November 18, 2003
at the End of the Tunnel?
by Alan Bock
praises be! It's not exactly utopia yet, and I wouldn't put it past
Dubya to veer once again toward the messianic vision presented so
forcibly by various neoconservatives, including people in his administration.
But the quick turnaround last week on the timetable for turning
Iraq over to actual Iraqis suggests at least the possibility that
the administration has an inkling of how unpromising the situation
on the ground is, and at least a residual capacity to respond to
facts on the ground rather than seeking always to impose a rose-colored
vision on the facts.
is warranted, of course. There is still no acknowledgment from Washington
that previous approaches (it would be almost fanciful to call it
a strategy, in that it bears most of the marks of improvisation
in the face of the fact that the rosy scenarios never developed
and Ahmad Chalabi, the neocon favorite, never showed much evidence
of assembling an actual following inside Iraq) were in any way flawed.
And there's also little acknowledgment that this is in fact a change
from the original approach of creating instant democracy in a place
that has never experienced it before. So Bush could start backsliding.
the announcement that the United States intends to turn Iraq over
to whatever semblance of an Iraqi government can be assembled by
June marks a new and welcome phase of the "postwar" (or is that
"War: Part Deux"?) policy. President Bush may still be committed
to high-flown rhetoric and playground assurances that whatever the
situation we will do whatever it takes to win (without ever vouchsafing
to us or perhaps having a firm idea himself of what it would mean
to win). But facts are facts, attacks are attacks, dead Americans
don't come back to life, and there are some indications that certain
elements of the military are in all but open revolt. All this suggests
that a long-term occupation by the United States is not in the best
interest of the United States.
could be, naturally, that speeding up the timetable for a turnover
to an Iraqi governing body – and, one may hope, an accelerated withdrawal
of American troops from Iraq, though that hasn't yet been promised
– is in part a maneuver related to U.S. electoral politics. Several
of the people I talked to echoed what Charles Peña of the
Cato Institute said to me last week, as the new policy was still
germinating. "Pardon me if I sound like an inside-the-Beltway cynic,
but the polls are not exactly moving in Bush's favor, and this is
a town that lives for politics," he told me.
enough. There is a presidential election scheduled in less than
a year, after all, and a continuing military occupation featuring
limited progress, no discernible progress, or even widely perceived
deterioration in the security situation, and body bags coming home
is seldom conducive to an incumbent's reelection chances. "If we
don't move faster toward Iraqi sovereignty," Mr. Peña told
me, "the situation might spin completely out of US control and it
really will be a quagmire."
thinks that it wouldn't be that difficult, even with all that talk
about a model democracy on the record, to scale back expectations
in a way that would make a reduced US commitment less embarrassing
than it might seem. The US could let a new Iraqi authority know,
in no uncertain terms, that if evidence is found that a new regime
is harboring or supporting al-Qaida or other terrorists that might
attack the United States (or even some of its interests, although
the definition of US interests is by nature somewhat more flexible
than some of us would prefer), or seeking nasty weapons, that it
will be back in force.
if the new Iraq finds itself in the throes of conflict or something
resembling civil war, those might not be promises that will be all
that difficult to keep. It's unlikely that a new Iraqi government
would want to support al Qaida (unless things go very badly and
in ways that now seem unlikely). And to a great extent it is the
very presence of US troops that have made Iraq a terrorist magnet.
Of course border control can be an iffy thing, and terrorists might
still flock to Iraq – if they have been; the evidence suggesting
the current violence might be foreign-driven rather than mostly
Iraqi-driven is sketchy and not exactly reliable, and I suspect
nobody knows for sure. But what the US could reasonably expect from
a new Iraqi ruling class is that it not support terrorists, not
that it control them completely.
