Tuesday, April 20, 2004 12:01 a.m. EDT
One mystery of the last year in Iraq is that a U.S. occupation that is supposed to midwife democracy has put so little trust in Iraqis. The Bush Administration may be compounding that error now by abdicating decisions about the June 30 transition to Iraqi rule to U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.
Before the war, the State Department blocked the naming of a government-in-exile and trained only a token force of Iraqi fighters that was quickly disbanded. After the war, the coalition was slow to train Iraqi defense recruits and has never let the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) step into the limelight. Now the U.S. is hoping to fill the political vacuum all of this has created with whatever Mr. Brahimi conjures up.
"Whatever" is putting it generously. "That's going to be decided by Mr. Brahimi," President Bush said Friday when asked what the transition government will look like on July 1. The early thinking, if it can be called that, seems to be to dismantle the IGC and appoint some "technocrats" to run things until elections are held. So the Iraqis the U.S. has spent a year working most closely with will be cashiered in favor of unknowns chosen by an Algerian who works for Kofi Annan.
Perhaps the President knows something about Mr. Brahimi's intentions that the rest of us don't. The U.N. envoy was helpful in brokering Afghanistan's postwar government, though in that case the U.S. clearly had a favorite for president in Hamid Karzai. In Iraq Mr. Brahimi is being assigned the role of de facto Douglas MacArthur.
This includes assailing U.S. military commanders for their tactics in the middle of a battle zone. As Marines fought house-to-house in Fallujah last week, Mr. Brahimi took to the Arab airwaves to declare that "Collective punishments are not acceptable--cannot be acceptable, and to cordon off and besiege a city is not acceptable."
Whose side is Mr. Brahimi on? Fallujah is the base of the Baathist insurgents and foreign fighters who are killing Americans. Only this weekend, insurgents who had fanned out from Ramadi and Fallujah ambushed and killed 10 Marines near the Syria border. Unless Fallujah is cleared out as a terror sanctuary, many more Americans will be ambushed and no Iraqi government will be safe.
The one-sided "cease-fire" in that city, along with Mr. Brahimi's comments, have already sent a signal of weakness that will only embolden our enemies. The fastest way for Mr. Bush to lose support at home would be if Americans see their soldiers restrained from doing what it takes to win by U.N. statements or political control. That's when his own base begins to walk.
We also doubt the political benefits of this U.N. intervention. The point seems to be to distance any transition government from the taint of U.S. occupation--never mind that any government will still depend on 135,000 American troops for security. And never mind that Mr. Brahimi, a Sunni who ran the Arab League when it was cozy with Saddam Hussein, may not have any more credibility with Iraq's Shiite majority than L. Paul Bremer.
We'd hardly object if this new deference to the U.N. guaranteed more foreign troops. But last week Mr. Annan ruled out the return of a large U.N. presence until security improves. French President Jacques Chirac has already said that even an international force dedicated merely to protecting the U.N. itself is "totally out of the question." So in return for giving up authority, we get exactly what?
In any case, the political priority now isn't a temporary transition but elections to form an Iraqi government of unquestioned legitimacy. If Mr. Brahimi can help broker that process, then fine. But an interim Baghdad administration can certainly be handled by the Governing Council, either in its current or expanded form.
The destructive hostility in parts of the Bush Administration toward these Iraqis--who were chosen by the U.S.--is another mystery. One of them has already been assassinated, and much of the good Iraq news since last April is their handiwork. The new currency and privatization plan, the interim constitution and the 36th battalion of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps fighting bravely alongside Marines in Fallujah are all products of the Governing Council.
Yet leaks from the State Department, CIA and lately even the White House National Security Council diminish Jalal Talabani, Massoud Barzani, Ayad Allawi, Ahmed Chalabi, Abdel Aziz al-Hakim and others who have shown real leadership or have genuine political constituencies. Mr. Chalabi, for one, has been in contact with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani even as Mr. Bremer was frozen out. Council members have worked with Shiite clerics to quell the recent violence staged by Muqtada al-Sadr--again far more effectively than has Mr. Bremer.
To claim that the Council "lacks the support of many Iraqis" is to apply unfair and unrealistic standards. We've seen the polling done on behalf of the Coalition Provisional Authority, and not a single member of the Governing Council has "negatives" anywhere near as high as, oh, George W. Bush or John Kerry. It often seems that some U.S. officials have more respect for Iraqis who hate us than those who share our values.
One reason politics in Iraq has failed to develop quickly is because U.S. officials have refused to let it develop. What Iraq needs isn't a White House abdication to Mr. Brahimi but U.S. leadership in developing a plan for elections. Instead of disbanding the Iraqi Governing Council, the U.S. should be using it to develop that plan and govern in the transition.