"The New York Times" is reporting that the U.S. Defense Department, which President George W. Bush put in charge of Iraq's reconstruction, largely ignored a detailed report on the subject that the State Department spent a year preparing. According to the newspaper, the State Department report correctly anticipated the major problems that coalition forces have been experiencing in Iraq. It says the Pentagon, however, focused its efforts on problems that have not arisen to a significant degree.
Washington, 22 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The Pentagon is unequivocally rejecting an account in "The New York Times" regarding a State Department report prepared by a group called the Future of Iraq Project.
Larry Di Rita, a Pentagon spokesman, told the paper that the State Department report was a "valuable contribution" and was "taken into account."
The State Department's own reaction to the story was in line with Di Rita's assertion. Spokesman Adam Ereli said during a press briefing on 20 October, "Not every part of every plan actually gets used, because the reality that you find when you actually go into a situation may be different [than] -- may be different from what was expected."
The newspaper said in the year before the war began in Iraq, the State Department brought together more than 200 Iraqi professionals, business people, and others to study how to make the transition from the rule of President Saddam Hussein to an open, representative democracy.
The report said these observers told the Americans they should expect a challenge rebuilding Iraq's electrical infrastructure, and that in the power vacuum after Hussein's fall, security forces should be prepared for widespread looting and general plundering of government buildings and other facilities.
According to "The New York Times," Pentagon planners ignored State Department recommendations. Instead, it reported, they planned for oil-field fires, widespread starvation and disease, efforts by the victims of Hussein's rule to violently settle old scores, and threats from neighboring countries.
As it turned out, none of the U.S. military's worst fears materialized to the extent they were anticipated, while the problems forecast by the State Department were far closer to the mark.
Like many such news articles in Washington, "The New York Times" account was based on leaks from anonymous sources in the Bush administration, most from the Pentagon and the State Department.
For this reason, the story's reliability is questionable, according to Danielle Pletka, the vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a private policy-research center in Washington.
Yesterday, Pletka told a seminar on Iraq's future sponsored by the think tank that items leaked to the news media tend to be only partially true because the information includes what is embarrassing to the source's adversaries, but not to the source. "The selective leaking of 'I told you so' is -- apart from being embarrassing to those in the [Bush] administration who are doing it -- but [also] selective, because the truth is [the leakers] have done a lot of things that were wrong and stupid as well, and I'm looking forward to reading those on the front page of 'The New York Times,'" she said.
Still, the story has the ring of truth, according to Marina Ottaway, a senior associate of the Democracy and Rule of Law Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington policy center. In an interview with RFE/RL, Ottaway pointed out that Bush already appears to have taken moves to address the problem.
Ottaway sees a link between what the State Department foretold in the report and Bush's decision, announced two weeks ago, to put national security adviser Condoleezza Rice in charge of Iraq reconstruction.
Ordinarily, the State Department would have been given the responsibility of post-Hussein Iraq. But Bush decided to have the Pentagon, under Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, take charge of not only the war but also rebuilding.
As U.S. and other coalition forces kept struggling to stabilize the country, however, Bush decided to put Rice in charge, through the newly created Iraq Stabilization Group within the White House's National Security Council (NSC).
The creation of this new office was -- in Ottaway's words -- "nonsense" because Rice and the NSC should have been ensuring that the Pentagon heeded such reports by the State Department in the first place. But she said Bush evidently felt that without such an open declaration of Rice's authority, Rumsfeld might not have fully understood that he must take his orders from her.
"There is a mismatch between Rumsfeld and Condi Rice," Ottaway said. "Rumsfeld is by far the strongest political player of the two, and I think Condi Rice cannot do very much to force coordination unless she has the explicit backing of the president, and even then I have doubts that she is going to succeed."
Ottaway said there is no way to determine exactly how Rumsfeld's Pentagon was given the responsibility of post-Hussein Iraq over Powell's State Department. But she said that from everything she has read and heard, the defense secretary got his way because his approach to the looming problem was more to Bush's liking than Powell's.
"The message that Rumsfeld sent, essentially, was that we are strong, we can do it, we don't need anybody [else], which I think appealed to Bush's mentality. The message that [Bush] was getting from the State Department [was], essentially, 'Take it easy, be careful, there are going to be consequences to all this,' and I think Bush was not attracted to that caution," Ottaway said.
Ottaway said it is not too late for the Bush administration to shift its approach to rebuilding Iraq, mainly by committing more troops to the country to ensure that old Iraqi weapons stockpiles are secured and that the country's oil-production facilities are protected from vandals. "If there were more troops in there, it would not solve the situation overnight," she said. "But for example, there are a lot of unguarded facilities. If there were more troops to guard those facilities, it might make a difference in terms of how quickly oil production and exports increase again."
Ottaway noted, however, that Rumsfeld has been firm about the number of U.S. and other coalition troops in Iraq. He said no more are needed -- period. Ottaway said she doubts that Rice, even with Bush's emphatic support, could ever persuade Rumsfeld to increase their number.
If anything, Ottaway said, Rumsfeld is the personification of what she sees as the unilateral posture of the Bush administration, and so she expects things will be done Rumsfeld's way in Iraq as long as he is in the cabinet.