WASHINGTON — Three years ago, as they ordered more than 150,000 U.S. troops to race toward Baghdad, Bush administration officials confidently predicted that Iraq would quickly evolve into a prosperous, oil-fueled democracy. When those goals proved optimistic, they lowered their sights, focusing on a military campaign to defeat Sunni-led insurgents and elections to jump-start a new political order.
As the conflict enters its fourth year today, the Bush administration faces a new challenge: the prospect of civil war. And, in response, officials again appear to be redefining success downward.
If Iraq can avoid all-out civil war, they say, if Baghdad's new security forces can hold together, if Sunni Arabs, Shiites and Kurds all participate in a new unity government, that may be enough progress to allow the administration to begin reducing the number of U.S. troops in the country by the second half of this year.
In increasingly sober public statements -- and in slightly more candid assessments from officials who insisted that they not be identified -- the administration is working to lower expectations.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 02, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Iraq war anniversary: A March 19 article in Section A misspelled the first name of a former professor at the U.S. Army War College who is now at the private Council on Foreign Relations. He is Stephen Biddle, not Steven.
"It may seem difficult at times to understand how we can say that progress is being made," President Bush said Saturday in his weekly radio address, acknowledging that much of the recent news from Iraq has been bad. "But ... slowly but surely, our strategy is getting results."
"We may fail," said a senior official directly involved in Iraq policy. "But I think we're going to succeed. I think we're going to nudge this ball down the road.... It's not going to be easy, and it's going to take time."
The more sober tone is not entirely new; officials, from Bush on down, have tacitly acknowledged for more than a year that trying to stabilize Iraq is proving more difficult than they expected when they launched the war in 2003.
But independent foreign policy analysts say they see signs of a more fundamental shift in the administration's position -- a creeping redefinition of U.S. goals in Iraq that increasingly allows for the possibility that the nation may remain unstable for years to come.
"It isn't going to be perfect," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said last month. "It isn't going to be pretty. It isn't going to look like the United States of America. It's going to be an Iraqi solution politically, and Iraqi solution economically and an Iraqi solution from a security standpoint."
"Initially, we were going to stay until the insurgency was defeated," noted James F. Dobbins, a former special envoy under Presidents Clinton and Bush. "About a year ago, we amended that in a fairly important way by saying we were going to stay until the Iraqi government and its army and police were capable of coping with the insurgency. We redefined victory in terms of the Iraqis' capability instead of the defeat of the insurgency."
"Now even that measure of success has proven elusive," said Dobbins, who is now with Rand Corp. "At this point I think we would be content if we could diminish our presence, allow the Iraqis to simply hold their own against the insurgency and prevent the country from rupturing into an even more serious civil war than the one that now exists."
The violence between Sunni and Shiite Arabs in recent weeks, which increased after the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra, touched off what one official called "a moment of fear" within the administration -- a sense that events in Iraq could spiral beyond any measure of U.S. control.
In the aftermath of the bombing, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said, "We have opened the Pandora's box.... There is a concerted effort to provoke civil war."
And Rumsfeld, asked whether U.S. forces would intervene in an intra-Iraqi conflict, said, "The plan is to prevent a civil war, and to the extent one were to occur ... from a security standpoint, have the Iraqi security forces deal with it to the extent they're able to."
Before the recent violence, U.S. military officials said they hoped to reduce the number of troops in Iraq from about 130,000 to about 100,000 over the year. Officials said last week that the violence could slow the U.S. drawdown but that they still expected some troop reduction to occur.
The good news, Rumsfeld and other officials noted, was that U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces did not disintegrate, and Iraqi political leaders, particularly in the Shiite community, quickly intervened to stop the violence from escalating further.
But the senior official said the U.S. strategy of nurturing a unity government and building multi-ethnic Iraqi security forces was still dangerously vulnerable.
"Sectarian violence ... is not going down as [quickly] as we would like to see," he said. "A surge further in sectarian violence, way below what I would call a civil war, is still enough to really threaten what we're trying to do there, because it strengthens the militias, it strengthens the radicals, it weakens the security forces."