History books will characterize the Bush administration for its in-fighting: the struggle between Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, backed by a host of extremely conservative civilian policy wonks at the Pentagon, and Secretary of State Colin Powell, representing a less extreme conservatism that still leaves at least some room for diplomacy.

This struggle has dominated everything from the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority to the nuclear stand-off with North Korea, to the ill-fated post-war occupation of Iraq. This past week, the balance of power shifted slightly in Colin Powell’s favor–just enough for him to get George Bush’s okay on two key proposals.

Rumsfeld has been the main voice behind refusing to negotiate with North Korea. Notably, while Rummy was on vacation in August, Powell and his assistant at the State Department, Richard Armitage, took the opportunity to argue their case with the President. In the end, Bush gave in and agreed to do what should have been done months ago: offer North Korea economic aid in exchange for dismantling their nuclear weapons program. This was the Clinton stance so widely reviled at the Pentagon, but in the face of North Korea’s recent announcement that it would soon begin testing nuclear weapons, the Rumsfeld doctrine has obviously failed.

Rumsfeld’s other fiasco–the deteriorating situation in Iraq–has finally reached the critical point of affecting George Bush’s popularity polls. After four car bombings in four weeks, resulting in the death of the UN envoy to Iraq and the only Shiite cleric who would negotiate openly with the US, all Pentagon assurances about the “improving security situation” now appear to be idiotically thin propaganda.

While Bush was listening to Powell’s arguments for going to the UN, the US’s viceroy in Iraq, Paul Bremer, paid him a visit and explained that the reconstruction effort would fail without an infusion of “tens of billions” of dollars. Most of it that money will be earmarked for rebuilding Iraq’s water and electrical infrastructure, much of it damaged by a US bombing campaign made necessary by Rumsfeld’s insistence on using the minimum number of US troops during the invasion. In spite of the Pentagon’s insistence that the infrastructure was in bad shape before the war, subsequent looting has made the problem much worse and, of course, there aren’t enough troops on the ground to guard these “key structures.”

In addition, Bremer gave Bush an accounting of the failed efforts to restore oil exports from Iraq. Each time Halliburton’s subsidiary fixes the northern oil pipeline from Kirkuk to Turkey, another explosion closes it down. This is the work not of Al Qaeda or imported Islamic “terrorists,” but of homegrown anti-US guerrillas familiar with the Iraqi oil infrastructure, who’ve managed to locate buried lines and blow them up. They’ve successfully kept Iraq’s northern oil fields completely closed off not just from export markets, but also from use by the domestic population through frequent sabotage of the line from Kirkuk to Iraq’s main northern oil refinery at Baiji. The southern oil fields, on the other hand, suffer from looting and lack of electricity necessary to pump the oil out of the ground. Many Iraqi oil wells still stand idle. Ominously, the longer these wells sit without being worked, the harder it will be to extract oil from them because of pressure changes in the ground. Eventually, if this goes on long enough, new wells will need to be drilled at enormous expense. That money, of course, will come out of the US Treasury.

Last week was financial crunch time for the Bush administration. Having spent the last few millions of seized Iraqi government assets and swiftly running out of the $79 billion Congress appropriated for the war, the Bushies are preparing another emergency request for funds, and the amount is expected to be more than triple original estimates: some $60-$70 billion, most of it for reconstruction, including an effort to train and arm 50,000 more Iraqi police and paramilitary forces.

Rumsfeld has invested his hopes for salvaging the security mess on the notion that Iraqis must be trained to police Iraq on behalf of the US occupation. The new paramilitary forces will be recruited from two sources: tribes and former Iraqi army members. Recruiting from tribes could lead to intertribal fighting similar to skirmishes currently taking place in parts of Afghanistan. The former Iraqi army was noted for its gross human rights abuses, but Rumsfeld is desperate. He’s pushing for expedited screening of former Iraqi army personnel, which means guerrillas will have an easier time leaking through into the new forces. This will allow them to carry out more devastating attacks like the recent car bombing of the Baghdad police headquarters–likely to have been an inside job, since the “abandoned car” was somehow parked close enough to the chief of police’s office that it would have killed him if he’d been at work.

Training these new police and shadowy paramilitary gangs will be very expensive, given that Rumsfeld wants to fly at least half of the new recruits to Hungary and use military bases there–probably to keep the recruits isolated from guerrilla forces who would either target them for intimidation or, even worse, try to recruit them. The Hungarian government, however, was shocked to hear of this plan, since Washington never asked it for permission. The Hungarian prime minister said his country can’t accommodate that many trainees and is now unsure if it wants to be part of such an ill-conceived idea, given that a majority of Hungarians are opposed to the plan.

Meanwhile, Colin Powell has laid a proposal before the UN Security Council asking for UN troops to supplement the US occupation forces. France and Germany are not taking the proposal seriously, since it differs little from the proposals the US has already made to various UN member states (and which have been widely rejected). In October, the US will hold a major donor conference to beg the international community for funds to rebuild Iraq, hoping to raise the “tens of billions” of dollars Paul Bremer needs. But the outlook is dismal. Where UN Security Council nations have refused to send troops, they will hardly be eager to throw their money, especially during a global economic downturn.

Donald Rumsfeld’s desperate two-day propaganda tour to Iraq hasn’t helped matters much. Rumsfeld divided his time between the Baghdad airport, Bremer’s regal compound in Baghdad, and the US military base in Tikrit surrounded by ten-foot walls and razor wire. He flew in and out of these places under heavy guard in an enormous convoy of military helicopters, never touching the ground until he reached the safe haven of Mosul in the Kurdish-controlled north. The fact that he couldn’t or wouldn’t brave a trip in a Humvee was itself a sign that, all protestations aside, the US is losing the war against the guerrillas’ increasingly frequent, increasingly sophisticated attacks.

Said one US soldier based at Tikrit when asked about Rumsfeld’s visit: “Personally I think the mission is over, so we should leave. I am ready to go home.”

Sources for this article:

“Powell and Joint Chiefs Nudged Bush Toward UN,” Dana Milbank and Thomas E. Ricks, Washington Post, 9/3/03; “Bush eased stance for offering aid to N. Korea,” David E. Sanger, New York Times reprinted in Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 9/5/03, A4; “The Postwar Bill For Iraq Surges Past Projections,” Neil King Jr. and Chip Cummins, Wall Street Journal, 9/5/03, A1; “New Ministry To Recruit Paramilitary Force in Iraq,” Daniel Williams, Washington Post, 9/2/03, A10; “Hungary is cool to US idea to train Iraqis,” International Herald Tribune, 9/3/03, www.iht.com; “Rumsfeld Eager for More Iraqis to Keep Peace,” Douglas Jehl and Dexter Filkins, New York Times, 9/5/03; “Rumsfeld in Tikrit as Najaf holds first Friday prayers since massacre,” Agence France Presse, 9/5/03; “Rumsfeld gets hostile reception in Saddam’s hometown,” Agence France Presse, 9/5/03; “US Troops Want Rumsfeld to Send Them Home,” Saul Hudson, Reuters, 9/5/03; “Report: Attacks on US Personnel in Iraq Rising,” Vernon Loeb, Washington Post, 9/2/03 (quotes a civilian agency’s assessment of attacks in Iraq, which contradicts Pentagon reports that security it improving.); and “Rumsfeld Visits US Forces in Saddam’s Hometown,” Saul Hudson, Reuters, 9/5/03.