Entries from May 2004

Out With The New Iraq, In With The Old

David Frum May 27th, 2004 at 12:00 am Comments Off

In
his speech Monday night, George W. Bush proved he’s still a risk-taker. The
U.S. President is betting on the hope that the United Nations can help
stabilize Iraq. Specifically, he believes UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi can
assemble a representative and effective government, and that – the oil-for-food
scandal notwithstanding — the UN has as much prestige with ordinary Iraqis as
it does with Western diplomats and editorial boards.

Mr.
Bush’s new blueprint comes amid complaints — widely circulated in recent
months — that “the Bush administration has no plan for postwar
Iraq.” But the truth is that the Bush administration had something worse
than no plan. It had two plans. And it was the collision between those two
plans that wrecked Ahmad Chalabi’s offices in Baghdad last week.

Plan
A was Donald Rumsfeld’s plan: Overthrow Saddam and get out.

As
Mr. Rumsfeld and his Pentagon planners saw it, Saddam presented an intolerable
threat to American security in the post-9/11 world. But those same defence
planners had no interest in nation-building. So they wanted to invade, install
a friendly government and leave.

But
if Saddam was a threat, he was not the only threat. Defence planners had to
take seriously the threat from North Korea, from Iran and from irregular
al-Qaeda formations all over the world. In 1990, the United States sent
half-a-million troops to fight the Gulf War. In 2003, the world was a more
dangerous place — and the U.S. army was much smaller. The job in Iraq would
have to be done with a much smaller force.

That’s
where Ahmed Chalabi came in. In the 1990s, Chalabi had gathered Iraq’s
bewildering variety of anti-Saddam resistance groups — Shiite, Sunni, Kurd;
religious and liberal — into a broad coalition, the Iraqi National Congress.
Chalabi himself had appealing democratic credentials. Best of all, he had
access to his own indigenous security forces: the Kurdish militias of northern
Iraq. Chalabi had the ability to organize a provisional post-Saddam government.
No other Iraqi did. He became the U.S. Defence Department’s man.

Plan
B was the State Department’s and the Central Intelligence Agency’s. The supreme
priority of those two bureaucracies was to preserve America’s traditional Arab
alliances. State felt that way because it was in the alliance-preservation
business; the CIA, because it relies on co-operation with friendly Arab
intelligence services for much of its information on the Middle East.

The
trouble was that the traditional Arab allies despised Chalabi. He was a Shiite
Muslim, and the Saudi establishment regards Shiites as renegades and heretics.
Chalabi’s family had been close to the old Hashemite monarchs of Iraq –
hereditary enemies of the House of Saud. His INC got its muscle from the
Kurdish militias of northern Iraq, in itself an outrage and a scandal in the
eyes of orthodox Arab nationalists. Chalabi himself had publicly expressed his
disdain for Arab nationalism, an ideology that he blamed for legitimating
Saddam’s rule in Iraq.

Meanwhile,
the CIA disliked Chalabi for reasons of its own. It had sponsored an
anti-Saddam coup in 1996. Chalabi had warned that the coup would fail. When
Chalabi’s warnings proved accurate, the CIA accused him of having betrayed the
coup himself. To State and CIA, Chalabi was a pariah, who must at all costs be
excluded from the future government of Iraq. But if not Chalabi, who? There was
nobody — so the occupying force would have to provide the interim government
itself.

And
since everybody agreed that the United States could not, must not, act as that
interim government alone, State’s plan for Iraq’s future took for granted that
there would be a broad and active coalition, ideally one blessed by the United
Nations.

In
the end, the Bush administration failed to reconcile the differences between
State and Defense. It opted for Defence’s war plan, a rapid and light
Anglo-American thrust to Baghdad. And it opted for State’s postwar plan, which
demanded a prolonged and heavy international administration of the whole of
Iraq.

The
results of this contradictory policy are plain. While the U.S. occupation has
achieved some very considerable successes in rebuilding infrastructure and
providing services, Iraq remains a very dangerous place — and the Iraqis themselves
have been largely excluded from their owngovernment.

The
Defence planners were right: The only secular, democratic political force in
Iraq is the Iraqi National Congress. Shut them out, and you are left with the
ex-Baathists or the Shiite mullahs — or else the third choice of giving up on
Iraq altogether, and partitioning the place.

So
it has been to the ex-Baathists that the Bush administration has begun to turn
for security. A high-ranking Saddam loyalist was recruited to restore order to
Falluja — and when that appointment was nixed by public outcry, the Bush
administration turned to a second, less toxic former general. Meanwhile, the
President has been forced to turn to the United Nations to help craft a
legitimate political structure to which sovereign power can be handed off.

