The Situation in Iraq

The political views that occasionally appear in this weekly are the hangover of having spent many years in and around newspapers.  They are like one of those statistical series (of which there are many) that someone once thought relevant, that you just go on collecting, because there is a long baseline and it doesn’t cost very much and you never know when it might turn out to be useful.

Last week I outlined a case for casting a reluctant vote for George W. Bush. John Kerry’s domestic positions were better in almost all respects, but probably it was slightly premature in the evolution of American politics to assert them. (Think of one person’s impatience watching another attempt to perform a difficult procedure: “Here, let me try!)  The independent liberal’s painful choice, I wrote, was between Kerry now or someone else, probably Hillary Rodham Clinton, in four years.

Mainly, however, I argued Bush would do a better job of cleaning up the amazing mess the Americans had made in Iraq.  Why?  Because he believes in the mission there, even if his administration egregiously bungled the occupation. My opinions in this case rest on having spent two years as a young reporter in Vietnam.

What is the situation in Iraq today?  The English-language press has done a remarkable job of covering developments, especially as they pertain to the Army in the field, but as Franaz Fassihi of The Wall Street Journal made clear recently in an email letter to her friends that became widely circulated, they have increasingly been confined to quarters by the extremely dangerous disorder of civil society.

Even if they were free to roam, visiting constituencies with legislators and chatting up storekeepers, most reporters don’t know well the culture of the country to which they have been assigned. Ever since the New York Times’ superb correspondent John Burns was sidelined, no authoritative American voice has risen above the rest. And in any event, it is Iraqi voices that we most need to hear.

An especially clear account of the situation in Iraq turned up last week in the Financial Times, under the headline “Why most Iraqis Shun Their Government.”  The writer, Saad Jawad, was identified as a professor at the University of Baghdad.  What Jawad wrote has an unmistakable ring of truth. I reproduce it here in its entirety.

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Iraqis were forced to accept the US-led occupation of their country for two main reasons [Jawad wrote]: first, because it was a fait accompli and second, because it brought what many had long wanted: the end of a dictatorial regime that had rejected all suggestion of reform.

Many Iraqis, though bitter that change was wrought by a foreign power, saw it as the only way to steer their country towards democracy and prosperity. Even most members of the ruling Ba’ath party were relieved to see their feared leader gone – or were stricken with remorse about the mistakes committed by their party.

Of course nobody expected fully-fledged democracy to emerge quickly in a society that had lived for decades under authoritarian regimes. Many also felt that the occupying forces would not be so naïve as to make a quick exit from a country they had been so keen to control. Finally, some were ready to accept a US-influenced government that would at least represent the majority of Iraqis and preserve the unity of the state.

 In short, most Iraqis felt there was no harm in letting a superpower assist them achieve democracy. But they were not prepared to live in a lawless and violent state, or to accept official negligence and humiliation.

Iraqis regard themselves as intelligent and dignified people who understand the diversity of their country and society but see these diversities as a source of strength and as an encouragement for democratic changes, not a reason for division. For generations they lived together — Arabs, Kurds, Turkomans and other ethnic minorities; Muslims, Christians and other religions, Sunnis and Shia — without tensions or division of the country. Any discrimination against ethnic origin, religion or sect was blamed on official policies and not on public sentiment.

The US occupation forces and administration tried to deal with Iraqis on a different basis. They were assisted by some Iraqi exiles who felt that, to prevail, they needed to accentuate the differences within Iraqi society. Thus the population was categorized as Kurds, Shia and Sunni. The Shia were seen as under-privileged and the Sunni as dominant in Iraqi politics. The Kurds were also regarded as suppressed.

Yet when it came to forming the Governing Council and then the interim cabinet, the “ex-Iraqis” — a term applied to exiles who for decades lived in the West, became citizens there and co-operated with the US — had the upper hand and most of the seats. Iraqis who had stayed in their country were simply regarded as supporters of Saddam Hussein, even those known for their opposition to the regime.

As most exiles lacked a political base inside Iraq, they insisted on dissolving the Ba’ath Party. Members were regarded as enemies that should be “liquidated”, as one new Iraqi leader announced. A similar mistake was made over Iraq’s once-respected army and police forces, all disbanded after months of being denied basic wages.

