Politics & Policy

All Politics Is Local

(Even in Baghdad.)

On Monday, the United States went–again–hat in hand to the U.N. to beg for help in Iraq. This rerun of our Sisyphean diplomacy will succeed no more than previous attempts. This time, a delegation of the Iraqi Governing Council–led by American Ambassador L. Paul Bremer–went personally to Kofi Annan to ask the U.N. to help us convince disparate Iraqi factions to accept an unelected provisional government in June. Anyone who has paid attention to the U.N. for the past three years must know that the problems in Iraq are not going to be solved by the members of the United Nations, many of which were the source of the original problems. That is a point lost on Mr. Bremer’s old cohorts at the State Department.

By presidential order Bremer works for Defense Secretary Rumsfeld. But he has both a strong personality and allegiances outside the Pentagon that often interfere with what the Pentagon wants to do. It is a redundant proof of what one mentor taught me so many years ago: If there’s anything to be done quickly, if there are decisions to be made, never hire someone whose first name is “ambassador.” Ambassadors want to resolve every problem over dinner and brandy, which doesn’t work in the real world. There are shining exceptions to this rule–Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Jeane Kirkpatrick, among others–but the rule is valid more often than not. And–to be fair to Bremer–he is under enormous pressure from the White House, State, CIA and about 26 other nations as well as the Iraqis. He is herding a lot of cats.

The biggest mistake America made in Iraq was the failure to establish a provisional government before the military action overthrew Saddam’s murderous regime. Two plans–one from the Defense Department, and one from the State Department and CIA–were presented to the president before military action began. The Defense Department wanted to establish a provisional government around the Iraqi National Congress and the 60-odd groups of free Iraqis that Ahmad Chalabi had gathered under its banner. The State/CIA plan rejected Chalabi because of their longstanding dislike for him, due to his failure to support many of the feckless diplomatic attempts to pressure Saddam. (State has probably finished Chalabi off politically. It has reportedly chosen U.S. ambassador to the Philippines Francis Ricciardone to be the permanent ambassador to Iraq beginning in June. Ricciardone is an old Chalabi adversary.) The president chose the wrong plan, and that is why a provisional government is being created more than a year after it should have been.

Bremer has announced that he will leave his post by the beginning of July, at about the same time that the CPA is scheduled to turn Iraq over to the Iraqis. But the resistance that has been stirred up among the Shia man on the street leaves the turnover plan in doubt. The problem has been worsened by Bremer’s failure to bring the Shia religious leaders into the fold.

The problem that Bremer has not appreciated enough is that the politics of Iraq are local, not international. The only practicable form of democracy for Iraq is the “confessional” democracy that flourished in Lebanon before it fell to foreign interference. In a confessional democracy, parliamentary members are chosen by religious and ethnic (but not geographic) groups. With the Kurds in the north, the Shia majority (about 60 percent of Iraqis are Shia) and the Sunni minority, Iraq’s democracy cannot be the same as ours. It must let the ethnic and religious groups participate in their own identities. There is not even a murmur of American advocacy of this idea. Tip O’Neill always used to say that “all politics is local.” That is as true in Baghdad as it is in Boston.

Ali Hussein al-Sistani is a prominent Shia cleric whose opposition to American presence in Iraq has been vocal and effective, turning thousands of anti-Coalition demonstrators out in the streets again and again. Various members of the Iraqi Governing Council have met with him seeking his endorsement for the turnover plan, which he has refused. Under the plan, a provisional government will be formed prior to the June turnover, and it would then proceed to draft a new constitution for Iraq and work toward an election of a new government. But Sistani’s objections–evidenced by the more and more frequent demonstrations by him and his followers–have become more entrenched. One of the reasons is that Bremer has not been talking to Sistani regularly, despite his prominence. Why they think that the U.N. could–or even would–do better is an unsolved mystery.

Sistani demands that Iraq be an Islamic religious state. Sistani’s Iraq would not be a democracy, despite his demand for Shia majority rule. It would be some concoction of pseudo-democracy and theocracy, and–both quickly and inevitably–evolve into another Saudi Arabia or even another Iran. We simply cannot allow that result. But the Shia, Sunni, and Kurds can all participate in a confessional democracy without America having to face the result that we wasted many young lives only to turn Iraq another Iran.

For all the bad press on the issue, American goals in Iraq are being achieved. The CPA has had four priorities. First, security provided by the Iraqis themselves. As I reported during the 2003 campaign, the majority of the terrorist acts are not by the Iraqis. Some Saddamite remnants are active, but most of the terrorists are from outside Iraq. The Iraqis know where most of them are, and can deal with them more effectively than we can. Once their security forces–not a reconstituted army–are in place and given the authority, they will be able to deal with the terrorists. Second, reliable infrastructure such as electricity, water and roads, are well along in construction. Third, governance and fourth, a reactivated economy. The first two are succeeding. The latter two hang in the balance as the transfer of power approaches.

Governance cannot yet be established because the CPA–meaning Bremer personally and those working for him–haven’t dealt effectively with Sistani and other significant religious leaders. Now, Bremer has returned to the U.N. for help. Which is the least likely source of it. I asked one senior DoD source why Bremer was going to the U.N. again. He said, “beats me.” It beats the hell out of me, as well. But he couldn’t have done so without State Department backing and White House approval.

On many occasions, Bremer has opposed his Defense Department bosses, and has had to be argued into DoD policy on Iraq. When he finally agreed, he has worked hard to implement his bosses’ decisions. But having him there, on balance, has made accomplishing the four goals more difficult.

Kofi Annan is an errand-runner for the world’s despots and the Franco-German-Russian axis that controls the U.N. Security Council. Ever since the fall of Saddam, Annan has made it clear that the price of U.N. assistance in Iraq is U.N. control of the formation of the new Iraqi government, which the president has rightly refused.

Annan, for his part, has been angling for an U.N. role in Iraq on the U.N.’s terms. The U.N.–after the August bombing that killed its chief representative, Sergio del Mello–simply cut and ran, condemning the lack of security its people endured. (The fact that the U.N. rejected American suggestions on improving security went unmentioned.) Bremer–and the Governing Council members who accompanied him to New York–want the U.N. to help make a deal with Sistani and other resisting factions that will allow the establishment of a provisional government before general elections. Annan reportedly agreed to send a team to Iraq to see if the country was ready for the direct election of a government that Sistani demands. We’ll get the result we should expect, which is not what we want.

The U.N. team will go to Iraq and report back to Annan who will immediately turn the question over to his soul-mates, the French, Germans, and Russians. There will be more Security Council consultations and perhaps open debates. And then they will choose to say that while America is right–Iraq isn’t ready for a direct election–the U.N. should fill the gap created by Bremer’s June departure, and run the Coalition Provisional Authority for us. We will–for the umpteenth time–hear why the U.N. has to do it because it is the only source of “legitimacy” for the new Iraqi government. And we’ll be back where we started before Bremer went back to the U.N.

The solution now is to continue the plan for the June turnover, and to make it clear to all Iraq’s Shia that they will be fully and fairly represented in the new government. Mr. Bremer and the others running the CPA would better spend their time in Najaf talking to Sistani and other leaders of a possible confessional democracy than begging in Kofiland.

NRO Contributor Jed Babbin was a deputy undersecretary of defense in the first Bush administration, and is now an MSNBC military analyst.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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