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Postwar Democracy? Iraq is a Hard Place | The Nation

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Capital Games

 Washington: a city of denials, spin, and political calculations. The Nation's former DC editor David Corn spent 2002-2007 blogging on the policies, personalities and lies that spew out of the nation's capital. The complete archive appears below. Corn is now the DC editor at Mother Jones.

Postwar Democracy? Iraq is a Hard Place

The angry guy with the shoe.

Those who have been watching the war on television are familiar with the video footage: after the US military took control of Safwan, the southern Iraqi border town, this fellow was captured on film banging on a large, partially destroyed wall portrait of Saddam Hussein with his shoe. It was the closest the world has so far come to viewing joyous Iraqis dancing in the street before their American liberators. Such images may yet arrive, validating the assurances of American and British war advocates who maintained that this military action is indeed liberation, not conquest; that Iraqis would welcome such intervention; and that the invasion and occupation would place Iraq on the road to democracy. But if the dancing does not happen soon, the war planners can expect to have a tougher time securing Iraq and creating the environment necessary for reconstruction and democratization.

Consider the celebratory heel-banging in Safwan. A few days after the shoe-heard-around-the-world smacked against Hussein's forehead, ABC News reporter John Donvan and his crew--working unembeddedly--crossed the border into Kuwait and visited the town. They witnessed no rejoicing. Townspeople surrounded the journalists and passionately voiced their opinions of the US invasion. "We learned," Donvan reported, "that just because the townsfolk don't like Saddam, it doesn't mean they like the Americans trying to take him out....They were angry at America, and said US forces had shot at people in the town. They were also angry because they needed food, water and medicine and the aid promised by President Bush had not appeared....They asked us why the United States was taking over Iraq, and whether the Americans would stay in Iraq for ever. They saw the US-led invasion as a takeover, not liberation."

Resentment and suspicion, not gratitude and embrace. If the sentiment of these people was an accurate indicator of how other Iraqis are or will be reacting to Operation Iraqi Freedom, the coming (or so the Bush administration promises) mission to democratize and remake Iraq will face severe challenges.

Now that the war is under way--damage done--the Bush administration's professed desire to free the repressed citizens of Iraq and introduce them to democracy and liberty ought to be supported and encouraged, and the White House's commitment to this supposed war aim closely monitored. ("This nation never conquers, but we liberate," Bush said. Did he forget the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, the subjugation of Native Americans and other past glories, including the invasions of Nicaragua, Honduras, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic? Oh, never mind.) But how does Bush plan to seed Iraq with democracy? He and his administration have not offered any specific plans. It may well be because they do not truly know. "I'm not sure they've gotten beyond platitudes and wishful thinking," says one federally-funded democracy -development expert. But whatever their strategy may be--or end up being--it won't mean much if the Iraqi people are not with the program.

Before Operation Bring 'em Democracy can kick off, the war has to be won and the country secured. As of this writing, these goals remain unattained. And it seems at the moment that if the war is indeed won in the conventional sense, there still may be resistance throughout the country to an occupying force. If that opposition is widespread and persistent, it could soak up attention and resources that might otherwise be directed toward rebuilding (politically and otherwise) Iraq. Lingering resistance could also produce a security situation not conducive to democracy-building. If military officials in the field have to deal with an ongoing insurgency--an intifada?--it will be even more difficult for them to create rudimentary democratic structures. Judith Kipper, director of the Middle East Forum, has suggested that if Saddam Hussein survives the US attack, he might reemerge to lead an underground guerrilla force that fights the US occupation. To use Vietnam terminology, Iraq has to be pacified before it can be saved.

And that pacification needs to happen fast. Democracy-building experts cite several factors as crucial to success in Iraq. Foremost among them is a good and quick start. As a report of the Council on Foreign Relations put it, US forces should enter Iraq with the "mission to establish public security and provide humanitarian aid. This is distinct from the tasks generally assigned to combat troops." A retired general with experience in Iraq, Bosnia and Kosovo told me, "You have to begin immediately with two major endeavors simultaneously. You have to establish public security and bring about stability within the country, and you have to mount a humanitarian effort to give meaning to your claim you're here to help the Iraqi people. After that you have to try bottom-up and top-down efforts to build a semblance of political order."