And
here, maybe, lies the ultimate explanation of the raid on Ahmed Chalabi’s party
headquarters.

Step
by step, the way is being prepared for the old Sunni Arab ruling class to
return to power over the 80% of Iraq that is not Sunni Arab. The UN official
charged with overseeing Iraq’s return to sovereignty, Lakhdar Brahimi, is a
veteran Arab League official, notorious for his lack of sympathy for the
non-Arab minorities of the Middle East. It has been reported that he began his
very first meeting with the Iraqi Governing Council with the words, “I am
not here as a UN official, but as a brother Arab” — not exactly a
friendly overture to the Council’s Kurdish representatives.

Brahimi
has been given the power to name Iraq’s interim government. He has promised to
assemble a government of “technocrats” — apolitical experts without
ambitions of their own. But inside Iraq, “expertise” has in recent
weeks become a justification for restoring former Baathists to their old jobs.
It is to be feared that Brahimi’s government of “technocrats” will
draw disproportionately from Saddam’s old elite.

There
is more to fear. Brahimi’s government is currently expected to rule for a year
to 18 months, with a mandate to hold elections during 2005. But the Middle East
is, to put it mildly, an incumbent-friendly part of the world. The people who
oversee elections have a funny tendency to win them. By installing a Sunni
Arab-dominated government in advance of the elections, Brahimi is maximizing
the odds that such a government will prevail in the elections.

Can
such a government endure in Iraq? It will have to struggle to do so — and its
already difficult job will not be made easier if there are on hand effective
political competitors like Chalabi. To succeed, Brahimi’s project required
Chalabi’s elimination. And since Bush has gambled on a UN strategy, Brahimi got
what he wanted.

In
the end, Chalabi may have played into his enemies’ hands. Increasingly cut off
from his American supporters, increasingly fearful that the Shiite people he
represented stood in danger of being excluded from power by the emerging Iraqi
power structure, Chalabi may have sought out a deal with the Iranians. In Iraq,
you rule by terror or by deal — and Chalabi has been a lifelong dealmaker.

What
lies ahead for Iraq? The Americans and the United Nations now face an enormous
and all-important challenge. Iraq desperately needs an indigenous government –
and soon. But it is equally vital that this government be legitimate in the
eyes of Iraqis and the world. Iraq’s authoritarian Arab neighbours may eagerly
welcome a Sunni military regime; Iraq’s people have had enough of that.

Chalabi
won supporters in the United States because he offered a hopeful alternative
for Iraq. But he was always only a means to an end, not the end itself. The end
the United States and the democratic world should seek is an Iraq that ceases
to trouble the peace of the region and that can offer the Middle East an
example of an Arab-majority country that is governed by something than
militarism, religious fanaticism, and terrorism.

How
to get from here to there? How to achieve legitimacy, stability and a better
future? There is only one way: elections — and the sooner the better. These
elections will inevitably be flawed, no matter how Mr. Brahimi’s interim
government runs them. They may also produce some uncomfortable results. But elections
are the only way to produce a government that can discredit the men with guns.
Stability from democracy: That was the idea Ahmed Chalabi took to Washington a
decade ago. It remains the best hope for the Middle East today.

Inside Job

David Frum May 17th, 2004 at 12:00 am Comments Off

Bob Woodward’s latest book is called Plan of Attack, but it might more aptly have borrowed a title from Donald Trump: The Art of the Deal. This book, like all of Woodward’s previous books, is the product of a series of transactions with powerful people in Washington. They tell Woodward their version of events; he in turn glamorizes them and publicizes their views. So maybe the wisest way to respond to this new book is not by reading it, but by reverse-engineering it: by identifying the quid pro quos that constitute the book to see what we can learn from them.

Nobody gave Woodward more than Colin Powell, the chatty secretary of state, and his even chattier deputy, Richard Armitage. For Powell and Armitage, Plan of Attack was a grand opportunity to display to the world their disdain for the rest of the administration in which they serve.

Runner-up: George Tenet of the Central Intelligence Agency. Tenet gave Woodward a detailed account of the agency’s triumphs in northern Iraq in the early days of the war. It’s an impressive story — and also incidentally probably the most favorable publicity the CIA has received since 9/11.

Coming in third is Gen. Tommy Franks. In the eyes of many, Franks was a stodgy and unimaginative general who had to be pushed and prodded by Secretary Rumsfeld every step of the way. Here, however, he is the hero of the Iraq war. He gets to insult his bureaucratic enemies (one of them is “the f***ing stupidest guy on the face of the earth”), even as the failures of Franks’s own postwar planning are quietly elided.