DREAMS FOR REALISM?
new timetable has the advantage of not allowing an image of the
perfect to be the enemy of the achievable. From the standpoint of
the ideal of establishing a Jeffersonian democracy in Iraq to be
a beacon for the rest of the region, it might have been nice to
have a constitution written first, then a completely open election
monitored by international observers. But that could have taken
years – and it might not be a realistic goal for Iraq anyway.
generally learn responsibility by taking responsibility, and this
is no less true in Iraq than anywhere. If our goal is Iraq for the
Iraqis (rather than a forward base for further military operations
and heavy US influence), the best course is to turn over responsibility
as quickly as possible. It is heartening to see that the administration,
at least for the time being and for whatever reasons, now seems
must be realistic here as well. The process of wresting self-determination
from the ashes of the abhorrent Saddam Hussein regime could be painful
and full of false starts. Conflict is likely, and the Iraqis could
come up with an arrangement that is less than ideal.
Ottaway, a senior associate in the Democracy and the Rule of Law
Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told
me she doesn't see any figure comparable to Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan
(not that Karzai has much effective control outside Kabul, but at
least he isn't drastically hated and has a modicum of respect in
most of the country). So coming up with a credible leader, before
or after a written constitution, might be an extremely difficult
Ottaway also notes that some factions in Iraq might not be all that
eager for a constitution that brings in genuinely representative
government. The Kurds, who have had some experience with semi-autonomous
rule even under Saddam, seem to be adjusting with the least friction
to the post-Saddam environment. But in terms of raw numbers, they
are probably over-represented in the Iraqi Governing Council.
Shiites, mostly in the southern-central region, on the other hand,
have mostly been biding their time and behaving, in part because
with about 65 percent of the country's population, they expect to
have a commanding position once governance is based on numbers.
So they might start to get restive if that time is put off too long
to suit them.
a theoretical point of view, of course, it's easy to say that the
best approach in Iraq would be something resembling a federalist
system, with a relatively weak central government and relative autonomy
for local regions. The Iraqis do have some experience, although
not understood in those western-sounding terms, with a roughly similar
system, in that the Ottoman rulers generally left tribal leaders
more or less to their own devices so long as they paid taxes and
didn't revolt openly. But Saddam Hussein installed a system that,
while it paid some attention to local sensitivities, was a fairly
centralized form of rule – and one from which the Sunnis in the
"triangle" surrounding his home city of Tikrit benefited disproportionately.
Whether any Iraqi faction – particularly the majority Shiites –
would be able to envision or trust a relatively decentralized regime
might be too late now for the suggestion I got from Robert Hunter.
Now a senior adviser to RAND in Washington, he was the US ambassador
to NATO from 1993 to 1998. Not surprisingly, he suggested a more
Eurocentric approach. Once the US turned more authority to the Iraqis
and to some extent shed the image of the arrogant unilateralist,
he suggested (I'm paraphrasing so blame me if it's clumsily or provocatively
put) the Europeans might be willing to lend more help in the reconstruction
idea – again proffered before the new US policy was announced –
was to "let the Europeans write the next U.N. resolution, make Paul
Bremer the UN representative, and make it a NATO operation." Come
to think of it, that still might be doable, but it seems unlikely
the Bush administration would go for it.
the other hand, once an interim Iraqi government is in place, some
Europeans might be almost eager to do business – including oil and
reconstruction business – with the new rulers in Baghdad. So while
an outright NATO option seems unlikely, it is quite possible that
Europeans could become involved relatively soon.
main thing to understand in all of this is that there are some things
even a sole superpower cannot accomplish realistically. Governing
a country with an ancient history, stubborn ethnic and religious
divisions and a recent history of vicious dictatorship is turning
out to be one of them (not that it is not imaginable, but it would
require even more resources than the $87 billion many Americans
already find outrageous, a longer-term commitment, and – quite unlikely
– American administrators fluent in Arabic and deeply conversant
with the region's long and twisted history and current sensitivities).
might be embarrassing to some, and to those who always envisioned
the Iraqi adventure as a way to establish a base in the Middle East
rather than an exercise in pending self-rule it will be extremely
disappointing. But a withdrawal from Iraq and a turnover to Iraqis
really is the best course, and as quickly as possible. In some ways
that is much more consonant than the notion of trying to impose
democracy from the outside through a combination of paternalism
and brute force.
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