In the next few days, President Bush will be making decisions that could determine whether a Free Iraq emerges from the ashes of Saddam Hussein's Stalinist state. The most important of these -- and the decision likely to determine many of the others -- is: Will Mr. Bush entrust the realization of the promise of a liberated Iraq to those whose military successes have nearly brought it to fruition in just over a fortnight's time?
Surely, Mr. Bush appreciates that the alternative -- turning this hugely important task over to those who either intentionally sought to forestall such an outcome, or who recommended policies that very nearly had that effect -- would be to wrest defeat from the jaws of victory. His own comments and those of National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice certainly suggest that they understand the pitfalls associated with giving the United Nations, NATO, the so-called "international community" or just about anybody besides the Pentagon the leading role in post- war Iraq.
Yet the President is coming under intense pressure from various sources, notably British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the State Department and the Congress, to deny the Pentagon the preeminent role it has earned with the development and execution of a brilliant battle plan for toppling Saddam.
For example, at the meeting with Mr. Blair underway in Northern Ireland at this writing, Mr. Bush can expect to be told that, if the UN doesn't run post-Saddam Iraq, Free Iraq will be denied the international legitimacy and financial help it will require. The State Department insists that a number of its most pedigreed Arabists must be given key responsibilities for building a new Iraqi government that will not offend or destabilize other regional autocracies.
Even more astounding, the Congress, in what appears to be State Department-inspired, late-night legislative skullduggery, last week adopted a supplemental appropriation bill denying the President any discretion concerning the expenditure of $2.5 billion allocated to rebuild Iraq and provide it with humanitarian assistance. Instead, this authority is vested exclusively in the Secretary and Deputy Secretary of State.
If it had been up to the United Nations, Secretary of State Colin Powell, his deputy, Rich Armitage, their department's Arabists and many in Congress, however, we would still be debating what to do about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Instead, thanks to the courage and skill of the U.S. military, such weapons have reportedly begun to be found in Iraq and their use denied to Saddam's forces.
If it had been left to the aforementioned parties, there would be even fewer Free Iraqis to enlist in the liberation of their country. The State Department, abetted by the CIA, have for years assiduously undermined the most representative and democratic of the Iraqi opposition groups, the Iraqi National Congress (INC). The Pentagon finally succeeded in partially overcoming such resistance and began training hundreds of INC troops in Hungary a few months ago, some of whom are now helping coalition forces secure southern Iraq.
President Bush has found it particularly hard to say "No" to Tony Blair. To the British premier's lasting credit, he put his political future on the line by backing the liberation of Iraq in the face of overwhelming popular opposition and that of many in his leftist Labor Party. Unfortunately, Mr. Blair has sought to parlay his help in forging a multilateral coalition into leverage to induce George Bush to go the UN "route" last Fall, to embrace a dubious "roadmap" for Mideast peace last month and, now, to give the United Nations a major say in post-Saddam Iraq.
Mr. Bush must now draw a difficult, but unavoidable line. If he is serious about restoring to Iraqis at the earliest possible time the responsibility for their self-governance and -administration, he really has no choice but to give the lead to the Defense Department. Its Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, led by retired Army Lieutenant General Jay Garner, is in place in the theater and will be able most efficiently to draw upon the Pentagon's physical and logistical resources to begin rebuilding Iraq.
There will, of course, be room for UN organizations to help with humanitarian relief, medical assistance, food distribution, etc., just as there will be appropriate advisory roles for State Department specialists and experts drawn from other U.S. agencies. But the authority for making the proverbial trains run on time and the wherewithal for doing so should be reposed in the one organization that has demonstrated the ability to get done the job assigned it by the President: the Department of Defense.
As George W. Bush certainly appreciates, as much is riding on the sort of Iraq that now emerges as there has been on the conduct of the war that made its liberation possible. His instincts, which have been shown time and again to be very sound, appear to be to entrust, first and foremost, the challenging task of helping create a genuinely Free Iraq to those whose strategic acumen and blood, sweat and tears have given the people of Iraq such an opportunity -- despite the myriad obstacles put in the way by the Pentagon's often well-meaning but wrong- headed critics. He should veto legislation that would preclude that role and firmly tell Mr. Blair and those of a similar mind that he has confidence in Donald Rumsfeld and his team and that they are going to have the lead in facilitating the Iraqis' reconstruction of their country.