Joe Conason's Journal

In the U.K., even conservatives criticize Bush's foreign policy decisions.

By Salon Staff
Published December 1, 2003 7:09PM (EST)

An unabashed hawk's unvarnished warning
The Bush administration's apologists like to pretend that harsh assessments of its foreign policy are confined to the most ideological or anti-American media outlets. But as Andrew Neil proved in yesterday's Scotsman, such criticism is no longer confined to the most ideological or hostile media outlets (if it ever was). A former Tory Party staffer who has worked in America, Neil has ample conservative credentials -- and during the months leading to the invasion of Iraq, he established himself as one of the United Kingdom's most voluble hawks. The former Murdoch editor is rightly concerned about the progress of the war against Islamist terror, and he doesn't flinch from admitting that he is deeply disturbed by what he learned during a recent visit to Washington:

"President Bush's bold Thanksgiving trip to Baghdad gave U.S. troops a much-needed fillip and he said all the right things. But behind the scenes the war on terror is going badly wrong in its two main theatres ...

"Take Afghanistan first. You don't read or see much about it these days. The reality is grim. The Taliban is resurgent; al-Qaida is there too, but not as relevant as it was. Attacks on aid workers are soaring; many are refusing to leave the urban areas. The warlords are back in control of the countryside, where opium production is already above pre-invasion levels ...

"The Taliban regularly mounts attacks in the rural areas and is expected to hit urban centres with greater force. 'If they knew how weak we were,' confided one intelligence source, 'they would have done it already.' Coalition forces are confined to Vietnam-style strategic hamlets from which they emerge for operations only in great force, before returning to their enclaves. [Afghan president] Hamid Karzai's grip on power is tenuous ...

"Yet despite the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, a huge amount of U.S. military assets have been shifted to Iraq. The Germans now make up the biggest part of the coalition forces along with various other European contingents. Washington fears they will not stay for long when casualties start to mount. 'The prognosis for Afghanistan is miserable,' was how one U.S. intelligence source concluded his briefing."

Neil's interlocutors weren't much more optimistic about Iraq, where he describes an insurgency that is gradually achieving its aims against our forces by driving out the United Nations and the Red Cross and targeting American allies. By contrast, according to Neil's sources, the U.S. occupying force is hampered by poor intelligence and insufficient force. And despite all the bravado heard from the White House, Neil senses that a bugout, for political reasons, may be imminent:

"Now it is the Americans themselves who seem to be in a rush for the exit. On Sept. 22 Condoleezza Rice, the president's national security adviser, attacked France for suggesting a speedier transfer of power to Iraqis. Yet since President Bush summoned Paul Bremer, his Iraqi governor general, to the White House, that is exactly what is happening. Bush wants a substantial withdrawal of U.S. forces before next November's elections. Former Pentagon favourite, Ahmad Chalabi, is dismayed: 'The whole thing [the speedier transfer of power] was set up so President Bush could come to the [Baghdad] airport in October [2004] for a ceremony to congratulate the new Iraqi government.'"

Finally, he warns that the administration's bungled policy is leading toward disaster: "No wonder the neo-conservatives in the Bush administration are in retreat: their policy of replacing Middle East tyrants with democracy and functioning economies is in grave danger of falling at the first hurdle, largely from lack of American willpower. The consequences of defeat and retreat, of course, are so grave that I cannot believe any U.S. president can contemplate it for long, but what exactly Bush plans to do about it is a mystery which nobody I met in Washington was able to resolve."
[11 a.m. PST, Dec. 1, 2003]

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