Event Summary: What Happens After the U.S. Transfers Power to Iraq?

May 24, 2004

This month has presented numerous problems for U.S.-led efforts in Iraq. On the ground, increased insurgent attacks have made May the third most deadly month for Coalition forces since the official conclusion of military operations in May 2003. The gruesome beheading of American businessman Nicholas Berg again revealed the cold and cruel nature of the opposition. The Abu Ghraib prison scandal and the recent raid on the home of Ahmad Chalabi—a member of the Iraqi Governing Council and onetime American favorite—presented new obstacles as the United States desperately tries to ensure a smooth and legitimate transfer of sovereignty to the Iraqi’s by the June 30 deadline.

According to a Brookings panel of experts who assembled this morning to assess the current situation in Iraq and how the United States can best achieve its goals of a free and democratic Iraq, the reality is grim and the outlook has the potential to be even worse. Although most acknowledged that there is still the potential for success in Iraq, they said it probably wouldn’t happen as the Bush administration hopes, largely because, as Brookings Senior Fellow Ivo Daalder noted, the United States is “now part of the problem, rather than part of the solution in Iraq.”

The most problematic development in Iraq, according to panelists, is the erosion of Iraqi confidence in U.S. efforts and intentions, a setback that could threaten the feasibility and legitimacy of the June 30 transfer. Brookings Nonresident Senior Fellow Shibley Telhami said that the Abu Ghraib prison scandal had left the U.S. image in tatters.

“It was a profoundly important episode and profoundly important psychologically as the way people look at us,” Telhami said. He went on to say that, in the absence of weapons of mass destruction or a definitive Iraqi link to Al Qaeda, the devastating pictures of U.S. soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners shattered the last remaining justification for the preemptive war in Iraq—removing an brutal dictator from power.

“It removed the last thread of our credibility,” Telhami said. “That thread has been severed in a way that is etched into people’s minds and it’s very difficult to remove. No matter how we say it, people aren’t going to trust us?.And I don’t think we can revive in the short term.” Telhami added that the Pentagon’s insistence that it had not attacked a wedding party last Wednesday, despite convincing evidence that it was indeed a wedding, added to the doubts about U.S. intentions in Iraq.

Panelists found it easy to pinpoint problems in Iraq, but they struggled to achieve either clarity or consensus on solutions, underscoring the increasingly intricate predicament facing the United States.

“What does the U.S. do now?” asked Brookings Senior Fellow Kenneth Pollack. “None of us really knows anymore?We are in terra incognita and we don’t really know what the right answer is.”

Panelists did, however, agree that America needed to “take the U.S. face off reconstruction,” as Pollack suggested, given the erosion of Iraqi confidence in U.S. efforts. Amatzia Baram, a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace said—and others agreed—that the United States ought to assure that future Iraqi government leaders aren’t seen as “American lackeys.”

“It’s important to have a permanent, non-American in Iraq who is neither Sunni or Shia—someone who is totally divorced from the environment,” Baram said.

Pollack agreed, saying that “right now the U.S. has a bit of a poison touch. If we’re seen as manipulating the process, we will contaminate this process?There is probably no one worse than the United States in picking the new government.”

Pollack said that reconstruction efforts in Iraq, including reducing crime and lowering unemployment rates, could be bolstered by the expedited release of the $18 billion appropriated for Iraq, calling it “absolutely criminal that we haven’t dispersed more of this money.” Senior Fellow Michael O’Hanlon said that while reconstruction efforts in Iraq “are gently positive, they are very, very gentle,” noting that current crime and unemployment levels have actually exceeded those experienced in Iraq before Saddam Hussein was ousted from power.

Panelists also agreed that an immediate U.S. withdrawal from Iraq would be foolish. “It would be profoundly irresponsible,” said Brookings Senior Fellow James B. Steinberg. “We created this problem and we have some responsibility to put it in a position for the Iraqis to recover it.”

This evening, when President Bush delivers his prime-time address on the situation in Iraq, Daalder suggested that he show honesty and humility. “I think the president needs to start making it clear that he recognizes that the way in which we have engaged this problem has been a failure and that the most important reason that it has been a failure is that, from the first day, we have insisted on being in total and complete control of the effort,” he said. “We need to get other people invested in the problem and the only way to do that is to give them responsibility.”