Jay Garner, the retired general who has just been replaced as the man in charge of building a new Iraq, had a favorite phrase: “I am open to all ideas!”
He repeated it each time he talked to Iraqi political and social figures, and in addresses to the Iraqi people.
The general used the phrase as a sign of American goodwill. Little did he know that by doing so he was shooting himself in the foot, politically speaking.
The reason is that the majority of Iraqis, having spent three decades under a bloody regime, have no ideas to present to Garner or anyone else.
They have not yet regained the habit of independent thinking without which no political idea can take shape. They are used to looking to an authority to tell them what ideas they are allowed to entertain.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, there are a few hundred Iraqis who have returned from exile. They, on the other hand, have too many ideas, enough to confuse an army let alone one retired lieutenant general.
Like other exiles in history, these Iraqis are argumentative, suspicious, given to plotting against one another, and enamored of their often-bizarre ideas.
Trying to appear democratic, Garner bought the idea of organizing a number of “town-hall” meetings so that Iraqis could air their views.
The two gatherings held so far, in Nasiriyah and Baghdad, showed the limited use of such talking shops. In both cases, the event was dominated by exiles, accounting for more than 80 percent of participants, anxious to curry favor with the liberators and settle scores with real or imagined rivals. Most of the non-exiles who came in proved to be the kind of busybodies, loudmouths, and opportunists one finds in any confused political situation.
The two meetings spent hours debating the definition of federalism, something irrelevant in the Iraqi context. (Iraq does not consist of several already existing states that could come together to form a federation. It is a unitary state and must look for a system of regional devolution, not a federation.)
Hours of stormy debates were devoted to another irrelevant issue: whether or not those working on a new constitution should sign a pledge to live in Iraq but not seek political office! Orators quoted Montesquieu on the separation of powers and extolled the virtues of Jeffersonian democracy.
Yet another debate focused on the compatibility of Islam and democracy. Garner liked it so much that he went around saying he did not oppose an “Islamic democracy” in Iraq, much to the dismay of many Iraqis who know what prefixes or suffixes could do to democracy. (Saddam Hussein peddled his own brand of Arab democracy!)
Debating such topics may be interesting, perhaps even useful, in the longer run. But what Iraq urgently needs is an authority that can stop the looters, restore the water supply, shorten the period of brownouts, and collect the rubbish piling in the streets.
To meet that need a large number of unofficial “authorities” have already seized control in many parts of the country. In most cases these consist of alliances of former lower-ranking Baathists and local businessmen, with religious leaders as figureheads.
In such cases Iraqis have tried to fill the vacuum, left by the disintegration of the Baathist system, not by ideas but by their instinct for survival. If the trend is not stopped , Garner’s successor, the diplomat L. Paul Bremer, might find himself facing thousands of mini-potentates.
What should Bremer do?
He must start by telling the Iraqis that the U.S.-led Coalition does have a vision for Iraq. The impression most people have is that the U.S. is like a little boy who has just won a big teddy bear at a fair but does not quite know what to do with his prize.
President George W. Bush has already stated the U.S. vision for Iraq. He says he wants Iraq to become a model of democracy for Arabs, indeed for Muslims.
Bremer must make it clear that the U.S. intends to pursue that vision with the same determination that it conducted the war of liberation.
In other words the U.S. must set the tune, then invite others to the dance. The U.S. did not liberate Iraq simply to hand it over to a Khomeini-lite in the name of” Islamic democracy”. Nor was the war waged only to replace Saddam Hussein with another mustachioed “strongman.”
Some of the same quarters that claimed the Iraqis did not wish being liberated, now claim that Iraqis do not want democracy. They were wrong then and they are wrong now.
Most Iraqis did not know what freedom is but they have shown they like it now that they have it. Most Iraqis might not know what democracy is. But they would sure like it when they taste it. The most dangerous thing for anyone dealing with the Arabs is to appear clueless, as did Garner. Arabs often impute to a partner or an adversary more than is the case. A partner who is perceived to know less than expected, is abandoned. And an adversary who is exposed as weaker than perceived would find it hard to regain respect let alone inspire awe.
Bremer must show he is the boss, ready to decide things, and take the blame.
Garner had sent the wrong message by presenting himself as a “facilitator.” The ex-general had appeared at the Nasiriyah and Baghdad meetings only to make sure that the logistics were in place and that cool beverages would be served, before leaving the Iraqis to it.
Bremer must make sure that the turf war over Iraq comes to an end within the Bush administration. He must insist on direct access to the president and demand that all political communication between the various parts of the administration and all Iraqi groups pass through him.
This is no time to be bashful.
The U.S. has liberated Iraq and is now the occupying power. Thus it must appoint a Pasha to run things until a new Iraqi government emerges.
Bremer has just a few weeks at the end of which he would either establish himself as “Bremer Pasha,” the new ruler of Baghdad, or become another character in a theatre of the absurd.
Some may attack “Bremer Pasha” as a neocolonial figure and the U.S. as an imperialist power. So what? Half a century of similar name-calling didn’t get the Soviets anywhere. (And the “Arab street” will not explode.)
The U.S. should say: Call us what you like but we are going to do what we think is right for Iraq.
Bremer Pasha should order the immediate opening of Baghdad and Basra airports so that humanitarian aid, now piled up across the Middle East, is flown in immediately. He must ask the military to end the bottleneck at the port of Um Qasar. Aid and other needed items can also be brought in with thousands of trucks lying idle on the Turkish side of the border
Bremer Pasha would, of course, need a roadmap. He must appoint an Iraqi team to draft a new constitution and another group to prepare for local elections. He must fix a timeframe within which the task of building democracy in Iraq begins.
In the meantime he should name an Iraqi advisory team to supervise the revival of the civil service, the armed forces and the police. He should choose anyone he likes, on the basis of competence not Byzantine and/or politically correct calculations. For the time being it will be, it has to be, his government. The Iraqis will have the chance to choose their government, when all that is needed for fair and free elections is in place.
— Amir Taheri, an NRO contributor, is an Iranian author of ten books on the Middle East and Islam. Taheri is reachable through www.benadorassociates.com. A version of this piece appeared in the Sunday New York Post and is reprinted with the author’s permission.