By supplying security and aid expeditiously and effectively, US forces can take a stab at conquering the resentment and distrust. As Donvan found out in Safwan, residents there were already complaining about the absence of assistance. The administration had a good initial excuse: the opposition in Basra and the South was tougher than expected, and humanitarian supplies could not be moved into Iraq. But there should have been a plan for such a scenario. (Aid started flowing once British and US forces secured portions of the South.) "People are suspicious," the retried general notes. "We've just bombed and strafed their town. There is 12 years of anger. There were sanctions. Twelve years ago, we crapped out on them [by not supporting the resistance that occurred during the first Gulf War]. Most of this stuff is in the eye of the beholder, not the declarations of the occupiers. People have to believe you are doing what you say and not that you're just there for the oil."

The credibility gap that must be overcome is pronounced, says Kipper. "It is very unlikely any American transition plan...will be accepted," she maintains. Noting that Iraq has been an independent country since 1921, Kipper observes, "they're losing their sovereignty. That's not something a very proud, fierce, nationalist people will accept very easily." And, she adds, "we are culturally and linguistically deprived" in matters related to the Middle East. "We will have to wait until [the war] is over and see how sensitive we can be," she says. "This is a war of choice--an American-led war against a Muslim-led country and that has consequences. Iraqis will be happy Saddam Hussein is gone. But they will not be happy to be occupied."

To address the likely distrust--which might not be surmountable--the occupiers must take rapid steps toward establishing a new political order. In cities and towns across the country, US officials--presumably military people--will have to identify locals (tribal elders, prominent citizens, bureaucrats) with whom to work toward developing some form of representative governance. "This is hard, very hard," says the retired general. A former military official who was in charge of an Iraqi town during the first Gulf War notes, "You're a battalion commander and you have an interpreter, this is what you do: you go looking for the old guys. You try to pull together a clan of elders. But you need someone who can explain the clans, the tribes, and the gossip. I wish I had had that. And if you're giving out copious amounts of aid and doing medical work, you create some jobs by paying people to clear up road intersections." (By the way, there are 150 tribes and 2000 clans in Iraq, some of which may attempt to establish their own militias. The democracy-builders of the US occupation will have to understand and take into account the rivalries and conflicts among the groups.)

At the same time, the retired general adds, some kind of national structure has to be established. In the run-up to the war, there was disagreement within the US government about whether to ready a provisional government composed of Iraqi exiles, most notably millionaire Ahmed Chalabi, who has lived outside Iraq since 1956 and who was convicted of financial fraud in Jordan in 1992. (He claims it was a set-up.) "I'm very suspicious, as are most Iraqis, of Chalabi," says the retired general. "We need a collective gathering of folks who at least appear to be a reasonable cross-section of the Iraqi people and let them start the process. Everything we do will be assessed as to whether this is for our purposes or for those of the Iraqi people. One reason we needed more allies was to create the impression this is not being done for our gain." In addition to providing security, aid, and a roadmap to self-representation, the United States also will have to oversee, strengthen or establish the courts, the police, the banking system, the energy and water systems, and, of course, the oil industry.

"I don't think they understand what the fuck they just bought into," the retired general says. "They're like the dog that catches the car, but it's an 18-wheeler. This is work that requires more patience and more commitment that I've seen to date. Exhibit One is Afghanistan."

A recent article by Larry Goodson in the Journal of Democracy, which is published by the National Endowment for Democracy, should cause Iraqis to fret about their occupiers. Goodson, a professor of Middle East studies at the US Army War College, was a consultant in 2002 to the Afghan loya jirga that chose Hamid Karzai as Afghanistan's president. In the piece, he recalls being "excited to see democracy (of a sort) in action" when he witnessed Afghans voting last May for members of the loya jirga, He even gave a short speech, "telling the soon-to-be voters that the whole world was watching Afghanistan, and that any of them who had a complaint could come to me, as a representative of the international community."

Now the optimist is a pessimist. "Afghanistan's transition," Goodson writes, "even to stability (much less democracy) is highly unlikely. What is worse, after a largely successful military campaign, the United States and the rest of the world may have only a limited window of opportunity within which to aid Afghanistan's transition. Moreover, they may be losing interest in doing so, which would almost certainly doom any chance that the country might have." The United States, he argues, failed to do what was necessary to achieve stability in the country--that is, it did not maintain a security presence throughout Afghanistan, nor did it mount a "swift and massive" reconstruction. It essentially blocked "any serious international peacekeeping" outside of Kabul, which has enabled warlordism to rise outside the capital city. "Total spending on peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan during the past year," Goodson notes, "was $540 million, or about 5.4 percent of the roughly $10 billion that it cost the US-led military coalition to operate there."

