As the invasion-cum-liberation of Iraq moves steadily closer, the focus of debate is shifting from “how to win the war” to “how to win the peace.” This may be premature. The Pentagon estimates that conquering Baghdad will take between 21 and 28 days.
But war is always unpredictable — even a warlord like Hitler admitted ominously that “he who starts a war enters a dark room.” And though Saddam Hussein is facing certain defeat, he may have booby-trapped Iraq with some very nasty chemical and biological surprises. A short victorious war, marred by higher allied casualties than those sustained in the Gulf War, is perhaps the most likely outcome.
That said, if Anglo-American forces launch an attack on March 17 — the St. Patrick’s Day Crusade? — they will probably be patrolling Baghdad one month later on April 14. What then?
The first priorities will be feeding the civilian population, taking care of the wounded, rebuilding the basic infrastructure of roads, communications, water, and hospitals, and restoring some form of civil order. These will be essentially military tasks. Remember the scene in Lawrence of Arabia in which the Arab politicians are debating fruitlessly in the new makeshift parliament while the British army quietly sets about restoring the water supply and the electricity system — that is what Iraq will be like in the first six months after the U.S. victory.
To be sure, there will be a high-ranking American civilian coordinator of relief services flown in the first week. But even if he enjoys equal rank with the senior U.S. general present, he will in practice defer to the military on all major questions. U.S. martial law in fact, if not in name, will be the order of the day for the first three to six months.
Its success will be judged by the iron test of whether or not the Iraqis are grateful. On the one hand, they will have the U.S. to thank for the benefits of decent food, modern medicine (no longer hampered by the U.N. boycott), improved public services, impartial law and order, and above all the end of Saddam’s sadistic rule.
On the other hand, there are bound to be cases of heavy-handed military policing, occasional miscarriages of justice, the mistaken shooting of innocent bystanders by frightened soldiers (not necessarily American soldiers), and attempts to undermine the de facto military government by Iranian agents among the Shia, extreme Kurdish separatists in the North, al Qaeda elements in the capital, and other agents provocateurs.
My guess is that the Iraqis will end up favoring the U.S. if only because even the most heavy-handed military occupation would be an improvement on Saddam’s Baathist dictatorship. But gratitude is a notoriously perishable good in politics. So the period of direct military rule should be as short as prudently possible.
What should follow it? Not rule by an American pro-consul on the model of MacArthur in Japan. Some neoconservatives, crusading for global democracy, would like to see the U.S. reconstruct Iraq as a born-again democracy in this direct way. But such a policy would both invite trouble — and be quite unnecessary.
It would invite trouble in three ways. Within Iraq it would provide discontented groups, some subsidized by Iran, with an anti-colonial argument for resistance to the new government. Internationally, it would require the U.S. to account almost daily for its stewardship before various international tribunals from the U.N. to the Arab League. And within the U.S. it would give administration critics a permanent platform from which to criticize the war, its aftermath, and the conduct of the occupation.
Take all three together. Imagine an Iranian-backed local riot suppressed by U.S. troops, reported by a hostile European media, condemned by unsympathetic “human rights” NGOs, made the pretext for an international “investigation” by the U.N Committee on Human Rights (chaired by Libya), and inviting expressions of .concern that the American pro-consul was “over-reacting” or ignoring “legitimate grievances” from the New York Times, the antiwar movement, Governor Howard Dean on the campaign trail, and the minority leader on the Senate committee for oversight of Iraq. Governing Iraq under such conditions would be even more of a nightmare than simply governing Iraq.
And a needless nightmare at that. Following an American victory, the U.S. ambassador would be the most powerful man in Iraq even if he possessed no formal executive authority whatsoever. No major decision could be taken without his consent or over his objection. But he would not need to defend his advice before the world.
That is essentially how the British ran the Gulf region for two centuries — the “British Resident” took the decisions and the local sheiks took the responsibility for them. It was government by ventriloquism, and it worked well because it placed the colonial power behind a veil of local authority. It can work in Iraq today — not indefinitely, but for at least a few years from the morrow of victory.
Should the United Nations, then, provide the formal governing authority for postwar Iraq? Not in a millennium. For a U.N. protectorate would be run in practice by international bureaucrats and NGOs determined to get revenge on the U.S. for a war they opposed. It would very likely seek to favor France and other recalcitrant powers with contracts for oil and engineering projects; it would promote those Iraqis least friendly to the U.S.; and it would engage in running battles with the American ambassador over everything from training the police to holding local elections.
That leaves an ad hoc governing body rooted in the legitimacy of military victory — in other words an Allied Control Commission (ACC) on the postwar German model. This would be composed of political and military representatives of the major allied powers — the U.S., Britain, Spain, etc. — together with a strong representation of Iraqi democrats of all stripes. And its main purpose, alongside its duty to solve the practical problems of everyday governing, would be to establish the conditions for Iraqis to elect their own government democratically some years down the line.
This is a much more subtle and difficult task than simply setting a date for elections. For if democracy is to be successfully (i.e. permanently) established, it needs to be placed upon firm foundations such as a rule of law, a political culture of self-restraint in the exercise of power, a free press and free debate, a strong middle-class used to exercising responsibility in civil and economic life, and a broad social consensus on religious and social concerns.
Not all of these foundations currently exist in Iraq, and establishing them will take time. Yet the Iraqis — understandably after years of dictatorship — will want democracy introduced by yesterday. They will suspect that any delay is a sinister attempt to cheat them of popular government yet again. And they will therefore need constant evidence that Iraq is moving towards that goal.
So the ACC will have to keep up a steady drumbeat of reforms — establishing an honest and impartial judiciary very early on; imprisoning the highest-ranking supporters of Saddam Hussein and removing the civil rights of those lower down the Baathist hierarchy; encouraging the foundation of new political parties representing different trends in Iraqi opinion; holding local elections well in advance of national ones; bringing back Iraqi journalists who hold senior editorial positions in the West to run new newspapers and television programs in Baghdad; and setting up a constitutional convention, itself partly elected, to draw up a democratic Iraqi constitution.
It is impossible to estimate in theory how long such a reform program would take. But there is a rough practical test of whether these reforms have begun to create the underlying consensus on which genuine democracy ultimately rests. The ACC should announce that it will surrender power only to a democratic government elected under a constitution passed by two-thirds of the constitutional convention — including two-thirds of its elected members.
Iraqis will then see that the responsibility for the return to democracy rests not upon a handful of foreigners temporarily ruling them but upon those who claim to be their political leaders and representatives. They will give or withdraw support in line with their judgment of whether those leaders are acting responsibly or rashly. And democracy will have started in fact if not yet in name.