Bush Must Counter Bad News From Iraq With Progress Reports

Posted July 9, 2003 at 1:52pm

The news from Iraq has been almost continuosly bad for nearly three months now, dominated by accounts of U.S. casualties. The Bush administration needs to counter it with good news — and more steps to improve the situation on the ground. [IMGCAP(1)]

Of course, barring word of the capture or death of Saddam Hussein and his evil sons or the discovery of weapons of mass destruction, there’s no question that the killing or wounding of American soldiers will (and should) be front-page news.

Still, along with the daily casualty counts, the administration could be issuing progress reports on the reconstruction effort in Iraq — on matters such as the number of hours the electricity is on in Baghdad, the count of Iraqis (especially police) back on government payrolls and the volume of oil produced and exported.

The Coalition Provisional Authority headed by former Ambassador Paul Bremer — an impressive, aggressive official — compiles such statistics but has not regularly released them.

The CPA has only a rudimentary Web site (www.CPA-Iraq.org), and although it holds regular news briefings in Iraq, it held its first briefing for American reporters on Monday.

One administration official said, “People here are aware of the need for our successes to be understood. … We’re working very hard and thinking very hard about how to convey to American and foreign audiences the stunning accomplishments we’ve achieved.” But the word isn’t out. And, it hurts.

Saddam Hussein — or whoever is directing military attacks against allied forces and sabotage of Iraq’s infrastructure — clearly is hoping to defeat the United States psychologically after failing to do so militarily.

The enemy evidently calculates that Americans won’t stand for a steady climb in U.S. body counts — topped off, perhaps, by a sizable attack like the one that killed 273 Marines in Beirut in 1983 and drove the United States out of Lebanon.

According to Thomas Donnelly, a military expert at the American Enterprise Institute just back from Iraq, the U.S. military is especially gearing up against the possibility of major attacks July 17, Baath Party National Day, designed to deliver a psychological jolt like the Vietnamese Tet offensive that damaged U.S. morale in 1968.

The enemy also hopes, apparently, that hot, tired, scared and demoralized American troops will commit acts of insensitivity or cruelty that will turn the Iraqi population decisively against the U.S.-led occupation.

So far, public opinion polls tell a conflicting story about whether U.S. support for President Bush’s Iraq policy is holding.

Last week, a Gallup poll showed that only 56 percent of U.S. adults now think that Iraq was “worth going to war over” and 42 percent said it was not, down from 76 percent and 23 percent in April.

A just-released Pew poll showed that only 23 percent now think the military effort is going “very well,” down from 61 percent in April, but 52 percent say it is going “fairly well” and 67 percent still say that going to war was “the right decision.”

At the top, Bush and his top advisers have dealt with the bad news from Iraq with statements of determination, defiance and, occasionally, defensiveness.

At a Pentagon briefing, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld denied that attacks on allied forces constituted a “guerrilla war” or that the United States was caught in a “quagmire.”

Military officials say Iraqi attacks are a response to forceful U.S. counter-insurgency operations like Operation Sidewinder in the so-called “Sunni Triangle” in central Iraq.

Bush defiantly told a group of military re-enlistees that “these scattered groups of terrorists, extremists and Saddam loyalists … believe they have found an opportunity to harm America, to shake our resolve in the war on terror and to cause us to leave Iraq before freedom is fully established. They are wrong and they will not succeed.”

In the same speech, he served notice that turning Iraq into a model of democracy, moderation and prosperity “is a massive and long-term undertaking,” suggesting that he will devote large-scale resources to it over a long period.

And, outraging some Democrats who thought he was inviting attacks on U.S. forces, Bush dared the enemy to show itself: “Bring ’em on,” he said, in language soldiers certainly understand.

Beyond determination, however, the continuing Iraq war and post-war needs to be fought with forces, money and with solid, steady information given to the U.S. population and the Iraqis on progress in reconstruction.

Bremer is making almost daily announcements on major developments such as the formation of Baghdad’s interim city advisory council and the establishment of a temporary new Iraqi currency without Hussein’s image.

But the first briefing on progress in Iraq for U.S. reporters by Bremer’s CPA deputies — videoconferenced to the Pentagon — did not take place until Monday.

In it, Maj. Gen. Carl Strock, Bremer’s deputy director of operations, reported that the CPA had committed “almost $1 billion in several thousand projects” in the past 12 weeks, that total electricity output will be nearly back to its pre-war level by the end of July (though fair distribution will cause continuing blackouts in Baghdad), and that 80 percent of urban populations will have running water by October.

Andy Bearpark, CPA director of operations, explained that Iraq’s infrastructure was the victim of “30 years of criminal neglect of maintenance and then criminally and politically motivated sabotage in the last few weeks,” meaning it would take “several years” to restore it.

The CPA officials said that 31,000 Iraqi police officers were back on duty nationwide and were being paid almost double what they received under Saddam Hussein and that all of Iraq’s 240 hospitals are equipped and open.

Such reports need to be regular and well-publicized to at least ameliorate the sense that only bad things are happening in Iraq.

According to AEI’s Donnelly, though, the U.S. effort will require a substantial increase of fresh troops, U.S. and foreign, and massive inputs of money to assure Iraqis that the transition to modernity is irreversible.

In a forthcoming article in The Weekly Standard, Donnelly writes: “President Bush’s word always has been undercut by the uncertainty of administration policy and a curious tendency to commit resources that match the rhetoric.” Iraq is too important for that to happen there.