Money pledged to Afghanistan by the United States and other nations for rebuilding was insufficient. The $1.8 billion promised for 2002 was less per capita than what was spent in Rwanda, Bosnia, East Timor or Kosovo. Washington and the international community, Goodson maintains, botched the political reconstruction by pushing a centralized model rather than a federal system. "Most Afghan leaders today," he observes, "derive their authority from a combination of appeals to Islam, illicit economic activities (such as the opium trade), and gunmen."

Iraq is not Afghanistan. But Washington is still Washington. And a broken commitment in Afghanistan does not augur well for the new commitment in Iraq. In February, there was a preview in Washington of the debate that might ensue within the administration over how far Washington should go to bring stability to Iraq. General Eric Shinseki, the Army chief of staff, testified in the Senate that "several hundred thousand" troops will be needed for an effective postwar operation in Iraq. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz blasted that estimate two days later, dismissing it as "wildly off the mark" and "hard to imagine." How many troops does the administration intend to commit to postwar Iraq? It hasn't said. But is it serious about achieving stability throughout Iraq? "With nation-building as with peacekeeping," Goodson writes, "there are no shortcuts and no substitutes."

Ray Jennings, a fellow at the US Institute of Peace who previously was a senior field adviser for the Office of Transition Initiatives at the US Agency for International Development, agrees the United States' record in Afghanistan is not encouraging. Moreover, he notes, "the US track record on nation-building is discouragingly mixed. Of the eighteen regimes the United States has displaced by force this past century, democratic rule has prevailed in only five places."

Money, resources, and planning count--and so does tone. "It is with some humility, then, that the United States should enter Baghdad," Jennings maintains. "The seductions of privilege and absolute control that accompany occupations may make it difficult to rule Iraq without hubris--but it is essential that the United States make the effort. Arrogance will almost certainly prove disastrous. Every gesture will carry political significance in an environment where international legitimacy for occupation is in short supply. Rebuilding a nation, occupying it in order to free it, is an inherently arrogant act."

Can Washington breed democracy in a land it occupies? Can it provide security and stability without being heavy-handed and imperious?How to balance the need to not rule for too long with the need to remain committed (and not repeat its near cut-and-run performance in Afghanistan)? "If the United States meddles far too much with the shape and form of what comes next," Kipper says, "it will not work. The Iraqi people have to take charge of their own destiny....American rhetoric is very important. We must speak in respectful terms and we need to say over and over we will be there a short time." What's a short time? Administration officials have testified in Congress that the United States might have to stay in charge for two years. And Kipper is not alone among Middle East experts in noting that for the United States to be seen as acting in good-faith by Iraqis and other Arabs it must vigorously "address the Israeli-Palestinian problem."

Building--not rebuilding--democracy in Iraq will be a task requiring both delicacy and vigor. It will have to be conducted with speed and with steadfastness. And, as Joe Wilson, a former acting US ambassador to Iraq, says, "we should not be surprised if the outcome is not what we would like to see." Install democracy in Iraq and what arises may not be a national government that is friendly (and grateful) toward the United States. Perhaps the people will chose leaders who want the United States out of Iraq sooner than later, who intend to nationalize the oil industry and do business with non-American firms, who fully support Palestinian extremists, who ally themselves with the mullahs of Tehran or other Islamic fundamentalists. What would Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Cheney and George Bush (let alone Bill Kristol and the other neocon war-cheerleaders) do then? Celebrate the triumph of the people's will?

After all, what does that guy with the shoe and his neighbors want? Is it the same thing as Richard Perle? If not, whose desires will win out?

To date, Bush has not shown the skill and talent needed to navigate the difficult assignment he has assumed: growing democracy in Iraq. He's been a my-way-or-the-highway sort of guy who does seem to appreciate policy nuances. Prior to September 11, he scoffed at nation-building. After the al Qaeda attack, he had to pay it heed, but he failed to embrace it fully in Afghanistan. And after abandoning the United Nations Security Council, Bush has to court allies and international organizations to participate in the rehabilitation of Iraq. The administration has started discussions with the UN about how to handle the postwar period, but will it again insist its own priorities and policies come first?

Will Bush the Liberator stick it out in Iraq and export democracy to that troubled nation? Will he even get the chance? He's but one piece of a big and unwieldy puzzle. There's also the Iraqi people: the liberated ones, who may not consider themselves liberated.

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