Some Points About Iraq

June 2, 2004 Topic: Security Tags: BusinessDiplomacyIraq War

Some Points About Iraq

In the wake of the president's speech this past week, pundits and practitioners are offering their own counsel as to what to do about Iraq.

In the wake of the president's speech this past week, pundits and practitioners are offering their own counsel as to what to do about Iraq.

Here's my own two cents.

Point one: delivery of services. Americans living with functioning air conditioning, plentiful (if expensive) gas supplies and reasonable prospects for employment argue over whether or not an Iraqi government is sufficiently "representative" and whether ordinary Iraqis will accept its dictates. I agree that having a broad-based interim regime is important, but what will make or break the legitimacy of the provisional government is whether it can deliver on basic services. Most governments are legitimated in the eyes of their citizens not because of elections or representation but whether that government provides security, power and employment.

Writing in the symposium on "Iraq At the Turn" in the forthcoming summer 2004 issue, Michael O'Hanlon and Adriana Lins de Albuquerque observe that "only a very small fraction of the $18 billion appropriated by the U.S. Congress for Iraq for 2004 had been spent by mid-spring, as of this writing. Remarkably, red tape and bureaucratic procedures had prevented more than about $1 billion being spent by the end of April. Some 2003 money and Iraqi funds were also available, meaning that the flow of resources was not quite as limited as the $1 billion figure suggests, but it was still quite limited. The slowness of spending aid dollars is a serious indictment of the American budgetary system, even if it gets better fast in the coming months. It has also kept unemployment rates distressingly high-probably still close to 50 percent, down somewhat from last summer but much higher than in Ba‘athi days and much too high to offer any real hope of a stable security environment: Angry, unemployed young men tend not to throw flowers at the feet of foreign occupying troops."

Get the money flowing--and get more into the hands of local Iraqi firms and contractors.

Point two: America must shift to a supporting role as soon as possible.

In the forthcoming symposium, Geoffrey Kemp makes a critical observation: popular support for the U.S. mission in Iraq will erode if the public perceives that Americans, rather than Iraqis, are shouldering the bulk of the burden.

There is a great temptation to say that the Iraqis are not ready to resume sovereign control over their own country and that they need U.S. help. The problem with this is that it easily becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. In the Republic of Vietnam, successive governments were never "ready" to take on the full burden of dealing with the Viet Cong insurgency. This is a point Geoff Kemp reiterates in his contribution to the forthcoming symposium. If the ongoing struggle to pacify Iraq continues to be seen primarily as "Americans versus insurgents" with other Iraqis, in essence, remaining neutral, then the long-term viability of the American mission will be jeopardized.

In an earlier "Realist" column, I opined that we should not rule out the use of private military contractors hired directly by the interim Iraqi authority to take over functions such as training and policework. If Iraqi troops are not yet sufficiently trained to be deployed, the fallback should not necessarily be to fill the gap with American forces.

The British were able to defeat a communist insurgency in Malaysia because British advisors and forces were used in a targeted fashion--but Britain did not provide a bottomless supply of personnel.

Malaysia, not Vietnam, should be the guiding model for the future role of U.S. forces in Iraq.  In the end, the Iraqi insurgency can only be defeated - or co-opted - by other Iraqis.

Point three: Let the interim government be sovereign.

Let the new government forge its own relationships with key powers. My sense is that other states that have been reluctant to aid what they perceive to be a "U.S." effort will be more likely to work directly with Baghdad if they perceive that the government is truly independent.

We saw this with regard to Iraqi debt. As long as the question of reducing Iraq's debt was seen as "aiding America," Moscow and other creditors were reluctant to make any commitments. It was only when Iraqi officials themselves went to Russia and to other states to try and make arrangements that progress began.

Indeed, it may be in the long-term U.S. interest to have a disagreement with the new government where Washington defers to the provisional regime simply to establish its bona fides as a genuinely independent regime, if for nothing else than to dispel the snickers about the puppet-strings being visible, controlling the new government.

Point four: Distinguish between non-negotiable demands and the wish list

Everyone has their wish list for a future Iraq. But given limited resources and pressing demands, it is important to send the right signals to the new regime as to the things which are absolutely non-negotiable. Renouncing any WMD program and allowing Iraq to become a base for terrorists are the logical first priorities.

But beyond that, the main priority should be for any Iraqi regime to legitimize itself in the eyes of its people and to gain full control over its territory. In order to do that, it may have to take anti-democratic measures or impose what appear to outsiders to be arbitrary rules or regulations.

Several weeks ago, I argued that we're better off if Iraq resembles Singapore as opposed to Venezuela or Colombia. In other words, a stable regime, defined by "managed pluralism" is a better result than an unstable state that qualifies as a "full" democracy.

The final point:

Iraq is not a social science laboratory.  Remember those protests in Russia during the 1990s ("We are not experiments!")? This is a lesson to be remembered with regard to Iraq.

In his article for the forthcoming issue, Francis Fukuyama makes a telling point:

"Of all of the different views that have now come to be associated with neoconservatives, the strangest one to me was the confidence that the United States could transform Iraq into a Western-style democracy, and go on from there to democratize the broader Middle East. It struck me as strange precisely because these same neoconservatives had spent much of the past generation warning-in TNI's former sister publication, The Public Interest, for example-about the dangers of ambitious social engineering, and how social planners could never control behavior or deal with unanticipated consequences. If the United States cannot eliminate poverty or raise test scores in Washington, DC, how in the world does it expect to bring democracy to a part of the world that has stubbornly resisted it and is virulently anti-American to boot?"

This is why a healthy dose of realism with regard to Iraq is needed, now more than ever.


Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of In the National Interest.