Politics & Policy

Zero Tolerance in Baghdad

No room for Baathists in a free Iraq.

In two different speeches after the start of the war, Saddam Hussein promised that there would be “chaos” if the United States were to control Iraq, warning Iraqis to expect something akin to the Mongolian invasion of Baghdad in 1258. Though what has happened of late is nothing on the scale of 750 years ago, there has been a significant level of disorder and unrest. Hyperbole aside, Saddam was either remarkably prescient — or simply accurate in predicting what his henchmen would be able to carry out in the aftermath of the war.

The psyche of the Iraqi people, notes an administration official, is one that places an extraordinary premium on security. The iron fist of Saddam — and the Baath-party leaders before he became the party’s leader in the late 1970s — had systematically oppressed and tortured the citizenry, but the upshot was that street crime and disorder generally were unheard of. In other words, the government was the only thing Iraqis had to fear.

If there’s one tactic that Baathists perfected in 35 years of Baath-party rule, it’s how to stage events purely for propaganda purposes. And if the rioting and looting captured on camera and blasted around the world — most importantly, to the Arab world — have sent any message, it’s that the United States is not quite ready for prime-time nation-building. (For example, see the piece in Sunday’s New York Times.) If such a feeling takes hold among ordinary Iraqis, the U.S. will have an even more daunting task of transitioning Iraq into the free world. But if the distrust for U.S.-style government (as Iraqis perceive it) and democratic elections both become reality, then the Iraqi people could elect a “reformed” Baathist strongman as their new leader.

There is strong evidence to suggest that the Baathists are, in fact, behind much of the unrest in Iraq that has been broadcast to the rest of the world. According to several administration officials, there is evidence implicating Baathist support for organized chaos, particularly in the middle- and upper-middle-class neighborhoods of Baghdad — home to the most-influential Iraqis. The terror campaign has consisted of both very public acts, such as carjackings, and terror-inducing crimes, such as kidnapping and rape.

The acts of violence are far from random. Specific individuals, for example, have been targeted to have maximum psychological impact. Last week, one of Baghdad’s leading neurosurgeons was murdered in his home. Some of the criminal unrest is nothing more than intentional sabotage of U.S. actions to get Iraq back up and running. When U.S. officials were repairing the electrical grid — the loss of power has been the subject of much media hand wringing — vandals were targeting specific transformers that did the most to set back repair efforts. Clearly, the “vandals” knew the intricate details of the grid — something only the Baathists who had run the country and managed the grid would likely know

Tellingly, perhaps, the only city not beset by the pillaging was Nasiriyah. Not coincidentally, that’s where the U.S. military dispatched Ahmad Chalabi’s 700-man force were during the early days of the war. (Chalabi is the head of the pro-democracy Iraqi National Congress and is hated by the State Department.)

De-Baathification has been a stated administration goal since even before the war began. Everyone agrees on the need for weeding out Saddam’s strongest supporters — or at least they do publicly. The State Department, which is splitting duties with the Department of Defense in rebuilding Iraq, supports de-Baathification in theory — but not in practice. As previously reported on NRO, State officials in Iraq have appointed a senior Baath-party official as the minister of health and tapped as president of Baghdad University Saddam Hussein’s personal physician.

When asked to account for these transparently pro-Baathist moves, State press flack Richard Boucher was unapologetic and explained that being “pragmatic” is necessary in choosing a new Iraqi leadership. This was not an unintentional statement by a single official; Boucher was expressing the State Department’s worldview, which believes in “pragmatism” — and “stability.”

State has for years worked to undermine the pro-democracy Iraqi National Congress — even asking auditors to falsify their findings — in large part because the INC’s stated mission of democratic reform is inimical to Foggy Bottom’s obsession with “stability.” In rebuilding Iraq, many officials from State have accepted the argument that the existing leadership structure must not be scrapped wholesale, but rather phased out over time. But by keeping Baathists in the power mix in order to maintain “stability,” State is ironically propping up the very people who are intentionally destabilizing Iraq with a coordinated terror campaign.

Longtime diplomat Paul Bremer recently stepped into the unenviable role of mediating between the warring factions at State and the Pentagon. In one of his first moves, he tapped State veteran Ryan Crocker for a top advisory role, though one administration officials suggests that the selection could be a case of “keeping his enemies closer.” On the plus side, Bremer has also brought into the fold Scott Carpenter — who, although a State Department official, was backed by the Pentagon. In addition to Carpenter there is a “governance team” handpicked by Elizabeth Cheney (daughter of the vice-president and a deputy assistant secretary of state) which includes people from State — but has no one from the Near Eastern Affairs (NEA) bureau, which is well-known for its toleration of tyrants in the Middle East. Carpenter and the “governance team,” according to one administration official, will focus most of its energies on big-picture policy issues, such as creation of a new constitution.

The real test for Bremer, though, is not in the personnel he selects as much as the results he achieves — but minimizing the role of those who don’t support true de-Baathification will be critical. For Bremer to be successful — that is, bringing meaningful and lasting freedom to Iraq — he must adopt a zero-tolerance policy towards Baathists. Stability in Iraq — the real kind — depends on it.

— Joel Mowbray is an NRO contributor and a Townhall.com columnist. Mowbray is the author of the upcoming Dangerous Diplomacy: How the State Department Endangers America’s Security.

Joel MowbrayRichard Lowry graduated in 1990 from the University of Virginia, where he studied English and history. He edited there a conservative monthly magazine called the Virginia Advocate. He went on ...


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