By ROGER COHEN
A senior Pentagon official has spent this month on a magical mystery tour of little-known European and Eurasian capitals trying to deliver a dribble of troops for Iraq and Afghanistan.
The low-profile trip reads more like a geography test than a geostrategic foray. It has whisked Debra Cagan, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for coalition affairs, from Tirana to Skopje, and on to Chisinau and Astana, among other luminous world metropolises.
In Chisinau — you guessed it; that’s the capital of Moldova — Cagan asked for more sappers in Iraq. Moldova currently has 11 bomb-disposal experts there. Yes, 11.
In downtown Tirana, hub of a 20th-century exercise in Communist folly and now a place in need of American money, Cagan pressed the Albanians to go beyond their 120-strong contingent in Iraq. Albania is considering an additional 125 to 150 troops.
As for Cagan’s stops in the Macedonian capital of Skopje and Kazakhstan’s Astana, it’s unclear what transpired. Macedonia has 40 troops in Iraq; the Kazakhs have 27 military engineers. Other states visited included Ukraine, which may offer a little help in Iraq, and the Czech Republic, which has 100 troops in Iraq and got promises of military equipment.
Cagan declined to comment and a Pentagon spokeswoman, Lt. Col. Almarah Belk, said in an e-mail message: “It is premature to discuss the nature of her trip or any potential outcomes of her discussions with the various countries.”
It is not premature, however, to say the trip smacks of desperation. Keeping many flags flying in Iraq is critical to making talk of a “coalition” credible. The 168,000 U.S. troops already account for about 94 percent of the forces there. The largest other contributor, Britain, is to halve its presence to 2,500 next year.
Against this fraying backdrop, the strange idea of Pentagon brass spending two weeks hop-scotching continents to cajole countries — many economically hard-pressed — into sending a platoon or two looks less outlandish. That’s where we are seven years into the Bush administration: stretched to the limit.
The United States is as isolated in Iraq as a great power can be. A first term spent riding roughshod over friends and vaunting “coalitions of the willing” over alliances has not been righted by a second term of diplomacy rehabilitation. Wounds linger.
I don’t know Cagan and she wouldn’t talk to me, but the least that can be said is her reputation is more for Rumsfeldian bluntness than the discretion of his successor as defense secretary, Robert Gates. At a big NATO political-military conference in Brussels on Sept. 19-20, anxiety over her trip ran high.
A Europe-based U.S. NATO official who attended e-mailed me to say American diplomats are looking “for ways to limit the damage she is sure to leave.”
The note portrayed her as “John Bolton on steroids” with a tendency to be brusque with allies.
The Pentagon describes Cagan as a highly effective player in the securing of basing rights in Central Asia for the war on terror and a well-connected builder of international coalitions.
A biography says she “was critical in transforming NATO’s military forces to make them more responsive, agile and expeditionary.” Even critics say she gets results.
But at a Sept. 11 meeting in Washington with six visiting British parliamentarians, Cagan caused alarm similar to that expressed in Brussels a week later. The M.P.’s were briefed on the difficulty of dialogue with Tehran and U.S. concern that a British troop withdrawal from southern Iraq could benefit Iran.
At one point, according to a British press report, Cagan expressed hatred toward Iranians, prompting a formal call for her resignation from the National Iranian American Council, which represents about one million Iranian-Americans.
The Pentagon denied the remark. Alasdair McDonnell, a Social Democratic and Labor M.P. who was present, told me: “I won’t confirm or deny she said that. She might nuke me in the middle of the night. She’s not somebody I’d want to tangle with.”
Bernard Jenkin, a Conservative who was also present, said “Cagan is straightforward, and if you’re politically disposed to be put out by her, you would be.” He himself was not.
Colonel Belk said Cagan’s briefing emphasized “the U.S. administration’s position that a precipitous U.K. withdrawal from Iraq could lead to the forfeiture of some gains and would help Iran.”
Whatever Cagan’s exact words, this much seems clear: a U.S. administration casting around for soldiering scraps in Moldova and Macedonia should be careful about saber-rattling toward Iran.
U.S. hands are full in Iraq. Gates knows that. Nicholas Burns, the State Department’s point man on Iran, knows that. My reading of them is that predictions of war with Iran are overblown, however hawkish the likes of coalition-cobbling Cagan may be.
Please comment at my blog: www.iht.com/passages.
Nicholas D. Kristof is on book leave.