WASHINGTON – The Bush administration today will launch a public relations counteroffensive against critics of the Iraq war, hoping to stem fast-eroding public support for the war and to restore confidence in the president’s ability to bring the conflict to a successful conclusion.
In a high-profile address at the U.S. Naval Academy this morning, President Bush is expected to speak in detail about the new strength of Iraqi military forces, even naming individual Iraqis who have contributed to the fighting, according to a White House official who declined to be identified. Bush will focus on “the ability of Iraqi forces to defend themselves and their country,” the primary prerequisite for reducing the number of U.S. forces, the official said.
Bush’s speech, with its emphasis on the improved fighting capabilities of Iraqi troops, is viewed by analysts as an attempt to offer evidence that the administration has a viable plan for Iraq in the face of criticism from Republicans, as well as Democrats, that the war has been mishandled.
But the experts also see the speech as a signal that the White House has concluded it must take a calculated risk – that the highly suspect Iraqi military can now become the main protective force for the nascent federal government in Baghdad. That assessment is widely disputed by military specialists inside and outside the administration.
After all, it was only two months ago that Army Gen. John Abizaid, the senior U.S. commander in the Middle East, told a Senate hearing that only one of the 100 Iraqi military battalions formed over the previous two years was fully trained, equipped and capable of operating independently.
The timing of the administration’s move, analysts believe, is based in part on the need to counter domestic political pressure and shore up Bush’s sagging poll numbers. But they say it also is motivated by the need to head off two potentially greater risks: a loss of public and congressional backing so precipitous that it might compel a politically devastating hasty pullout and the need to prevent the serious damage to America’s all-volunteer military that could occur with an open-ended commitment in Iraq.
While Bush’s speech constitutes the centerpiece of the White House move, the administration is responding on other fronts as well.
A few hours before the speech, in time for the morning television news shows, the White House is scheduled to release a “National Strategy for Victory in Iraq,” which outlines how the administration plans to defeat the insurgency that has gripped large swaths of the country, claimed more than 2,000 American lives and stunted the Iraqi economy.
On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld weighed in with his own praise for Iraq’s military forces.
“The people who have been denigrating the Iraqi security forces are flat wrong,” he told reporters at a Pentagon news conference. “They’ve been wrong from the beginning. They’re doing a darn good job and they’re doing an increasingly better job every day, every week, every month.”
Rumsfeld’s remarks followed similar comments last week by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who told Fox News that Iraqi forces would “fairly soon” be capable of defending their country. She repeated that assessment in Tuesday’s USA Today.
The administration’s media offensive on Iraq comes days after the White House was surprised by a call for an immediate pullout of U.S. forces by Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., a decorated Marine Corps veteran who had been a leading supporter of the war.
For Bush and his presidency, the stakes in correctly timing any withdrawal of American forces could hardly be higher. A U.S. failure in Iraq would not just bring turmoil to a crucially important part of the world. It would constitute a setback in the administration’s fight against militant Islam and likely undermine the president’s drive to spread democracy through the Middle East.
While the president, senior Cabinet members and some military commanders now say that Iraqi forces are ready to shoulder more responsibility, others are far from certain. Inside the Pentagon, some experts say that 2006 is far too optimistic a goal for turning over a large part of Iraq’s security to local forces, arguing that the early failures of the training mission ensure that it will be at least until 2007 before Iraqi troops can assume control in most of the country.
“Because of the lost year … we’ve only been serious about this for a year and a half,” said one Defense Department official who has made repeated trips to Iraq to study the training mission. “It’s going to be at least another year and a half before you will start to see some good results.”
This official, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue, was referring to an ill-fated initial training effort that was delegated to private contractors who tended to concentrate more on the quantity, rather than the quality of recruits.
The official said that on his last trip to Iraq, he spoke to several dozen U.S. battalion commanders about the readiness of the Iraqi units assigned to them and that, almost to a man, those commanders estimated that it would be one or two more years before the Iraqi troops would be capable of taking over.
During especially difficult combat operations last year in and around the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah, west of Baghdad, many Iraqi units simply melted away once the fighting began.
Defense consultant Gary Anderson, a retired Marine Corps colonel who worked with then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz during the early post-invasion period, agreed that significant improvements had been made over the past year in training Iraqi forces, but warned that some key military skills could not be rushed.
“You don’t grow leadership overnight,” he said.
Anderson also worried that those evaluating Iraqi forces could now feel required to inflate the readiness of Iraqi units in order to justify a drawdown of U.S. forces.
“Any time you have categories like this, there’s going to be pressure to inflate the numbers,” he said.
Still, many senior U.S. commanders claim the Iraqi forces are ready. Following Abizaid’s statement at the Senate hearing in September that only one Iraqi battalion could fight fully on its own, Pentagon officials have repeatedly said that many other Iraqi units can stand up to insurgent attacks and hold territory. It is only the lack of a supply chain and transportation that has made them reliant on U.S. forces, they said.
Rumsfeld said Tuesday that 95 Iraqi military battalions now “were effectively in the fight,” compared to five in August 2004.