Why We’re ’Not Winning’ By Bret Stephens

President Bush startled reporters when he acknowledged in a recent interview that we are “not winning” in Iraq, after long insisting we were. That doesn’t go far enough. Even as we are stalemated in Iraq, the gains the administration previously made in Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran, Lebanon and Palestine are steadily being eroded. Maybe it’s a case of returning to the mean. Most people would call it losing.

So was the invasion of Iraq the original sin? Certainly not. What’s happening, rather, is that we are suffering the consequences of policy mistakes of relatively recent vintage.

Recall that for all the Bush administration’s domestic travails in 2005 — Katrina, Harriet Miers, Social Security nonreform — in foreign policy the year was a hit parade. Palestinians replaced Yasser Arafat with Mahmoud Abbas. Lebanese kicked out the Syrian army. Egypt held its first contested presidential election. Iraqis turned out to vote in large and inspiring numbers and approved a constitution. An election in Iran yielded a president as radioactive as the weapons to which he aspires, a fine demonstration of the nature and ambitions of the regime. Paul Volcker’s report on the U.N.’s Oil for Food scandal put paid to Kofi Annan’s claims for the organization’s “unique legitimacy.”

Then something changed. The administration began to fumble nearly every challenge it faced in the Middle East. It started right around the time Condoleezza Rice’s policies as secretary of state began to take effect. Consider:

• With Afghanistan, the U.S. acquiesced to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf’s deal last summer with his old friends in the Taliban, giving them sanctuary in the province of North Waziristan in return for promises to behave. Since then, Taliban raids into neighboring Afghanistan have tripled.

• With Palestine, the U.S. (and Israel) did not oppose Hamas’s participation in January’s parliamentary elections, never mind that the group categorically rejects the Oslo Accords that are the legal basis of the Palestinian Authority it now partly governs. That should have been reason enough for the U.S. to insist that Mr. Abbas rule Hamas ineligible as a precondition to future aid. Instead, the administration lost its gamble that the bad guys would lose, thereby dealing a heavy blow not just to hopes for peace but to the doctrine of democracy promotion in the Middle East.

• With Egypt, by contrast, the administration didn’t even blink when President Hosni Mubarak canceled local elections in February and decided to again extend the emergency law through which he has governed for 25 years. Nor did the administration raise a fuss at the outrageous five-year prison sentence meted out to Ayman Nour, Mr. Mubarak’s main challenger in the 2005 presidential election. The rationale, surely, was to avert a strong electoral showing by the Muslim Brotherhood and therefore a repeat of the Hamas example. But that could only have smacked of hypocrisy and betrayal to Egyptians who, just the summer before, had heard Ms. Rice demand greater political openings from the regime.

• With Lebanon, the U.S. followed up on the March 2005 Cedar Revolution with — nothing. Worse was the administration’s panicky performance during the summer’s war between Israel and Hezbollah, which it brought to a premature close through a U.N. Security Council resolution that did nothing to force the Shiite group to disarm.

The problem here has less to do with administration policy toward Beirut than with its non-policy toward Damascus, which has spent the past 20 months trying to assassinate its way back to influence over its neighbor. Should the U.S. engage Syrian President Bashar Assad diplomatically, as the Iraq Study Group urges, or seek his overthrow? The administration has fudged the question, downgrading but not ending relations and crossing fingers that the U.N. investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri will be the deus ex machina that brings Mr. Assad down. Maybe it will, but it’s equally possible that Hezbollah will simply seize control in Lebanon and end the Hariri probe.

• With Iran, the administration has gone out of its way to prove itself a good global citizen, deferring to the pliant diplomacy of Europe, the opportunistic interventions of Russia, the equivocal judgments of the IAEA, and the weak compromises of the Security Council. President Bush has also offered Iran direct negotiations. Tehran has repaid the gesture by speeding up its uranium enrichment efforts, threatening to respond to sanctions by withdrawing from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and hosting a conference for Holocaust denial.

• With Iraq, it should be clear now that the administration gained no ground — and lost more than a few friends — by intervening in Iraqi politics to cashier former Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari for current leader Nouri Maliki. Mr. Jaafari, it’s true, had a reputation for indecisiveness. But unlike his successor, his Dawa Party was not beholden to Tehran. Unlike Mr. Maliki, too, Mr. Jaafari would have been unlikely to forbid the U.S. from rescuing an American soldier kidnapped in Sadr City.

It should also be clear that just as it is unwise to micromanage a military campaign à la Lyndon Johnson, it is equally unwise not to manage the campaign at all. Mr. Bush seems to have made it a point of pride as well as policy not to second guess the military judgment of his generals. But if these judgments are fundamentally political then it is the generals who are out of bounds. What Iraqis desperately need from their occupier is security, not the inducement to self-help implicit in Gen. John Abizaid’s “light footprint” strategy.

Discrete mistakes can add up to one big failure, and in 2006 the Bush administration made a dozen mistakes. But mistakes, unlike original sin, can also be fixed. Personnel can be replaced, policies can be corrected. Here’s looking forward to the corrections.