Thus another important and well-trained section of society was turned against the Council. Differences within society were also accentuated in establishing the Governing Council. The US-led Coalition Provisional Authority insisted on quotas based on sect or origin when appointing Council members and, to satisfy the Iraqi majority, appointed a majority of Shia.

The Council was also overwhelmingly dominated by “ex-Iraqis” who, as citizens of other countries, clearly displayed loyalty to US objectives. The same procedure was used in forming the first post-occupation cabinet.

The other factor that alienated Iraqis was the authorities’ failure to improve daily life. Services remain poor, sometimes non-existent, hospitals are under-staffed, and government employees have had periods of no wages. While enduring such conditions, Iraqis saw that the only ministry functioning normally was the oil ministry. Despite continuing oil revenues and US talk of big reconstruction programs, nothing substantial has materialized.

Basically, the US-led coalition failed to win Iraqis over and lost many opportunities to do so. Lost chances include the formation of the first post-occupation cabinet, which stayed in line with the quota system. The lack of political balance prompted Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the leading Shia cleric, to demand direct elections to choose a future government.

 The US had no choice but to turn to the United Nations. The UN’s suggestion that elections take place in January led to another lost opportunity – the failure of the plan by Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN envoy, to form a sovereign government based on broad consultation.

Overall, one could fairly say no bridge has been built between the people, the interim government and the occupation forces. On top of the bloody insurgency, ordinary Iraqis who feel marginalized are now also beginning to challenge the government and occupying forces in various ways.

Among the steps that both the US and Iraqi authorities could take to help solve this chaos would be US acknowledgement of its failure, and withdrawal of its numerous advisers throughout Iraq’s interim government.

Second, the Iraqi army and police forces should be immediately reorganized and properly equipped under full Iraqi control. The next step is to bring back the UN and give it the freedom to co-operate with Iraqis in forming a nationally accepted government or prepare the country for unbiased elections.

Finally, and for now, US forces should leave the big cities and confine themselves to camps outside them [Jawad concluded.]

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Is this the right way to proceed?  Who knows?  It is one sophisticated Iraqi’s opinion.  There are many others, including those whose preferred solution is to cut off some more heads and shoot some more draftees in the face.  Finding a way out of the situation in Iraq is a slow, dangerous business.

What reason is there to think Bush would do it any better job in handing back Iraq intact to its citizens than John Kerry? His incentive to fix what his administration has broken is the more powerful of the two. The steps he already has taken — abandoning Ahmed Chalabi and the rest of the “ex-Iraqis” who had sold him a bill of goods in favor of ex-Ba’ath Party leader Iyad Illawi — are not yet widely recognized. Still less understood are their chances of succeeding.

Speaking personally, Bush’s initial Wilsonian impulse, to “make the world safe for democracy,” was all right with me — also, apparently, with something like half the American electorate. So far his adventure has turned out to be somewhere between Panama and Vietnam. But it risks becoming much worse than his father’s humanitarian venture in Mogadishu if it fails.

For John Kerry, Iraq was “the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Last week he was comparing the U.S. intervention to John F. Kennedy’s unfortunate and quickly abandoned 1961 invasion-by-proxy of Cuba. Even if you believe passionately that the entire Iraq project was a bad idea (and obviously many, many people do), there is something to be said for letting the other guy finish his turn at trying to reassemble the clock he so recklessly has taken apart.

It is on this argument (and it alone) that the case rests for the re-election of George Bush, at least among those of us who are not totally committed to one fiercely polarized side or the other in this election. All the rest of the drift and disregard of mounting problems that may occur during a second Bush term — even the potential Supreme Court appointments — take a back seat to this consideration, since their ill-effects can be neutralized or reversed. Nothing, however, could erase the horror of a Balkan-style collapse of the Iraqi state, accidentally contrived and then not prevented by the United States.

I recognize that this view is opposite to the intensely emotional way the campaign is being waged.  My argument is based on nothing more substantial than what we teach in nursery school: the principles of restraint, fair play, and taking turns.

The same principles apply no matter who is elected president next week. Whoever gets the job will face a raucous mess. He will deserve all the sympathy and understanding that we can muster.