While America slept, Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) administrator L. Paul Bremer formalized the transfer of power and left Baghdad. Even though the rushed, secret handover telegraphed fear, Iraqis will nevertheless cheer. After almost 15 months of formal occupation, Iraqis have resumed sovereignty and control over their own destiny
When Bremer returns to Washington, he can point to some success in his stewardship of the CPA: The issuance of a new currency last October was a massive undertaking. School restarted on time. Telephone subscriptions in Iraq are 47.5 percent above prewar levels; there are now 442,000 cell-phone users. Before liberation, Saddam withheld medicine and food from children to fuel propaganda; today, 85 percent of Iraqi children are immunized. Despite electrical demand far in excess of pre-war levels (thanks to importation of air-conditioning units, modern televisions, washer-driers, and other conveniences long unavailable to the Iraqi masses), electrical supply is improving. As of June 9, Baghdad and Basra governorates each enjoyed 11 hours of electricity per day; Karbala received 12 hours and Nasiriyah had 13 hours. Such figures do not include private-generator supplements. Before liberation, only 3,000 Iraqis had Internet access. Today, thousands of Internet cafes dot the Iraqi landscape, from the center of Baghdad to the edge of the restored marshes.
Our successes, though, did not require formal occupation. We could have achieved the same thing while transferring sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government upon the fall of Baghdad (ironically, as recommended by the Future of Iraq project and the Defense Department, but opposed by Foggy Bottom). The past is past, but inability to learn from mistakes is inexcusable. The State Department decision to have U.S. diplomats continue in Bremer’s palace headquarters is a serious mistake. It reinforces the notion that the U.S. is insincere in transferring sovereignty.
The Republican Palace is a symbol. Destroyed by U.S. bombing in 1991, Saddam rebuilt the palace under sanctions, adding huge wings, gardens, and a swimming pool. Visible from across the Tigris River, the complex symbolizes not only Saddam’s dictatorship, but occupation as well. Because of proximity to the palace, U.S. soldiers have closed the Fourteenth of July Bridge, tripling the commuting time of Iraqis who wish to travel between two of Baghdad’s busiest commercial districts. Baghdadis care little for the grand strategy debated on Sunday-morning Washington talk shows, op-ed pages, and in the Ivory Tower; the closure of a major bridge is the type of irritant with which we have squandered Iraqis’ goodwill.
Such issues pale in comparison to what may be Bremer’s greatest legacy. On June 15, Bremer threw aside the advice of both Iraqis and Americans and issued CPA Order Number 96
. “Iraq will be a single electoral constituency. All seats in the National Assembly will be allocated…through a system of proportional representation,” his Order declares. Iraqi officials, including some on the election commission, said Bremer threw aside their advice, insisting that a party-slate election would be easier to run.
A party-slate election may indeed be easier to run. But, such a system sets Iraq down the slippery slope toward a Lebanese-style communal system. That may have been the idea, at least of U.N. election specialist Carina Perelli. “…There are a lot of communities that have been broken and dispersed around Iraq. And these communities wanted to be able to accumulate their votes and to vote with like-minded people,” she explained in a June 4 press conference. Ronald Reagan’s death the following day shifted attention away from what was a crucial decision.
There are multiple problems with a party-slate system: Iraq’s stability depends on ensuring that all towns and villages are represented in the new national assembly. The Transitional Administrative Law calls for 275 electoral districts. This translates to districts of 87,000 people, or approximately 40,000 voters. If all Iraqi towns are represented, then Iraq’s ethnic and sectarian communities will also be proportionately represented. Take Fallujah: In district elections, the town would likely send three Sunni Arab delegates to the National Assembly; but, under Bremer’s proportional representation system, Fallujah might be effectively disenfranchised. Religious groups like the Mandaeans, Chaldeans, Yezidis, and Kakai who have not organized sectarian parties will also be losers. The latter two, together numbering 400,000 adherents, are especially vulnerable since militant Islamists do not consider them “people of the book” worthy of toleration or protection.
Bremer and Perelli defend their decision by citing the difficulty of drawing district boundaries, especially in areas of demographic dispute like Kirkuk. Saddam’s Baathist regime undertook a brutal ethnic cleansing campaign against residents of the oil-rich city and surrounding rich farmland. Perhaps 200,000 Kurds and Turkmen fled to Baghdad or the relative safety of Iraqi Kurdistan. But, victims of ethnic cleansing will not be disenfranchised in a district election, since towns swollen by an influx of internally displaced persons will send additional parliamentarians to Baghdad. Such a result is consistent with Iraqi law, which allows residents to vote in any district in which they have resided for at least three years.
