In cautioning George W. Bush about rushing to war against Iraq, Secretary of State Colin Powell reportedly invoked the “you break it, you own it” rule of military action, according to Bob Woodward in his new book, Plan of Attack. “You are going to be the proud owner of 25 million people,” Powell is said to have advised Bush. “You will own all their hopes, aspirations and problems. You’ll own it all.” And indeed for much of the past year the Administration has treated Iraq like an imperial possession, fending off suggestions that the United States needed the help of the United Nations or the legitimacy that its mandate would confer.
But recent developments have begun to force some changes in the White House attitude. With US casualties mounting and resistance growing, the Administration displayed the first signs of buyer’s remorse, even as it tried to convince the world of its resolve to “stay the course.” Bush applauded the efforts of UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to develop a plan for an interim Iraqi government; the White House is reportedly preparing a Security Council resolution outlining a more substantial UN role in the post-transition phase; and it is working hard to bring NATO on board.
The Administration has also begun to take into account the viewpoints of a nascent Iraqi leadership, accepting the intervention of some members of the (admittedly US-selected) Iraqi Governing Council in negotiations with the Falluja insurgents and of Shiite leaders in dealing with radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Indeed, one encouraging development is that Iraqis have seized the initiative in these situations, displaying determination not to let them spin out of control because of ill-advised US military tactics.
We’ll have to wait to see whether the new realism is a tactical retreat from earlier arrogance or a real change in policy. But the Administration will have to go a lot further in relinquishing control if it expects either the UN or NATO to buy into its plan. The UN is understandably wary about assuming more of the burden in Iraq without adequate security arrangements and without more control. UN Security Council members as well as NATO countries are also skeptical of taking over part of the US venture as long as Washington insists on calling the tune behind the scenes. If they are to assume the risks of putting their men and women on the ground, they want to have more say in plans for the transition.
They know that if Washington pursues a strategy that further embitters the Iraqi people, they too will pay the price. Likewise, if Washington continues to reward Israeli expansionism, they too will be implicated. By announcing the withdrawal of its forces on its first day in power, the new Spanish government voted no-confidence in the idea that Washington would revise its plan. Spain–and now the Dominican Republic and Honduras–have concluded they don’t want to risk more lives and money on a failed venture. The calculations of other countries, especially those bearing a heavy burden in Afghanistan, are likely to be the same.
The White House seems to believe that other countries will still be moved by the President’s rhetoric about bringing democracy to the Iraqi people and, if not, that they don’t want to see an unstable Iraq or a failed state in the Middle East. But that assumes they see Iraq with the Administration’s eyes–as part of the “war on terrorism” and as part of a noble mission to remake the Middle East–and that they believe a US-led operation can bring about a stable Iraq. Neither of those views is self-evident to other countries. The world has lived with instability in the Persian Gulf caused by the United States before–whether in Lebanon or Iran–and other countries undoubtedly believe they can contain the disorder again, despite heightened concern about Islamic radicalism.
If Washington truly wants to share the burden, the Administration will have to drop the hyperbole about America’s godly mission and address the concerns preventing other countries as well as the Iraqi people from moving to rebuild Iraq. To have a chance of success, the June 30 turnover of power must be real–and the US role substantially reduced. The key is not just to internationalize the burden but to turn ownership back to the Iraqi people, however ill prepared they may be for this task. For it is only by letting Iraqis control their own future that we can avoid a humiliating retreat or a further radicalization of the region. It would be better to see that process go forward with the help of the UN and other organizations, but it cannot proceed until this Administration has made clear it is willing to relinquish all claims to ownership of international policy on Iraq.