In the heady days soon after the collapse of the Saddam regime in Baghdad, I visited an ambassador from a formal imperial power in one of the few open embassies. Having just survived weeks of looting, “I just don’t understand how Americans think they can take over a city without declaring marshal law or even a curfew” the diplomat said. Ah, I thought, this man just doesn’t get it–curfews are all about the Old Middle East. This was the New Middle East where Iraq was to serve as a bastion of democracy and freedoms.
A few months later, I understood exactly the point he was making. You cannot do a half-occupation, he meant, being squeamish about projecting power and reluctant to assume responsibility. Since the beginning of the U.S. experiment in Iraq, one of problems with the American presence there has been the half-hearted half-responsible nature of its authority. There might have been a noble reason behind this. Americans are reluctant empire builders (as the president expressed Tuesday night); most Americans would rather let Iraqis run their country, and official U.S. policies in Iraq are aimed at creating a stable Arab democracy, not the colonization of new territories.
All that’s fine, but an occupation is a serious business and no Iraqi was ready for the type of power vacuum Coalition troops have created there. Over the last year the American presence in Iraq often vacillated between being hands-off and an actual occupation with all that would entail. Take for example the case of Muqtada al-Sadr. Last month Time magazine presented a chilling account of the courts and prisons established by Sadr’s Mahdi Army and run according to sharia principles in nine Iraqi cities. In basement dungeons, victims of Sadr’s justice were delivered whippings and beatings, as plaintiffs and defendants waited in the courtyard. Unable to find a reliable authority, people seemed to take their family disputes to Sadr’s mullahs. That the American authorities would allow a parallel judiciary system at a time they were negotiating the Iraqi constitution is mind-boggling. Even more mind-boggling, however, is that Sadr has been allowed to fill the power vacuum in the Shiite heartland.
With anti-American violence erupting across the Sunni and Shiite lands, one cannot help but wonder if today’s nightmare is partly a result of the Coalition’s particular inability to exert its political power when needed. The critics of U.S. policies in Iraq, including John Kerry, have criticized Washington for not sharing power with allies and international bodies like the United Nations. This is missing the point. The real issue in Iraq has been precisely the opposite: An American inability to exert its values and political direction, allowing its representatives to get succumbed in the byzantine world of Iraqi politics.
The recently signed interim constitution in Iraq is said to be a great work of compromise and the most comprehensive bill of rights in the Arab world. It is, in fact, a political hodgepodge likely to fail its first test. The interim constitution declares Islam to be a “source of power” and asserts that “No law can be made that contradicts Islam,” paving the way to an illiberal quasi-Islamic form of an ethnically divided government. The document reveals the weakness of the American resolve to make Iraq a complete democracy and is therefore an unsettling signal to Iraqi democrats.
Those who work with Ambassador Paul Bremer say he is efficient and assertive. He is the face of America on the CPA website, its new broadcasts, and announcements. But it’s the same Bremer who’s been unable to make the American word count among Iraqis, even those directly appointed by the United States to the Governing Council. When, for example, CENTCOM Commander John Abizaid wanted neighboring Turkey’s troops to take over some of the burden in the Sunni triangle last fall, Bremer was reluctant to press the Iraqi Kurds on the issue. He allowed the Governing Council to swiftly issue a public rebuttal of the Turkish offer, much to the humiliation of Washington and Ankara.
The Coalition authorities have elevated the reclusive and relatively unknown 73-year-old grand ayatollah Ali Sistani to an almighty power broker–in ways that suggest weakness of the American rule to many Shiites and non-Shiites. Since last summer, requests for meetings from a whole host of U.S. officials including Paul Wolfowitz have been rejected by the ayatollah on grounds that they are “foreigners.” Has it occurred to anyone in the CPA that the U.S. is the occupying force in Iraq and if the American officials have trouble meeting a community leader, something is terribly wrong about the Iraqi perception of U.S. role and power?
None of this is not to suggest that Bremer and the CPA should have ruled Iraq with an iron fist. But let’s not make a mistake: If it’s an occupation, and it technically is for now, Americans owe it to the larger Iraqi public to act with authority and see through that their transitional project go smoothly.
Sadly, what needed to be done five months ago–a strong political vision, the arrest of anti-democratic forces like Sadr, an occupation that speaks with one steady voice–may not be attainable at this point. Determined to hand over the transitional process, and the responsibility, to the Iraqis as soon as possible, Washington will likely spend the next few months trying every plausible combination of compromise and force to prevent a civil war. But at its core, the real issue has always been more existential than military or political: Is America committed to a real occupation?
–Asla Aydintasbas is an adjunct fellow at the Western Policy Center.