White House defends its role in rebuilding
WASHINGTON -- The White House insisted yesterday that its decision to play a greater role in the rebuilding of Iraq and Afghanistan was not an acknowledgment of problems with US-led efforts in those countries.
Instead, administration officials portrayed the move as an attempt to streamline decision-making as Congress debates President Bush's request to spend $87 billion to stabilize and rebuild the war-torn countries.
Members of Congress have been sharply critical of the Bush administration's plan for postwar Iraq, and Taliban militias are feared to be reorganizing in Afghanistan. A confidential memo circulated last week said the Iraq Stabilization Group would be overseen by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, one of Bush's closest aides.
"Condi's team is going to make sure that the efforts are continued to be coordinated so that we continue to make progress," Bush said during a news conference with President Mwai Kibaki of Kenya. "And listen, we're making good progress in Iraq. Sometimes it's hard to tell it when you listen to the filter [of critics]. We're making good progress."
It remained unclear yesterday how differently decisions would be made under the new stabilization group than under the current system. Administration officials described the group as an entity that would work with the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq to make more day-to-day decisions without having to consult with the deputies from the Pentagon or the State Department. L. Paul Bremer III, the top US official in Iraq, would continue to report to the Defense Department.
"This group can work to help cut through some of the bureaucracy and red tape here in Washington, D.C., so that we can make sure, as our efforts accelerate in Iraq, that they're getting the full assistance from Washington, D.C.," said White House press secretary Scott McClellan.
Some key members of Congress who have traveled to Iraq recently have returned with warnings about continued violence if basic services there are not restored. They have said that the administration should have anticipated the violent resistance that has made rebuilding Iraq more difficult and that it should have better prepared American taxpayers for the length and the cost of the operations.
"Almost two years after the fall of the Taliban and nearly six months after the fall of Baghdad, the White House is finally organizing itself to deal with the realities of postwar Afghanistan and Iraq," said Senator John Edwards, a North Carolina Democrat who is running for president. "It's about time President Bush tried to get his bureaucracy in order, but rearranging flow charts is no substitute for leadership."
Others who have been critical of the administration's approach in Iraq praised Bush's decision.
A spokesman for Senator Richard G. Lugar, the Indiana Republican who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said it "is a move in the direction of what he's been calling for" -- a reassessment and reevaluation of the administration's postwar decisions.
John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a Virginia-based think tank that specializes in military issues, said the move to form a group to oversee day-to-day decisions is a good one. "They're coming to grips with this being a high visibility, long-term issue that they need some sort of structure to deal with," Pike said.
The stabilization group will consist of four units that will handle counterterrorism, economic development, and political and media affairs. The formation of the group, which was first reported in yesterday's New York Times, is being done at a crucial time for the administration.
Congress, now on a weeklong recess, will return to Washington to face the prospect of voting on a Bush request to spend $20 billion to rebuild Iraq's infrastructure while the expanding US budget deficit curtails spending on projects at home. The spending request, larger than what most members of Congress anticipated, will be debated as media reports vividly portray the violence that still seizes Iraq.
Administration officials have contended that the progress in Iraq and Afghanistan has been overshadowed by reports of the continued attacks on US soldiers. Those attacks, coupled with the increasing cost of stabilizing and rebuilding Iraq and Afghanistan, have led many to question the administration's handling of foreign policy.
More Americans have died in Iraq since May, when Bush declared an end to major hostilities, than were killed during the weeks of combat that ousted Saddam Hussein.
Edwards and the other Democrats presidential candidates have regularly criticized Bush for his handling of the war on terrorism, which was once seen as one of the president's strongest reelection selling points.
Danielle Pletka, a former staff member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who is currently with the American Enterprise Institute, said the administration does not have a grasp of what's going on in Iraq, and wondered about the motivation of forming the stabilization group.
"I can't imagine that this is anything other than an attempt to make it seem like Washington is more in control than it is," said Pletka, who recently returned from a two-week trip to Iraq.
Pike said the move brings more responsibility to the White House, since more decisions will be made in Washington. "They made the very sensible observation that if the president is going to be responsible for [rebuilding Iraq], he's got to be able to manage it," Pike said.
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