WASHINGTON—When President Bush ordered the U.S. invasion of Iraq 15 months ago, he portrayed it as a bold move not just to oust Saddam Hussein, but to begin transforming the Middle East. Terrorists would be repelled, Arab autocrats would accept reform and the Arab-Israeli conflict would become more solvable.
As the United States prepares to return sovereignty to Iraq on June 30, a growing number of U.S. and foreign officials say that plan has gone drastically, even dangerously, wrong.
The invasion and occupation of Iraq, and the way they were handled, have led to record-high rage at the United States across the Islamic world and beyond, these officials and experts say. The al-Qaida terrorist network's recruitment has been stoked and would-be reformers drowned out, pointing to a perilous, not safer, future.
"U.S. forces and policies are completing the radicalization of the Islamic world, something Osama bin Laden has been trying to do with substantial but incomplete success since the early 1990s," a senior CIA official, who tracked the terrorist leader for years, wrote in a soon-to-be-released book, "Imperial Hubris."
"There is nothing bin Laden could have hoped for more than the American invasion and occupation of Iraq," claims the official, who wrote the book anonymously because he still works for U.S. intelligence.
A new Georgetown University report reaches similar conclusions, adding that the United States "is now vulnerable to strategic reversal in the region."
"U.S. policies are in deep trouble" on critical issues such as the "road map" for Arab-Israeli peace, democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq, and stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons, says the report by the university's Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. "The gap between Washington's official rhetoric and on-the-ground performance is widening."
Confronted with polls showing weakening public confidence in Bush's handling of the terrorism issue, the president and his aides staunchly defend the Iraq invasion and its outcome.
"People wonder whether we'll succeed, I know that," Bush told cheering soldiers at Fort Lewis, Wash., on June 18. "But I'm here to tell you these are essential tasks for our security and for peace of the world. ... By helping the rise of democracy in Iraq and throughout the world, you are giving people an alternative to bitterness and hatred."
But Bush appears to have lowered his sights in Iraq and the broader Middle East as the U.S. occupation has foundered, beset by a persistent violent insurgency and political instability.
The United States is struggling to stabilize the country and guide it toward elections early next year. Some see the June 30 handover and the weeks following as Bush's last chance to make good on his promises of democracy in Iraq and a better future for the Middle East.
"There's a big gap between the lofty goals we articulated before the war and what we're talking about now in the trenches of Baghdad," said Sandy Berger, President Clinton's national security adviser and now a consultant to John Kerry's Democratic presidential campaign.
Creating a stable and prosperous Iraq "is the bottom line" goal now, Berger said. "We can't go below that."
Gary Schmitt, the executive director of the Project for the New American Century, a neoconservative think tank that backed the invasion, said the lofty goals Bush set were meant as a long-term vision, not near-term reality. "These things are always overstated," he said.
It's still possible that Iraq will become peaceful and democratic, and that will influence reform in neighboring Arab states, Schmitt said. "Does it have an (immediate) domino impact? No."
A senior State Department official involved in Iraq policy said: "It's not irretrievable, I don't believe. The Iraqis want so badly to have a new country.
"It's too bad all the advantages have been squandered, that's all," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Many of us knew that we should have gone about this in a different way," he said, referring to mishandling of the immediate postwar phase.
In Iraq and beyond, Bush and his foreign policy team misjudged the ability of U.S. military power to change the world, critics say.
Most polls show deep anger at the United States, even in allied countries in Europe and Asia.
Outside the United States, "most people think we've lost our minds" and are worried that U.S. actions will endanger them as well, said John Mearsheimer, a University of Chicago political science professor and prominent war critic.
Bush cast the Iraq war as part of his war on terrorism, claiming that Saddam's regime had ties with al-Qaida.
But that claim has been increasingly challenged, and the threat from violent Islamic extremists shows no signs of abating.
Most counterterrorism specialists now argue that the U.S. invasion of an Arab country has made the problem significantly worse.
The prestigious International Institute for Strategic Studies said in a report last month that al-Qaida's support and recruitment are growing because of the presence of 138,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.
Al-Qaida and affiliated groups have 18,000 potential terrorists in their ranks, and Islamic extremists are resurgent in Afghanistan because of insufficient attention there, the London-based think tank said in its annual strategic survey.
State Department counterterrorism coordinator Cofer Black disputed that the invasion of Iraq has set back the fight against terrorism.
"I think when you reduce the areas at which terrorists can be trained, from which they can be facilitated and sent against targets, this is a good thing," Black said. The arguments now made by critics were used in the past to oppose U.S. action against al-Qaida in Afghanistan, he said.
But the staff of the commission investigating the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks found recently that there was no "collaborative relationship" between Saddam's regime and al-Qaida. That raised questions about one of Bush's central justifications for the war.
Black spoke at a briefing where the State Department issued a corrected report showing that significant terrorist incidents increased last year. The department retracted an earlier report that used flawed statistics to document a drop in attacks.
In the Middle East, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems as intractable as ever, stirring up passions and violence.
War supporters "argued that the road to Jerusalem was through Baghdad," Mearsheimer said. "It does not look like the Arab-Israeli conflict is being solved."
In the Arab world, some leaders, such as Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah, are cautiously pursuing economic and political liberalization.
"It's very clear there's a lot of political and economic ferment going on in the region," said Schmitt, of the Project for the New American Century. But whether it bears fruit depends on how the experiment in Iraq turns out, he said.
Elites in Saudi Arabia, Syria and elsewhere say reformers have been undercut by Washington's policies, including Bush's unwillingness to mediate the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and the administration's heavy-handed pushing of its reform proposals.
Nor has the invasion of Iraq scared other nations away from seeking weapons of mass destruction, as some predicted it would.
Iran and North Korea continue to pursue advanced nuclear weapons programs, posing major challenges that Bush is trying to solve with diplomacy.
Anas Shallal, an Iraqi-American and peace activist, said he still thinks that overthrowing Saddam will prove to be the best thing for his native country. "I'm not sure I can say the same for America," he said.
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.