Prague, 12 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- "We must not lose our focus. And I told that to General [John] Abizaid [the U.S. general in charge of military operations in Iraq] as well. We must stay totally focused on what's taking place in Iraq," U.S. President George W. Bush said on 10 May.
Hardly a day goes by that Bush doesn't restate his commitment to "getting the job done" in Iraq. That was Bush making the point again in an address at the Pentagon.
Yet a rising chorus of influential conservative intellectuals from Bush's own Republican Party have begun to express concern that the administration is far from living up to Bush's tough rhetoric.
In a nutshell, their complaints boil down to this: The administration has run out of ideas in Iraq and is now wavering over what to do -- pull out or seek a "true" victory by establishing democracy in Iraq regardless of the costs.
This latter goal is what the conservative critics say the administration must still seek, despite setbacks in Iraq where an insurgency is complicating the U.S.-led coalition's efforts to hand back power to Iraqis.
According to the "neoconservative" thinker William Kristol, the Bush administration's purported lack of ideas and clarity of purpose in Iraq is undermining political support for the war in Washington:
"We do worry that the administration has just decided to tough it out, but doesn't realize -- and this is what struck me last week, being on [Capitol] Hill a little bit -- how many Republicans as well as Democrats, privately at least, are just saying, 'How do we get out of this mess?'"
Kristol, editor of "The Weekly Standard" magazine, was a strong supporter of going to war in Iraq, along with the influential analyst Robert Kagan of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Both men argued that toppling Saddam Hussein and establishing democracy in Iraq were noble goals that would spread progress throughout the Middle East. But both men are now sharp critics of the way the Bush administration is currently handling the war.
"What worries me most, as a Bush supporter, about the administration right now is that it seems to be wavering between a victory strategy and an elegant, or let's say, delayed exit strategy." -- William Kristol, editor of "The Weekly Standard"
Kristol and Kagan co-authored an article on the issue in "The Weekly Standard" in April. In it, they said that the problem in Iraq is not Bush's own will and commitment, but rather "the failure of policymakers at the highest levels" to fashion military and political strategies in a way that maximizes the chances of success.
Kagan added in a recent column in "The Washington Post": "All but the most blindly devoted Bush supporters can see that Bush administration officials have no clue about what to do in Iraq tomorrow, much less a month from now."
Conservative columnist George F. Will, also writing in "The Washington Post," echoed that sentiment. "This administration," Will said, "cannot be trusted to govern if it cannot be counted on to think and, having thought, to have second thoughts."
One bold idea recommended by Kristol and Kagan is to hold democratic elections in Iraq sooner than the current planned date of January. They say polls should be held in September to make Iraqis feel more invested in the changes taking place in their country.
Conservative analyst Richard Perle is considered an architect of the administration's Iraq war policies. But Perle criticized the administration on similar grounds in an address this week on CSPAN, U.S. public access television:
"Well, I don't believe [the war] is on the verge of being lost, though I can see why people who are not following it day in, day out might think that. This is a difficult situation, made more difficult in my view by the slowness with which we have planned and are now executing the handover of authority to Iraqis. I think we should have taken the Iraqis into our confidence long ago," Perle said.
At the moment, Washington plans to hand over power to Iraqis on 30 June as part of a plan devised by the United Nations.
U.S. liberals might characterize these critics as conservative ideologues. So it is with some irony that much of their criticism is leveled at Defense Secretary Donald Rusmfeld -- precisely for being too ideological.
Kristol, also speaking this week on CSPAN, said: "Don Rumsfeld wanted to do this war on the cheap. He wanted to do it with a very limited force to show we had a modern, whiz-bang, high-tech army, [that] we didn't need the old-fashioned boots on the ground. We do need the boots on the ground. So we need a couple of more divisions in there and we need to really establish security."
He and Kagan say Rumsfeld's refusal to introduce more troops into Iraq -- at least 30,000 more -- is a "significant error" that must be corrected if the coalition is to have any chance of stabilizing the country.
Rumsfeld said in April that U.S. troop levels would remain where they are -- 135,000 -- for at least three more months. That scuttled a planned reduction of 20,000 troops, but it was not enough for Kagan and Kristol.
They argue that coupled with the failure to bring in more troops, the administration -- if not the president himself -- is now sending signals it is no longer committed to building a democracy in Iraq.
Kagan said such signals include the administration's "increasing reluctance to fight the people it defines as the bad guys in Iraq." In particular, he said, the administration failed to take on insurgents in Al-Fallujah and elsewhere, tactics that "appear both to Iraqis and to the American public as a sign of declining will."
Recently, Senator John Kerry (Democrat, Massachusetts), Bush's presumed rival for the White House in November's presidential elections, said "stability," and not democracy, should be the goal in Iraq. Both Kristol and Kagan said the Bush administration, through its lack of ideas and unwillingness to learn from mistakes, appears to be embracing that idea.
Kristol said that if victory in Iraq is no longer the clear goal, then Kerry is likely to win over voters on the Iraq issue. That's because he appears more capable of withdrawing U.S. forces, as he has less invested in the war and is likely to foster better relations with the United Nations and European allies.
However, Kristol added that Americans would support Bush on the Iraq issue if he took concrete steps that show he is committed to "victory" in Iraq and not simply biding time before an eventual pullout:
"If the question in voters' mind is 'How do we win this war? Admittedly, we've made mistakes. Bush hasn't done everything right. But we can succeed -- we've got to succeed.' [If that's the question], then I think Bush wins. What worries me most, as a Bush supporter, about the administration right now is that it seems to be wavering between a victory strategy and an elegant, or let's say, delayed exit strategy," Kristol said.