Drawing districts may be problematic for Americans, but it will not be for Iraqis. Saddam gerrymandered districts, but most Iraqis still recognize the pre-1970 districts. This was clear when ethnic violence erupted in Tuzkhurmatu on August 22, 2003. Rather than take their protests to Tikrit, technically the governorate capital, both Turkmen and Kurds took their petitions to Kirkuk to which Tuzkhurmatu has historical attachment. Regardless, any parliament emphasizing the ethnic divide will do little to facilitate resolution of disputed areas like Kirkuk. Iraqis tend to be tolerant of each other. The Transitional Administrative Law, contrary to claims by American professors and diplomats wanting to take credit, is an Iraqi creation. Iraqi lawyers Faisal Istrabadi and Salem Chalabi hashed it out with each other and the Iraqi Governing Council. The result is a document, ideal to none but fair to all. Left to their own devices, Iraqis compromise.
Policymakers and pundits should not make too much of Iraq’s communal divide. Iraq’s ethnic and sectarian mosaic is important but, while some pundits prognosticate–some have gone so far as to suggest partition into three states–the reality is more complex. Ten percent of Iraqi Kurds, for example, are Shia, as are half of Iraq’s Turkmen: Turkmen in the predominantly Shii town of Tel Afar have little in common with Turkmen in Erbil, an overwhelming Sunni city. Baghdad is cosmopolitan. In January, I tagged along with an Iraqi friend as he visited his old school headmistress. She was a lifelong Baghdadi, half Kurdish, one-quarter Arab, and one-quarter Turkmen. Her background is not uncommon.
A far-greater problem with Bremer’s party-slate decision is its vulnerability to foreign money. The influx of outside funds is a problem that has plagued policy from the start. State Department diplomats have dominated the CPA political team since its inception. Of the first 18 senior advisors dispatched to Baghdad, none were from the Defense Department. When the argument reached its climax in July, Bremer agreed with his diplomatic colleagues who argued vociferously in favor of maintaining an “even-playing field.” CPA would neither draw distinctions among political parties, nor favor those who sought constituencies spanning the ethnic or sectarian divide. The “even-playing field” concept may seem sound in theory, but in practice it was disastrous. No one told Tehran, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, or Amman that they were supposed to be neutral. As a result of our hands-off approach, militant Islamist and Arab nationalist groups had millions of dollars at their disposal while democrats and liberals could not afford even Xerox machines. Shaykh Zayed, president of the United Arab Emirates, lent Governing Council member Adnan Pachachi a private jet, while Songul Chopuk, his colleague on the disbanded council, had to bum rides in U.S. military convoys. Italian-military-intelligence estimates that the Iranian government funds firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and other Shia militants $70 million per month. A party-slate system will make Iraq’s electoral process more vulnerable to such an influx of Saudi, Iranian, and Jordanian cash. Simply put, it is easier to fund an entire party list than buy voters in 275 districts. In district elections, in which candidates live among their constituents, foreign cash would stoke resentment, backfiring.
The tragedy of Bremer’s decision to impose a party-slate system is that where it has been tried, it has failed. David Schenker is perhaps the most astute observer of Jordanian, Palestinian, and Syrian politics in the United States. In July 2001, he wrote an analysis of changes in Jordan’s election law. In 1989, Jordan held national parliamentary elections for the first time in 33 years. The Islamic Action Front, affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, won a plurality. When King Abdullah switched from party-slate to district elections (expanding the number of districts in order to make constituencies smaller), Jordanians returned moderates to parliament. Next door, Israelis also vote for party slates rather than individuals. Dislike of the system is about the only issue upon which Israelis agree.
Party slates have been disastrous in Russia. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia inaugurated an electoral system based largely on proportional representation. Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s ultranationalist party benefited. As Russia moved away from party slates, extremists like Zhirinovsky lost power.
So much of Iraq policy has been polarized by the State Department/Defense Department rivalry, and by the unwillingness or inability of the national-security adviser to force decisions and enforce implementation discipline. But, with regard to problems surrounding the party-slate system, there is rare unanimity from Foggy Bottom to the Pentagon: On April 13, 2004, Roger Noriega, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs, delivered a speech to the Baltimore Council on Foreign Relations. Noriega addressed problems involving regional democracy: “Many political parties in the region are not doing their job well,” Noriega said. “They are often bereft of new ideas, too focused on patronage and too dependent on the very particular skills of one charismatic leader. That ’spoils’ mentality is too often reinforced by electoral systems that favor legislative candidacy via party slate–whereby politicians owe too much allegiance to the party structure and not enough to constituents,” he explained.
Bremer’s departure marks not the beginning of the end, but rather the end of the beginning. The Transitional Administrative Law mandates elections by January 31, 2005. By August 15, 2005, the National Assembly should complete drafting a permanent constitution, submitting it for popular referendum two months later. Elections for the new government are set for December 15, 2005, with the elected government taking office on December 31. The stakes are simply too great for failure. Speaking to the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, on May 24, President Bush declared, “Like every nation that has made the journey to democracy, Iraqis will raise up a government that reflects their own culture and values.” Unfortunately, Bremer’s Order Number 96 threatens to undercut Iraqi “culture and values” for short-term American expediency. We may buy a smooth January, but the results for Iraq–tyranny of the majority, increasingly shrill communal friction, erosion of religious freedom, and women’s rights–may very well haunt us for years to come.
–Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and editor of the Middle East Quarterly.