With just three weeks to go before elections in Iraq, it is becoming clear that the Bush administration has planned what comes next just about as well as it planned what came before.
The administration is scrambling to come up with plans for pre- and post-election Iraq amid increasing doubts about its present course -- many of them raised by members of the president's own party. Republican Sens. Chuck Hagel and John McCain were sharply critical of the administration's Iraq policy before Congress left for its holiday recess. Now that Congress is back -- and members have had the chance to hear from their constituents back home -- the criticism is getting more pointed. Republican Rep. Howard Coble, a close Bush ally from North Carolina, says it's time to think about bringing U.S. troops home. Coble told the News & Record of Greensboro that he's "fed up with picking up the newspaper and reading that we've lost another five or 10 of our young men and women in Iraq."
What to do? Bush isn't part of any withdrawal discussions just yet, it appears, but the New York Times says that some of his advisers are. And the Pentagon has dispatched Ret. Army Gen. Gary Luck-- no pun intended -- to Iraq to assess how U.S. and Iraqi troops are dealing with the insurgency, but also to examine the U.S. military role in Iraq more generally.
That's not to say that the Pentagon hasn't come up with some ideas already -- some of which might be just a little alarming to those familiar with one of the sorrier episodes in recent U.S. foreign policy history. Newsweek reports this week that the Pentagon is actually mulling over something called "the Salvador option." Frustrated about "playing defense" against the insurgency, Pentagon planners are apparently debating the rather unsavory idea of funding Iraqi death squads to take out insurgents and their leaders. The thinking: It worked in El Salvador in the 1980s -- never mind all those dead civilians or the subsequent Iran-Contra scandal -- and it might just work in Iraq, too.
But for now, the primary Bush strategy appears to be a more simple one: Hope. When Brent Scowcroft worried publicly last week about an "incipient civil war" in Iraq, Bush said he didn't share any such concerns. The president's reasoning: Civil war won't come because "the elections will be such an incredibly hopeful experience for the Iraqi people."