President George W. Bush on Wednesday announced that the State Department would lead all US post-conflict reconstruction, a move that supersedes the controversial decision to give that task to the Pentagon in Iraq following the 2003 invasion.
The announcement came as Mr Bush delivered the last of four speeches intended to rebuild public support for the war on the eve of Thursday’s election for Iraq’s first official parliament.
In the speeches, which have outlined the administration’s military, economic and political strategy for Iraq, the president has tried to address growing criticisms that he was out of touch by addressing in unusually frank terms some of the errors made in the post-war period. But he insisted that the US had learned from those mistakes and had developed a clear strategy for victory.
“We have fixed what was not working,” he said. “Our tactics continue to change.” Today’s vote, he said, was “a watershed moment in the story of freedom. Iraqis will go to the polls to choose a government that will be the only constitutional democracy in the Arab world.”
The presidential directive, issued this month but announced yesterday, will also reinforce the political power of the State Department’s office of reconstruction and stabilisation, with a mission to anticipate state failures, prevent conflict and lead the co-ordination of post-war efforts.
Carlos Pascual, the senior State Department official heading that office, said it was “important to get on paper” that the secretary of state would be in charge of future post-war reconstruction policies and planning.
The 2003 decision to hand control of the reconstruction to the Pentagon has been widely criticised and led to a degree of inter-agency friction. State Department experts who had planned for the post-war period were pushed aside by Pentagon officials, including defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who strongly resisted the notion of nation-building.
A former senior official involved in what he called the “chaos” of post-war reconstruction efforts in Iraq said yesterday’s announcement also affirmed the growing power and influence of Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state.
Mr Bush’s speeches have each included an usually candid admission of the difficulties the US has faced in Iraq. On Wednesday he reiterated in particularly blunt terms that “it is true that much of the [pre-war] intelligence turned out to be wrong”.
Anthony Cordesman, senior analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, welcomed the new tone. “One of the great problems the administration had was it kept trying to spin the news. There has been a shift. For the first time they have been stating it will take time, blood and money to finish the job.”
Mr Cordesman said the transfer of more control to the state department did not mark an institutional victory over the defence department, but reflected “the assertion of pragmatism.”
“One of the great oddities of Condi Rice is that she has succeeded in being far more of a centrist and pragmatist in practice than Colin Powell,” he said. “She has more influence with the president. Reality has demonstrated this was what was needed.”
Vin Weber, a Republican strategist with close ties to the White House, called the presidential directive “a logical move and is part of a long term decision about eventually withdrawing from Iraq.”