Each of these transactions is easy enough to understand. What’s much more mysterious is the transaction at the very core of the book: the transaction between Woodward and President Bush. This supposedly secretive administration gave Woodward open access to its private counsels — more open access than probably any wartime administration has given to any journalist before. Powell would almost certainly have talked to Woodward no matter what, as he did during the Gulf War for Woodward’s book on that conflict. But without an explicit presidential order, it is hugely improbable that Donald Rumsfeld, or Lewis Libby (the vice president’s chief of staff), or Karl Rove, or Condoleezza Rice would have responded to his questions. But the president did order them to talk to Woodward — and so they did answer.

Because they answered, Woodward now has another bestselling book to his credit. What did the president get in return? Perhaps he expected more of the favorable coverage he received in Woodward’s previous book, Bush at War. If so, he has been cheated.

The first publicity for Plan of Attack emphasized two or three mini-controversies, notably the claim that Saudi Arabia had promised to hold oil prices down to aid Bush’s re-election in 2004. As far as can be ascertained from the text, this claim rests solely on the say-so of Saudi Arabia’s ambassador, Prince Bandar. Woodward seems never to have questioned Bandar’s motives for making such an explosive claim — or to have compared it against the reality of Saudi Arabian behavior. In fact, Saudi Arabia has over the past year worked within OPEC for higher prices.

The real damage done by the book, however, rests on stories that are even more difficult to verify. Many reviewers complain about Woodward’s lack of literary gift. And it’s true that his sentences are leaden, that he instinctively gravitates to the cliche, and that he cannot be bothered to reread his manuscript to check whether the quote on one page is repeated on the very next — as it often is.

But Woodward does know how to choose and use the hurtful detail; and in this book, they are lined up like riflemen against the president. So when President Bush visits Walter Reed hospital to meet wounded soldiers from the Afghan campaign, we spend the longest time with a soldier who regards the president with “grim disbelief.” At a briefing by legislative aide Nick Calio, we hear that Bush is puzzled by the aide’s use of the word “vitiate.” We learn that the president spends his time at an important briefing eyeing the peppermints laid out before the other participants. And so on.

Woodward takes whacks at his other villains too. We are told that at one meeting Vice President Cheney fell asleep and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld kept asking the others to speak louder.

In a critique of one of Woodward’s books from the 1980s, left-wing journalist Sidney Blumenthal accused him of practicing “pointillism without a point.” Here, though, Woodward has a point to make. Plan of Attack depicts an administration badly divided against itself. Perhaps all administrations are so divided, but not usually in wartime, not in public, and not with such damaging effect on the policies the president finally chooses to adopt.

The decision to go to war is always a solemn, even a dreadful one. It is necessary and right that it be fully debated, and that the president give careful attention to the arguments of those around him who oppose war. But those opponents have obligations too. Foremost among them is the duty to support the president’s decisions loyally, once made. Plan of Attack documents the refusal of the State Department’s high leadership to do that. “Richard Armitage [Colin Powell's closest friend and his deputy at State] was growing increasingly restive. He believed that the foreign-policy-making system that was supposed to be coordinated by Rice was essentially dysfunctional. That dysfunction had served well as long as Powell and he could delay war. But that effort had ultimately failed. Later in 2003, whenever there was a presidential speech or an issue with the White House, particularly on the Middle East, he would say to Powell, ‘Tell those people to f*** themselves.’” (Italics added.)

Powell seldom speaks quite as bluntly as Armitage. But his scorn for his colleagues is thoroughly aired. The week before 9/11, Time magazine ran a cover story about Powell’s loss of influence. Woodward quotes the reaction of another Powell deputy, Richard Haass, now head of the Council on Foreign Relations. “It sucks. The only thing that would have been worse would have been if it showed you were in charge. Then you would have been totally f***ed.” Powell’s response? An appreciative guffaw.

This backbiting exacted a very considerable cost on U.S. policy. Woodward offers an opaque and in many ways seriously misleading version of the battle over the postwar future of Iraq. While recording State Department scorn for Ahmed Chalabi — a “chucklehead” according to Armitage; the “biggest problem [the U.S.] had in Iraq” according to Powell — Woodward never bothers to inquire why Defense planners put so much stock in him.

