US Threshold for Iraq 'Success' Is Modest ; American Voters Care Less about the Exact Steps toward Self-Rule and More about Improving Security

Article excerpt

The United States is preparing yet another rejigging of its plan for handing over authority in Iraq, with direct election of a temporary government one possible way out of a deepening crisis.

Another possibility is expansion of the existing, US-named Iraqi Governing Council. Or, it's conceivable that the June 30 handover date, set only last Nov. 15 in a deal worked out between occupation authorities and the IGC, might now slip - although this option seems the least likely for US political reasons.

As the White House modifies plans and backs off some of its more grandiose visions for a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, what matters most - especially to US voters in this presidential election year - is that Iraq come out of the immediate postwar period stable, nonthreatening, and demonstrably better off, foreign-policy experts say. "It doesn't have to be a Wolfowitzian democracy," says Brookings Institution analyst Michael O'Hanlon, referring to Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz's vision of Iraq as a democratic beacon to the region. "Nor does it have to be an exemplary Keynesian economy. But in the three basic bins of security, politics, and economics," he adds, "there will have to be progress beyond what we're seeing so far for Iraq to be not necessarily a campaign asset, but at least not a vulnerability, for President Bush."

Exactly what is required for the postwar period to be considered a "success" continues to change, especially as the White House shifts the rationale for war - from the original concentration on weapons of mass destruction to the current focus on ridding a key region in the war on terror of a brutal and dangerous dictatorship.

Meaningful progress

But most Middle East experts say the idealistic vision of Iraq as a kind of democratic and free-market lighthouse matters less than a picture of progress toward a stable and peaceful democracy.

"We have these two extremes of the political spectrum, the neoconservative idealists and the war critics, with very demanding expectations," says Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Both basically argue that if we leave without having transformed Iraq, it wasn't worth it."

But Mr. Clawson adds that for the vast majority of Americans, if Iraqis seem better off, even if conditions are far from perfect, "that will be OK." He explains, "People understand that building a democracy takes a long time."

That view is echoed by some Iraqi leaders who see a danger either in Iraqis pressing all-or-nothing positions now, or in others expecting too much too soon. "You have to remember that under Saddam Hussein, Iraq evolved to be a failed state," says Barham Salih, prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq. "People have to understand that context in order to assess the progress so far."

Particularly for American voters, it matters little exactly how progress towards self-rule is made. But it does matter whether the sense of security is improving, both for American soldiers - who will number about 100,000 by the time of the planned handover this summer - and for Iraqis themselves. …