David Frum May 27th, 2004 at 12:00 am
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.
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.
A was Donald Rumsfeld’s plan: Overthrow Saddam and get out.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
here, maybe, lies the ultimate explanation of the raid on Ahmed Chalabi’s party
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.