WASHINGTON -- US intelligence officials cautioned the National Security Council before the Iraq war that the American plan to build democracy on the ashes of Saddam Hussein's regime -- as a model for the rest of the region -- was so audacious that, in the words of one CIA report in March, it could ultimately prove "impossible."
That assessment ran counter to what the Bush administration was saying at the time as it sought to build support for the war. President Bush said a democratic Iraq would lead to more liberalized, representative governments, where terrorists would find less popular support, and the Muslim world would be friendlier to the United States. "A new regime in Iraq would serve as an inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region," he said on Feb. 26.
The question of how quickly, and easily, the United States could establish democracy in Iraq was the key to a larger concern about how long US troops would be required to stay there, and how many would be needed to maintain security. The administration offered few assessments of its own but dismissed predictions by the army chief of staff of a lengthy occupation by hundreds of thousands of troops.
Now, frustration among Iraqis about a lack of stability and the slow pace of reconstruction -- and new evidence that Islamic militants are slipping into Iraq to take up arms against the Americans -- are leading the administration to lengthen its plans to keep troops in Iraq for up to four years. And the Pentagon is moving to lower expectations for a shift to democracy, suggesting that a liberal democracy is an ideal worth fighting for, but acknowledging the difficulty of creating one.
"The question isn't whether it is feasible, but is it worth a try," Lieutenant Colonel James Cassella, a Pentagon spokesman, said yesterday.
The intelligence community's doubts were fully aired to top Bush administration officials in the months before the war in multiple classified reports. The National Intelligence Council, which represents the consensus view of American spy agencies, reported to top policy makers at the start of the year that "what the administration was saying was a rosy picture," said a senior intelligence official who read the report and asked not to be named. "The report's conclusions were totally opposite."
The vision the Bush administration has for the Middle East has been honed at least since 1996, with the writing of a paper entitled "A Clean Break." The paper was written by Douglas Feith, now the Pentagon's policy director; Richard Perle, a senior Pentagon adviser; and others for then-incoming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
It provides an early window into some of the current administration's thinking. For one, it predicted that toppling the Hussein regime could be the beginning of a larger rollback of autocratic, terrorist-supporting states such as Syria and Iran, blamed for supporting Hezbollah guerrillas operating in southern Lebanon and accused of terrorism against Israel and the United States.
It said a new Iraqi regime, coupled with pressure on the Syrian government, would also open up the opportunity for Lebanese Shi'ite Muslims to reconnect with Shi'ite religious leaders in the southern Iraqi holy city of Najaf, "to wean the south Lebanese [Shi'ites] away from Hezbollah, Iran and Syria." The document noted that the Lebanese Shi'ite community has historically identified with their Iraqi brethren, who during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s fought against the Iranians who share their faith.
A senior defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the administration's view of a postwar Middle East begins by breaking current governments down into three categories. First are countries like Saudi Arabia, where the ruling class is relatively pro-Western but its people are increasingly anti-American; second are countries like Iran, whose governments are opposed to the United States but whose people are increasingly open to stronger ties with Washington; and third are those like Israel, Jordan, and Turkey, in which the government and the people are largely pro-American as a result of broader political freedom. He said a Middle East in which all Muslim countries fit the third category is the long-term goal.
But intelligence officials and specialists have long been uncertain whether reform-minded Arab intellectuals who embrace the US approach can overcome those who have shown little regard for it so far. Their suspicion has only grown in recent months as the postwar situation in Iraq raises serious questions about whether democracy can flourish there, let alone elsewhere in the region. Many leading clerics are calling for a religious-led government, frustrating the efforts of US allies to establish the foundations for democracy.
The intelligence community's cautious view of the administration's broader vision for the region was highlighted in a series of reports and briefings to top policy makers.
The CIA's March report concluded that Iraqi society and history showed little evidence to support the creation of democratic institutions, going so far as to say its prospects for democracy could be "impossible," according to intelligence officials who have seen it. The assessment was based on Iraq's history of repression and war; clan, tribal and religious conflict; and its lack of experience as a viable country prior to its arbitrary creation as a monarchy by British colonialists after World War I.
The State Department came to the same conclusion.
"Liberal democracy would be difficult to achieve in Iraq," said a March State Department report, first reported by the Los Angeles Times. "Electoral democracy, were it to emerge, could well be subject to exploitation by anti-American elements."
A June risk assessment of the situation in Iraq by Kroll and Associates, an international consulting firm, raised anew doubts that representative democracy can take root there. It said a leading possibility would be that "Iraq experiences frequent lurches into serious disorder and instability, with changes of leadership, religious, and regional clashes and interventions by neighboring states. It seeks order in a military-led regime that provides a minimal level of stability in areas crucial to the economy and high levels of disorder elsewhere."
The report, "Iraq Risk Scenarios," described a pro-western, liberal, capitalist democracy as "very unlikely, although it appears to be the general goal of the US."
Critics of the administration's approach have said that pushing too hard for democracy could spark an anti-American backlash, increasing the risk of terrorism against the United States.
"US efforts to impose a US vision on the area could lead to instability in countries like Jordan and Pakistan, and could result in further strengthening the hand of fundamentalism and terrorism," Edward Walker, former assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs in the Clinton administration, warned in a prewar speech.
If the US presence is seen not as liberating, but rather as hostile to Islam and Arab culture, insensitive to the suffering of Iraqi people, and arrogant in its lack of consultation with other countries, "pressure will build on Arab governments to distance themselves from us; anti-Americanism will grow; new recruits will flow to fundamentalist causes and some will wind up in terrorist operations against us, against Israel and against moderate governments in the region; and the war on terrorism will suffer reversals," Walker said.
Top US officials have tempered their optimism, with the president saying last month that he never expected a Thomas Jefferson-type figure to emerge in Iraq overnight.
But the Bush administration remains committed to its vision. Last week, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice said that "much as a democratic Germany became a linchpin for a new Europe . . . so a transformed Iraq can become a key element of a very different Middle East in which the ideologies of hate will not flourish."
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company