- The Washington Times - Monday, October 13, 2003

At least two things seem certain now in the Iraqi situation. First, President Bush has had to assume personal control, moving the center of strategy from the Pentagon to the White House. Secondly, the United Nations, to no one’s surprise, is not going to help relieve the burden on the United States without major concessions to its Security Council partners — mainly, France and Germany.

One can only imagine the United States’ one steady ally, Britain’s Tony Blair, looking at Mr. Bush and complaining, in classic “Laurel and Hardy” fashion, that this “is another fine mess you’ve gotten me into.” A growing number of Americans are beginning to feel the same way, and therein is the danger for the president and his chances for re-election.

That Mr. Bush has realized he has put too much faith in his Pentagon crew, led by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, to first stabilize and then reconstruct Iraq, is evident from his decision to set up a new management team under his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice. It was as much a political decision as anything else. Although it is a necessary step that probably should have come sooner, it is also chancy in that it gives Mr. Bush no place else to put the blame if things get worse. But then, he would have to assume that responsibility anyway, so the risk was worth taking.

Actually, Mr. Bush and his political counselors, mainly Karl Rove, understand full well that if the Iraq situation doesn’t improve rapidly, it will have a major impact on the 2004 election. Polls continue to show softening support for the president, with a sizable drop in numbers coming immediately after he announced an $87 billion budget request primarily for Iraqi restoration. Few voters are gullible enough to believe that is all it will take. In fact, Congress probably will go beyond that amount in the appropriation process.

The official line at the moment is that the United States still will seek a resolution calling for major U.N. participation in the Iraqi peace effort. However, very few in the administration hold out much hope for passage, particularly since Secretary-General Kofi Annan expressed reservations about the U.S. position.

Mr. Annan essentially supports a French proposal for quick establishment of an Iraqi government followed by withdrawal of U.S. forces. Mr. Bush has steadfastly rejected this approach and insists any U.N. participation must be subservient to U.S. control — a major impediment to support from France, Russia and Germany, which have their own interests.

On the first point, the president, Miss Rice and Secretary of State Colin Powell are correct in their assessment that using the current Iraqi governing council as the foundation for a new government would only aggravate the situation. Many Iraqis view the council as a puppet of the occupation. It would be a disaster.

On the matter of full U.S. control, however, Mr. Bush ultimately may have to make concessions if this country is not to be committed to Iraq for far longer than most Americans would like, particularly those voters with connections to U.S. troops who continue to be targets of violence.

Pressure on the president, meanwhile, has not been eased by the continuing barrage of Democratic criticism of his handling of the war. Nor has such pressure been helped by the increasing evidence that the huge Bush tax cuts, most of which are still to take effect, are a burden the government can’t bear — considering the drain of Iraq and Afghanistan, and demands for major domestic programs like health care and education.

In the midst of all this, of course, the president has been distracted by the burgeoning flap over the unauthorized disclosure of the identity of a covert CIA agent. She just happened to be the wife of a vocal critic of administration claims about Saddam Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction — the basis for the war.

After conceding that such a disclosure, possibly from White House sources, is a very serious criminal matter, Mr. Bush has suggested those who supplied the information may never be found by the Justice Department, which has been conducting an intense investigation.

Moving responsibility for solving the dilemma in Iraq closer to his own office is a good step. Seeking help from the United Nations is also a goal on which the administration should not give up, even though it is highly unlikely to be reached in the current atmosphere.

Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.

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