Politics & Policy

Draining The Baath

Mixed signals from the U.S. confuse the Iraqi people.

The de-Baathification order that the U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, signed last Friday, is a great relief to Iraqis such as myself who passionately advocated for the U.S.-led campaign to liberate Iraq and are now working to speed Iraq along the path toward democracy.

Recent cases of prominent members of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist party being placed in positions of responsibility had left us feeling discouraged. The mere appearance of collusion between Americans and Baathists fueled Iraqis’ mistrust of America’s true intentions, and increased the fears of the Shia majority, long subjugated by the Sunni-dominated Baathist regime, that they would be excluded from power yet again in the new Iraq. These actions send a clear but wrong message to the world: “Don’t believe what we say but what we do.”

The policy made public last Friday, which will bar Baathists from the party’s top four echelons from any public position — whether in universities, hospitals, or minor government posts — and will establish a process for vetting all appointments, is the right step and a boost for pro-democratic forces in Iraq.

But we need to do much more to gain the confidence of Iraqis in America’s leadership. I have met with President Bush twice, and I have no doubt about the strength and sincerity of his commitment to creating a free, representative Iraq. I am concerned, however, that his vision may be jeopardized by the appearance of disunity within the American leadership and the continued lawlessness inside Iraq, which anti-democratic forces in the region are actively exploiting.

Iraqis wonder why a country so powerful it can fly across the ocean and topple a tyrant like Saddam in less than a month has not been able in the same period of time to stop the violence, provide safety, and restore water and electrical power. Iraqis need to see that the United States understands the scope of the problem and is doing something about it, faster.

Actions speak louder than words, and that is precisely why the slow progress on restoring security is of such concern. But words can make a difference too, for better or for worse, and right now the only words Iraqis are hearing are from neighboring countries that would like to see the democratic experiment in Iraq fail. Iran, Syria, and the Gulf states have lost no time filling the information vacuum with television and radio broadcasts featuring anti-American sermons and propaganda that present the American presence in Iraq in the worst possible light and fail to highlight what progress is being made. Anti-democrats in the region are thus taking advantage of the ongoing chaos and apparent lack of leadership to further destabilize Iraq and undermine the Coalition’s efforts.

Meanwhile Coalition broadcasts are difficult to access and spotty, and consist mostly of repackaged American programming that does not reflect local concerns. Iraqis must hear more from the Coalition leaders, and also from Iraqi democracy activists, peers who can speak to them on their terms and provide them with an alternative version of events than the one presented by anti-American extremists.

While urging the United States and its allies to do better, I do not lose sight that, so far, the worst-case scenarios we feared for postwar Iraq have been averted: Civilian casualties, terrible as they were, nonetheless were dramatically lower than the hundreds of thousands projected by the U.N.; fighting between Kurds, Turkomans, and Arabs in the north has been limited; there has been no bloodbath of revenge killings or religious infighting between the Sunni and the Shia; there are no massive flows of refugees threatening to destabilize neighboring countries; the return of victims of ethnic cleansing to their cities of origin has not precipitated massive violence; as the International Red Cross has stated, there is no humanitarian crisis; and the oil fields, a potential resource for the betterment of the Iraqi people, were saved from destruction.

Having achieved so much in so short a time, it would be tragic if this historic opportunity to transform Iraq were to now go wrong. We are grateful to the men and women who risked and, in some cases, sacrificed their lives to remove Saddam’s regime. We are grateful to the Americans who remain in Iraq — not as conquerors but as friends, doing their jobs and eager to return home. We are speaking up now because Iraq remains a battlefield of the war between freedom and tyranny, and because of a firm belief that if the president’s vision for Iraq is implemented, the United States will win the peace as brilliantly as it won the war, which is what matters in long run. The whole world is watching how the United States will perform in Iraq. It must do even better and do it soon.

Maha Hussain is president of the Iraqi Forum for Democracy, and a founder of the Women for a Free Iraq campaign. She has met with President Bush in Washington, D.C. and in Dearborn, Michigan.


The Latest