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White House Likens Iraq to Postwar Germany to Retain Support

A 'generational commitment' is sought by invoking a noble but expensive cause.

September 01, 2003|Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — With violence escalating and the death toll mounting, the Bush administration insists it will stay the course in Iraq. But only in the last few weeks has it said how long that might take: a generation or more.

"We and our allies must make a generational commitment to helping the people of the Middle East transform their region," national security advisor Condoleezza Rice said last month.

Administration officials describe Iraq as the linchpin in their ambitious plans to transform the entire Mideast from autocracy and conflict to democracy and peace. But while they express no doubts about the course they have chosen, they are increasingly concerned about keeping the country on board. As a result, top officials have adopted a new communications strategy: comparing the occupation and rebuilding of Iraq to the occupation and rebuilding of West Germany after World War II.

In choosing to compare Iraq to Germany, the administration appears to be sending several messages.

First, that the Iraq war was a noble cause, as noble as fighting the Nazis. Second, that the rebuilding will be lengthy, costly and complicated. And third, that despite the difficulties, the United States can be successful in Iraq, just as it was ultimately successful in Germany.

For all its expressions of confidence, the administration is clearly concerned about maintaining public support for an occupation that has suffered serious setbacks, among them the morale-sapping death toll from guerrilla attacks on U.S. soldiers, the bombing of United Nations headquarters and, on Friday, the assassination of Iraq's most prominent pro-American Shiite leader.

Acknowledging the importance of public opinion, a senior Pentagon official told The Times last week that three conditions are needed for success in Iraq: "Patience, a commitment by the American people to sacrifice and the will to win."

To maintain widespread public support, the official said, the administration also needs to keep trumpeting another theme -- that if we don't fight Al Qaeda in Iraq, we will wind up fighting it at home.

Polls show that Americans still overwhelmingly support the Iraq operation -- nearly two-thirds of respondents told a Gallup Poll last week that they believe the war was worthwhile. But the polls also show signs of growing anxiety.

For instance, the Gallup Poll found 54% of respondents thought the administration didn't have a clear plan for Iraq; just 44% believed it did. Respondents were divided in assessing the postwar effort in Iraq: 49% said they believed it was going moderately or very badly, and 50% said it was going moderately or very well. That was before Friday's bombing in Najaf, which killed 100 people, including Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr Hakim, an influential Shiite cleric.

With Congress reconvening this week and the race for the Democratic presidential nomination heating up, criticism of the administration's Iraq policies is expected to intensify.

"It's a very uncertain situation as far as the public is concerned, so [White House officials] are trying to clarify their long-term goals," said Karlyn Bowman, a political analyst with the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

In a recent interview, Rice compared the United States' commitment to rebuilding Iraq to the Marshall Plan, which helped turn not only West Germany but other parts of a devastated, war-ridden Europe into one of the world's most stable and prosperous regions.

But such a comparison is likely to make a deficit watcher break out in a cold sweat. In today's dollars, the Marshall Plan would cost about $88 billion. But as a proportion of GDP, it was even more pricey -- between 2.5% and 5% of the U.S. national economy each year. One scholar has estimated that such a commitment would amount to $200 billion a year today.

Ivo Daalder of the Brookings Institution, a frequent administration critic, sees a "huge disconnect between the stakes that are implied by the analogy and the commitment this administration is making to bring the transformation about."

If the administration were serious about transforming the Middle East, it would have planned better for the war's aftermath and would be asking Americans for more substantial sacrifices, Daalder said. "Now, we're cutting taxes, asking nothing of the American people," he said.

Historians see other problems with the analogy. Gerhard Weinberg, an eminent German historian who is retired from the University of North Carolina, said the devastation of Germany after the war went far beyond the current situation in Iraq -- cities flattened by carpet bombing, more than 25% of homes destroyed, most able-bodied men dead, injured or captured, millions of refugees, roads and bridges blasted by retreating Nazis.

"You have a very much simpler problem in many ways in Iraq, but handled with nothing like the care, planning and resources of postwar Germany," Weinberg said.

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