Boxed In in Baghdad

With Bush facing rising troop casualties, slow rebuilding, and sliding approval ratings at home, his options are few -- and narrowing

By Stan Crock

Every day, it seems, another GI is killed in Iraq. Shortages of electricity, drinking water, and gasoline are chronic. Turkey, Iran, and Syria are meddling in Iraqi affairs. And with oil flowing more slowly than expected, the stagnant economy has given Iraqis few tangible benefits from the U.S. intervention.

Small wonder that back in the U.S., the Democratic Presidential wannabes -- few of whom challenged the President duringthe war -- are now speaking out. On the left, Representative Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio) argues for pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq as quickly as possible and replacing them with U.N. peacekeepers. On the right, Senator Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) wants more American troops on the ground in Baghdad, aided by foreign forces under a NATO mandate. A political and economic transformation of Iraq was supposed to pave the way for reform throughout the Middle East and help end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Instead, Bush has a morass on his hands.

"DRIP, DRIP, DRIP."

  Polls show public approval for George W. Bush and his handling of Iraq remain high, but support is slipping fast. According to a CNN/USA Today poll, the President's overall approval rating declined from 71% in mid-April, to 61% at the end of June. The percentage of those who think it was worth going to war in Iraq slumped from 76% on Apr. 9, to 56% in late June, while the percentage of those who think things are going very or moderately well in Iraq plummeted from 86% in early May, to 56% in late June.

Bush ignores these developments at his own political peril. "No one knows how long that patience will last with the American public," says Republican pollster Ed Goeas. "I don't think you can predict the impact of Iraq if there's a drip, drip, drip of casualties over a long period of time." (See BW Online, 7/7/03, "Is Bush a Shoo-In for '04? Not Yet".)

So what are the President's options?

Cut and run: That's essentially what President Ronald Reagan did in Beirut after a U.S. military barrack was bombed, killing more than 200 Marines, and what President Bill Clinton did in Somalia after U.S. troops suffered losses. But Washington hasn't yet found the weapons of mass destruction that provided the rationale for the war. Nor has the U.S. occupation nudged Baghdad toward a democracy.

Leaving abruptly with the tasks unfinished would make America look like it's being "chased by a bunch of hoodlums out of the Middle East," says the Brookings Institution's Ivo H. Daalder, a National Security Council staffer in the Clinton Administration. "That's just not an option for this President."

Escalation: With about 150,000 troops already on the ground, the U.S. doesn't have many more replacements to bring in. To maintain morale and preparedness, Army benchmarks say only one-quarter to one-third of active-duty combat troops should be deployed at any time, according to Brookings Institution defense analyst Michael E. O'Hanlon. But now roughly 70% of them are posted to hot spots from Iraq to Afghanistan to Korea -- two to three times the acceptable level. "We can't keep this up longer than 12 months," says retired General Barry R. McCaffrey, who predicts that the U.S. military could be in Iraq for up to a decade.

Calling up additional reserves is problematic as well. About a quarter of them already are on duty. And shipping out more reserves or National Guard forces would "really start hitting homeland security here," says Michael G. Vickers, director of strategic studies at the Center for Strategic & Budgetary Assessments. "Communities can't do without them very easily." By Stan Crock Bring in help from allies: No, the Administration isn't about to turn the Iraqi occupation over to the U.N., as Kucinich wants. Bush officials are still steamed over the Security Council's rebuff of a resolution sanctioning the U.S. invasion of Iraq. But the Pentagon is looking to enlist foreign troops and NATO to shoulder some of the burden.

About 12,000 soldiers from Britain, Australia, and Poland are already in Iraq. The Defense Dept. says it has firm commitments from 24 more countries to provide forces and is discussing possible support with a dozen nations. The foreign commitment is expected to total about 20,000 soldiers, even after the Brits rotate their troops out. That's not enough to relieve many GIs, however. Even with 170,000 troops, the force will be just two-thirds the size, relative to the population, of the Balkan peacekeepers.

Empowering the Iraqis: Turning more political authority over to locals has plenty of surface appeal. It would lower the U.S. profile and mollify irate Iraqis. An interim city council in Baghad met for the first time July 7. And occupation czar L. Paul Bremer III appears to be making headway toward forming a transitional national council.

Experts caution, however, that turning over too much authority too fast or holding elections before secular moderates have a chance to build a political base could backfire. "Either the bad guys or the religious types are the best organized in the society and probably are the best able to win or seize power," cautions one GOP foreign-policy guru. "I wouldn't push the politics right away."

So where does this leave Commander-in-Chief Bush? Boxed in in Baghdad. So he better brace for more potshots from domestic critics. The U.S. military is becoming more aggressive in ferreting out militants. Capturing Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden would provide a tremendous psychological lift for the Administration. But a major military ramp-up isn't in the cards. Look for incremental handovers of political and bureaucratic power -- and a U.S. troop presence in Iraq for years to come.

Rebuilding the country's infrastructure may yield the most positive news over the short term, although the gains will be modest. The electric grid will soon be generating 4,000 megawatts, roughly the pre-war level and approaching the 4,500 megawatt capacity but still well below national demand of 6,000 megawatts. The oil infrastructure is producing 800,000 barrels a day and should increase output to 1 million this fall -- far less than the 2 million barrels expected.

MISPLACED PRIORITIES?

  About 60% of city dwellers and 30% of rural residents now have access to drinking water -- about the same as before the war. The port of Umm Qasr has been dredged, so large ships can bring in relief supplies and goods for trade, while commercial air traffic will begin shortly for the first time in 12 years. Faster progress won't occur until foreign business executives are confident that their employees will be safe if they head toward Baghdad.

The question for President Bush is whether enough progress will be made fast enough to pacify the Iraqis -- and American voters. Adding to his dilemma: If success in Iraq is too swift, Democrats could try to portray the President as caring more about people in other countries than at home during the campaign next year. "We're planning to build 25,000 schools in Iraq, but we've cut the budget for building schools in the U.S.," says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. The major military battles in Iraq may be over, but the political combat at home is just beginning.

Crock covers national security and foreign affairs for BusinessWeek from Washington. Follow his views in Affairs of State twice a month, only on BusinessWeek Online. Correspondent Richard S. Dunham also contributed to this story

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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