to mask otherwise embarrassing but absolutely essential changes in policy demanded by the dynamic of unanticipated and rapidly changing events.
Furthermore, needlessly further antagonizing the rapidly growing Sunni and Shiite guerrilla forces in Iraq is the most dangerous mistake U.S. senior officials can make at this point in time.
Administration officials have already made a series of bad miscalculations. They did not believe cracking down on al-Sadr would hugely boost his popularity among the Shiites who make up 65 percent of Iraq's population. They did not believe a significant number of these Shiites would rise in revolt to support him. They did not believe the Shiite mainstream, or enough of them, would support these rebels. And they were confident that any Shiite rebellion would never win support from or make common cause with the Sunni guerrillas operating in central Iraq, especially in and around Fallujah. Every one of these assumptions has already proven wildly wrong.
Therefore, the pattern of U.S. flip-flops updates the joke to say that the definition of an American realist in Iraq is a neo-conservative who has been mugged by reality.
This assessment can be supported by observing Bush's care to avoid any confrontation with a North Korea possibly already armed with nuclear weapons and his enthusiasm for enlisting China to help with Pyongyang, even though by doing so he enormously undermines U.S. prestige and diplomatic power in Northeast Asia.
It would also explain his sudden enthusiasm for cooperating with France on defusing problems in Haiti, after years of treating successive French governments like dirt.
However, there is another, more disquieting interpretation of the U.S. flip-flops on Iraq: it is that the administration has been caught with its pants down, that it has lost its nerve and that it does not know what it is doing.
Support for this interpretation can be inferred from another Middle East flip-flop far from Iraq, yet likely to have highly deleterious consequences within it. Last week, President Bush abandoned his mainstream, cautious policy of pursuing his own "Road Map" for peace on the Israel-Palestinian conflict in close partnership with the other members of the so-called "Quartet": the European Union, the United Nations and Russia.
Instead, Bush unilaterally tossed overboard the consistent policy of six previous U.S. presidents and approved of Israel retaining several major settlement blocs on the West Bank, across its pre-1967 borders.
The move is likely to greatly boost the risk that Palestinian Islamist organizations like Hamas or Islamic Jihad will attempt suicide bomb terrorist attacks within the domestic United States and against U.S. embassies and military installations around the world, adding to the already crushing burden on homeland security and anti-terror defense.
Even worse, it is likely to further boost Islamist recruiting efforts among the Shiites and Sunnis of Iraq.
Every other flip-flop the president has approved in Iraq can be explained or justified as a concession to unanticipated changes in events. All the rest, it can be argued, serve to defuse tensions in Iraq that had grown dangerously high.
But this one move looks likely to put thousands of U.S. service men and women in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East at increased risk while bringing absolutely no additional benefit to U.S. national security at all. And since this flip-flop did not reflect any responsibility or competence, it renews doubts that any of the other flip-flops were either.
Martin Sieff is chief news analyst for United Press International. This adapted piece is used with the permission of UPI.