What Defense understood was that Chalabi had formed a broadbased government-in-exile, the Iraqi National Congress. No doubt, the INC had its flaws. But in the immediate aftermath of a U.S.-led invasion, there were only two conceivable alternative governments for Iraq for the period before elections could be arranged: either an INC provisional government or a U.S. military occupation. By opposing the former so effectively, Powell and Armitage forced the Bush administration into the latter. In other words: Those in the U.S. government who most opposed going into Iraq were also those who insisted that — once in — the U.S. should rule most directly; while those who most favored the war were keenest to restore Iraqi self-rule as quickly as possible.

The key to this paradox is the government represented by the much-quoted Prince Bandar: the Saudi monarchy. Powell and Armitage and the bureaucracy they championed opposed the Iraq war because they feared the war would destabilize the Saudi monarchy. Once it became clear that war was coming, they adopted a new priority: putting in place a postwar regime that would be as acceptable as possible to the Saudi rulers — not too democratic, not too free, and, above all, one that preserved as much as possible of the old Sunni Arab hegemony over the other 80 percent of the Iraqi population.

The Defense planners recognized that State’s plans would undercut the war’s most important purposes: changing the old order in the Middle East. So they resisted State’s ideas — leading to one of the most mysterious passages in Woodward’s book. He describes the State Department’s attempt to put its experts in charge of the postwar planning. These individuals were rejected by Defense. Powell intervened to force them on the Pentagon — and half-succeeded. Woodward reports that Powell dismissed Defense’s objections to his people as “silliness.” But Woodward offers only the most oblique explanation of Defense’s reasoning.

In the end, Powell’s views on postwar reconstruction essentially prevailed. The INC was locked out. Iraqis were largely excluded from the postwar governance of their country. And now — the final victory — the U.S. is reversing itself on de-Baathification and inviting the U.N. to manage the transition to Iraqi self-rule. That’s the same U.N. that systematically pillaged Iraq over the past dozen years through the corrupt Oil-for-Food program. And the man the U.N. has chosen to do its work in Iraq represents the same Sunni Arab will-to-power that has so horribly disfigured Iraq’s modern history: Lakhdar Brahimi, a former foreign minister of Algeria and undersecretary-general of the Arab League. Brahimi opened his first meeting with Iraq’s Governing Council with ominous words: “I come not just as a U.N. official, but as a brother Arab.” Not exactly cheering words for Iraq’s tyrannized and massacred non-Arab minorities: Kurds, Turkomens, and Assyrian Christians.

Woodward takes us into this byplay without giving any indication that he understands what it means for Iraqis or Americans. What he offers instead is an inside view of one of the most important foreign-policy debates of the past three decades almost entirely from the point of view of the insider who most bitterly rejected his president’s agenda — and worked most assiduously to defeat it.

The overwhelming impression left by this book is that Iraq was a mess from which only Colin Powell endeavored to save us. Though Powell at the end graciously allows that the decision “was not 100 percent wrong” — and though Woodward does note that for all Powell’s scheming against the war he never quite got around to advising the president against it — there is more than enough in this book to justify Oscar Wilde’s witticism, “Every great man has his disciples — and it is always Judas who writes the biography.”

Will this book damage Bush politically? In direct terms, probably not much. In most polls, the president’s approval rating has been holding steady at slightly over 50 percent since early February, despite a whole string of attack books. Compared to either the grim news from Iraq or the increasingly bullish news on the economy, no book is going to make much of an impression. If Richard Clarke’s acidic memoir did not budge the polls, and it didn’t, then Woodward’s much more diluted story certainly will not do so. And the White House’s cunning tactic of insisting that the book is essentially flattering to the president may well succeed in cushioning the book’s effects.

Indirectly, however, the effects of the Woodward book could be very damaging indeed. Plan of Attack exists because the Bush administration made a bold decision to open itself up to outside scrutiny. This is an approach the administration has rarely been willing to risk in the past — and, one suspects, will not soon risk again. That is a shame and a loss. Administrations benefit from explaining themselves. If they do not, their opponents will explain their decisions for them. As candidate Bush used to say during the 2000 campaign, “You either define yourself or you get defined.” In office, though, the Bush administration has not always done a good job of defining itself. It communicates either in formal presidential addresses or in terse television talking points. Both are essential — but so too is the kind of informal briefing and self-defense that the Bush foreign-policy-makers other than Powell tend to eschew.

After Plan of Attack such informal explanations by senior Bush figures are likely to become rarer than ever; disgust at the “media game” will intensify; and an administration already inclined to feel embattled and look inward will be tempted to an even greater sense of embattlement, an even tighter inwardness. The cost of succumbing to such a temptation will be paid in forfeited opportunities to reach out, change minds, and win friends. It will not be a cost that will be easy to measure. But it will be real and heavy — not only for the administration, but for the country this administration has led so well through such dangerous times.