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[casi] Multilateralism or not, Iraq is a mess

Sep 18, 2003

Multilateralism or not, Iraq is a mess
By Ehsan Ahrari

How much ill-will President George W Bush has created for the United States
over his predilection for unilateralism in Iraq is becoming apparent when
Secretary of State Colin Powell is given the lead in damage control.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has to accept a lower profile, at least
for now. In a quintessential diplomatic tone, Powell rejected France's
demands - that the Iraqi constitution be written and elections be held
within a matter of months - as "interesting but not executable". But there
are trends in and out of Iraq that bear watching, for they bode nothing but
trouble for US plans for stabilizing and democratizing Iraq.

First and foremost, there is little doubt that Washington intends to stay in
Iraq for at least two years. The official rationale is that the process of
writing the constitution and electing national government officials is
time-consuming and cannot be accelerated merely for expedient reasons. That
is not a bad rationale; however, the trouble is that the US is in dire need
of gaining legitimacy of its occupation from its European and Asian allies
and friends, who are unwilling to offer it without a price. That price is
sharing the ruling authority in Iraq with the United Nations. The fact that
the French are once again in the lead in insisting on curtailing the scope
of US rule in Iraq is beginning to look like a non-starter in the intricate
negotiating process.

On Sunday, the Bush administration made Vice President Dick Cheney available
to the national media to explain the thinking of its inner sanctum on how
far it is willing to go in accommodating the demands of France, Germany and
Russia on the issue of sharing the ruling authority with the UN and with
other potential contributors to peacekeeping in Iraq. Cheney stated that no
further changes in Iraq policy were warranted. Instead, he talked about
"major success and major progress" in that country. In an obvious attempt to
counter the position of those who stated that even US intelligence did not
find credible linkage between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, Cheney insisted
that Iraq was the "geographic base" for the perpetrators of September 11,
2001, terrorist attacks on the United States.

Even a casual observer of US strategic affairs knows how important Cheney is
in reflecting the thinking of neo-conservatives on, inter alia, the dynamics
of US policy in the Middle East. Way back in March 2002, he made his
well-publicized tour of that region in an attempt to conjure up support of
the Arab regimes for toppling Saddam. The fact that he failed did not
discourage the Bush administration from carrying out that objective without
Arab support, and even at the expense of creating a major rift in
trans-Atlantic ties.

There is little doubt that France, Germany and Russia paid high attention to
Cheney's interview on Sunday. What lessons these countries would draw from
that interview will become clear only in the specifics of their response on
the issue of cooperating with the US on Iraq. My strong sense is that no
cooperation from their side is forthcoming unless the Bush administration
decides to accommodate their demands about sharing ruling authority in Iraq.
It should also be clearly understood that the United States is not likely to
bring about such changes in its position unless the security situation in
Iraq deteriorates further. On their part, France, Germany and Russia need
concessions to be persuaded that the Bush administration is earnest about
moving toward multilateralism.

Second, regardless of whether the Bush administration moves toward
multilateralism or remains loyal to its natural instincts related to
unilateralism, a mounting preference of the Iraqis is to see the end of
foreign presence in their homeland. That predilection is the driving force
behind attacks not only on the US forces, but also on the UN. Given that
earlier weapons inspections were carried out under the auspices of the UN,
and given that Iraq remained under sanctions of one sort or another since
1991, most Iraqis see the world body as a puppet of the United States. Even
for those who are somewhat neutral about the UN, it is only because they
deem it as a lesser of the two evils, the US being on top of their list of
"bad actors". Of course, the Kurds are an exception to these observations.
They formulate the lone pro-American ethnic group in Iraq. As such, they see
the US presence as a guarantor of their autonomous rule in the proposed
federal governing arrangement.

The mutuality of interests between the US and the Kurds remains a source of
consternation and irritation between Washington and Ankara. Turkey is in no
mood to let America's strategic objectives in Iraq result in the creation of
an autonomous governing arrangement for the Kurds, since that is considered
a prelude to a potential creation of an independent Kurdish state. It is
worth noting that Turkey and Iran are in complete agreement on this issue.
However, now that the United States is very much in need of Turkish
peacekeeping troops, it has to walk a fine line between getting help from
its Turkish allies and, at the same time, not antagonizing the Kurds.
Washington places great stock on not antagonizing the Turks, since it needs
Turkish support for its occupation of Muslim Iraq.

Third, the politics of the Iraqi Governing Council has remained
Machiavellian and dirty, characteristics that might turn out to be highly
deleterious from the perspective of the United States. According to the
original US plan, representatives of five parties - Ahmad Chalabi of the
Iraqi Congress, Adel Abdel-Mehdi of the Supreme Council of Islamic
Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), Ayad Alawi of the Iraqi National Accord, and
Jalal Talabani and Masoud Barzani, the two Kurdish leaders - were to lead
the transitional government. That was the promise retired Lieutenant-General
Jay Garner, the first US civil administrator, made to them. But when L Paul
Bremer replaced Garner, an entirely new plan was implemented whereby the
Governing Council was formulated, and these five individuals became part of
that entity. Another major difference from the original scheme was that the
25-member Governing Council is only to advise Bremer on issues of
governance, while he is the ultimate executive authority as the head of the
Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA).

The preceding developments caused ample resentment among the five members,
each of whom fancied himself to be the new executive of Iraq. Bremer
negotiated a formula with the council whereby the five members shared the
presidency, trading off every month. The independent members of the
Governing Council, on their part, also strongly resented the five members,
thereby creating a situation whereby any potential diminution of Bremer's
authority promises to create chaos. That such a situation has not occurred
thus far does not mean it will not happen in the future.

Some members of the Governing Council periodically demand a fast transfer of
authority. While such a demand might be based on the personal aspirations of
one or more members, it clearly runs counter to the reconstruction strategy
of the Bush administration. That strategy envisages US control over Iraq
until the constitution is ratified and an elected government is in power.
However, from the Shi'ite side, the issue of the Governing Council - a
US-nominated body that is also seen as a puppet entity - writing the
constitution to elect the government has remained highly controversial.
While the CPA is not oblivious to the Shi'ite resentment, it has done
nothing to circumvent such an option.

Given the preceding rather partial description of the ominous and
ever-changing complexities in Iraq, one wonders whether the Bush
administration really understood what it was getting into when it decided to
topple Saddam, or if the fervor related to ousting a heinous dictator
entangled the US in a situation from which it will find it difficult to
extricate itself. There is no indication yet that Bush has even the
slightest doubt about the correctness of his decision to invade Iraq. But
the way things are going for the United States, I wonder how long it will be
before someone will ask him to declare victory and get out of Iraq. Senator
George Aiken advised presidents Lyndon B Johnson and Richard M Nixon to that
effect during the Vietnam conflict.

Ehsan Ahrari, PhD, is an Alexandria, Virginia, US-based independent
strategic analyst.

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