Critics, dissenters of early war strategy are now in charge in Iraq

Published 10:59 pm Saturday, April 21, 2007

The White House search for a “war czar” caps a lengthy reshuffle that has placed pragmatists and critics of the Bush administration’s early moves in Iraq in charge of managing a war that the U.S. feels it can’t quit but can’t quite win.

Gen. David Petraeus recently took command of U.S. forces in Iraq, Ryan Crocker is the new U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Adm. William J. Fallon recently became commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East. All are skeptics of the previous strategy. The State Department also has a new chief of reconstruction in Iraq who had been a harsh critic of the war’s early policies.

The changes came as President Bush has warmed to strategies and ideas he once rejected to turn around the violence and chaos in Iraq – such as sending thousands more troops to the country in an effort to calm Baghdad.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

His new crop of Iraq leaders bypasses ideologues and loyalists in favor of professionals with previous experience in Iraq and war zones.

“None of them are particularly ideological or were associated with the original public push for the war,” said Kurt Campbell, chief executive officer of the nonpartisan, centrist Center for a New American Security. The new leaders “are probably quietly appalled that we find ourselves in the situation that we do in Iraq,” Campbell said.

Last fall’s firing of former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was meant to carry a powerful message, but the gradual replacement of generals, diplomats and leaders has attracted less attention.

Rumsfeld’s replacement, Robert Gates, summed up the administration’s awkward position Friday, and implicitly acknowledged the political pressure to end the war.

The administration will assess Iraq’s political progress when deciding this summer whether to bring home some of the thousands of extra troops Bush has sent this spring, Gates said during a visit to Baghdad.

“Our commitment to Iraq is long-term, but it’s not a commitment to having our young men and women patrolling Iraq’s streets open-endedly,” Gates said.

Last week, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley noted several of the other personnel changes and said they give the administration a chance to rethink how it manages the war. The overall war chief Hadley wants to hire would report directly to Bush.

Crocker and Petraeus went to Iraq in the first months of the war and emerged disappointed with some of the administration’s choices and the centralized management style of American leaders in Baghdad.

Although neither has been a strong critic of the administration, both have suggested that crucial chances were blown at the start. Timothy Carney, the State Department’s newly named Iraq reconstruction chief, also had firsthand experience in Iraq in the early months of the war.

All share a reputation for shrewdness and pragmatism. Their writings and resumes suggest they will make the best of a five-year-old war that has not gone as planned, with an eye to getting U.S. forces and advisers out as fast as possible.

Crocker is one of the State Department’s most experienced Middle East experts and has worked for both Republican and Democratic presidents. He reportedly warned then-Secretary of State Colin Powell before the 2003 invasion that toppling Saddam Hussein would lift the lid on sectarian violence in Iraq.

In the summer of 2003 Crocker was a top political adviser to the U.S.-led occupation government, the Coalition Provisional Authority. He worked to set up an Iraqi governing council, and almost immediately ran into trouble recruiting qualified Sunni Muslim leaders and persuading some of his U.S. colleagues that they must include Sunnis, the minority elite that ruled the country under Saddam.

After Crocker left Iraq, the Sunni-Shiite sectarian violence he had feared rose to become a bigger source of killing than the anti-American insurgency that targets U.S. troops.

Crocker went back to Baghdad last month to replace the talented Zalmay Khalilzad, an energetic Afghan-born U.S. diplomat with a Republican pedigree. Although Khalilzad made inroads with Sunni leaders and developed a reputation as a dealmaker, Crocker may carry greater credibility across sectarian lines and among other Arab governments.

Petraeus brings experience and perspective to the top U.S. military job in Baghdad, having commanded the 101st Airborne Division during the initial invasion in 2003. He then returned to build a viable program for training the Iraqi security forces.

Petraeus disliked the way some fellow military leaders tried to rout the incipient insurgency in 2003, suggesting that heavy-handed tactics would cause more problems than they might solve. He agreed with critics of the decision to disband the Iraqi army.

Many former intelligence, security and military officials are believed to have joined the Sunni insurgency after former U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer disbanded Iraq’s 350,000-member military in May 2003, a month after Saddam’s regime was ousted.

Petraeus is also an author of the Army’s new doctrine on how to fight a counterinsurgency, developed during his stint last year as head of the Combined Arms Center and the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

Petraeus’ revamped strategy is designed to win back public support along with turf.

Carney’s return to Iraq this spring is more startling, given the retired diplomat’s scathing assessment of what he called bad planning and bad choices immediately after the invasion.

Carney had spent two bitter months in Iraq in 2003. He left as a critic of the policy of wholesale “de-Baathification,” or ridding Iraqi government and public service of members of Saddam’s Baath party. Carney saw no point in firing ordinary civil servants.

Bush’s new plan calls for the rehiring of many who were fired, and U.S. advisers are prodding Iraq’s fragile Shiite-led government to pass a law addressing de-Baathification and encouraging Sunnis to rejoin the political process.

Iraq’s prime minister this month ordered pension payments for senior officers of Saddam’s military and offered a return to service for lower-ranking soldiers.

Ray DuBois, who served as acting under secretary of the Army earlier in the Iraq war, agreed that the new group of leaders represents a reappraisal, but doesn’t read it as a sign of backtracking under political pressure to pull out of Iraq.

DuBois, now a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said: “The assignment of these folks in particular is in my view a recognition of the absolute importance of being successful in Iraq and Afghanistan.”