Sour taste of victory

Robert Novak

5/19/2003 12:00:00 AM - Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- As all good leaders should be, George W. Bush is a positive thinker. So, in private conversation, he exults about how well things have been going in occupied Iraq. It takes a brave soul to look the president of the United States in the eye and talk about the sour taste in Iraq following the stirring military victory of Anglo-American forces, but a few Republicans are doing just that.

Nor is Iraq the only place whose condition worries members of President Bush's own party and even high-ranking officials in his administration. In Afghanistan, U.S. officials are experiencing the frustrations that foreign occupiers have experienced there for more than a century. The roadmap for Israeli-Palestinian peace shows signs of being strangled at birth. And the terrorist bombings in Saudi Arabia open the way for destabilization of the kingdom.

With desperate Democrats trying to seize on all these troubles as the 2004 presidential race gets off to an early start, no Republican is going to be popular at the White House by making rain over Bush's victory parade. Politics aside, however, the outlook is troubled.

-- Iraq: When Defense Under Secretary Douglas Feith testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee prior to the war, he offered no clear plan for occupying Iraq. Worried Republicans in Congress still have not heard one. Retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, the first American proconsul, departed for Iraq without giving Foreign Relations Chairman Richard Lugar the opportunity to question him about his plans. Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, the new American proconsul, is highly regarded by the Pentagon, State Department and Congress. Still, even he cannot function without a plan.

Growing concern among Republicans was reflected last Wednesday when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld appeared before the Senate Appropriations Committee to request funds for the occupation of Iraq. The partisan Democratic rant of Sen. Robert Byrd could be written off, but not the intense dialogue between Rumsfeld and a veteran Republican stalwart, Sen. Pete Domenici. Normally not prone to criticizing the Bush administration, Domenici worried "that the victory we claim is not a victory at all." Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz recently conferred privately with Lugar about Iraq, to the chairman's satisfaction. He will go before Lugar's committee this week with Republicans demanding a more coherent explanation of strategy than Rumsfeld's.

-- Afghanistan: Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a conservative Republican from California who was a Reagan White House speechwriter, went on the House floor May 6 to accuse the State Department of squandering the fruits of military victory in Afghanistan. An old Afghan hand, Rohrabacher complained that the anti-Taliban fighters who collaborated in the military victory are being cut out of the governing process. U.S. officials "are pushing the wrong way in Afghanistan," he declared.

Rohrabacher's warnings are dismissed by State Department officials, who contend that no foreign power has ever managed to control Afghanistan beyond the gates of Kabul and accuse the congressman of angling for a piece of the action. Nevertheless, more and more Republicans in Congress believe the Afghan policy has gone awry.

-- Israel-Palestine: "Realistically, I would say that the roadmap appears to be dead," a senior State Department official told me after Secretary of State Colin Powell's failed Middle East mission. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon guaranteed failure when he announced his visit to Bush in Washington to undercut Powell. If Bush does not counter Sharon's intransigence, the message sent throughout the Middle East will worry those Republicans who see the need for a Palestinian state.

-- Saudi Arabia: CIA briefers last week said the new terrorist bombings signified not lack of will by Crown Prince Abdullah but a lack of means. Nevertheless, the barrage of U.S. criticism directed against the Saudi government threatens destabilization of another Arab country. How, ask some thoughtful Republicans, can the U.S. take on this added burden?

That burden is a quasi-imperial one. The president's avowed aim of bringing democracy to a region that has never known it faces massive problems -- beginning with Iraq. The dispatch of 15,000 more U.S. troops for occupation duty may be only the down payment. The heartiest celebration over the fall of Baghdad clearly is in the past.