Fix What’s Broken in Iraq

Anthony Lake and Ivo H. Daalder
Ivo H. Daalder, President, Chicago Council on Global Affairs
Ivo H. Daalder Former Brookings Expert, President - Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO

February 16, 2004

Debate rages over what went wrong in Iraq. More important is this: how to make Iraq right.The dilemmas are daunting: How to diminish the Iraqi nationalistic reaction against American occupation through an early restoration of their sovereignty without producing anarchy if we leave too soon? How to reconcile our stated goal of democracy with the prospect of electoral dominance by a theocratic Shi’ite majority? And how to get the help of the United Nations without giving up the central control upon which Washington has always insisted? As casualties mount and differences among Iraqi factions deepen, answers are urgent. Since the invasion, our approach to post-war stability has embraced three models.

First: the fantasy of Iraq as France in August 1944. American tanks would roll through Baghdad to the welcome of jubilant crowds thankful for their liberation. The Americans’ De Gaulle—designate Ahmed Chalabi, provided with his own hastily assembled militia—would come to power in a wave of democratic sentiment which would then transform the whole region, while American troops marched home.

But as looting spread and Iraq’s governing structures collapsed, it quickly became apparent that Baghdad in 2003 was no Paris in 1944, and Chalabi no De Gaulle. American troops were left holding the Baghdad.

Thus the next model: Japan, 1945. Democracy would be imposed by a benevolent American ruler. L. Paul Bremer III would be Douglas MacArthur, US and allied troops would maintain order, and nearly $20 billion of our budget would rebuild the country.

But Iraq was no postwar Japan. We proclaimed Iraqis liberated, not defeated. Predictably, even those who most hated Saddam Hussein resented the occupation. As this resentment spread to America’s closest Iraqi allies, Washington concluded that it lacked the stomach for a lengthy imperial role—especially with our own elections in view.

A third model followed: Afghanistan 2002, except with the UN given only a marginal role. Sovereignty would be given the Iraqis by June 30, 2004. New security forces would maintain law and order, patrol the borders, and protect critical infrastructure. A national assembly would be selected to assume power, write a constitution, and prepare for elections. The US military would focus on counter-insurgency operations.

This model has also failed. The security problems are beyond the capacity of hastily trained Iraqi forces. Politically, Shi’ites, Sunnis, and Kurds are divided over the formation and functions of the transitional assembly. The majority Shi’ites insist on electing the assembly. The Kurds want to maintain their hard-won autonomy. The Sunnis want to avoid being all-round losers. And the clock ticks on toward the June 30 deadline for ending the American occupation.

In baseball, it’s three strikes and you’re out. But America cannot quit now, with no political solution in sight. Nor can we extend the June deadline without deepening Iraqi resentment. So the administration needs to strike a grand bargain—with the Iraqis and with the international community. And its Democratic critics should make this easier.

The bargain with the Iraqis should give each faction something. For the Shiites: We would abandon the current selection process and substitute popular elections for a national assembly. The assembly would write a constitution, appoint an interim government, and then oversee elections for a new government. Elections for the assembly would be held as soon as practical, perhaps around the end of this year. For the Sunnis and Kurds and all Iraqis: a rapid transfer of sovereignty and appointment of an expanded Iraqi Governing Council to govern Iraq in the interim, to finalize a basic law of principles and rights (including minority rights), and to conduct the national assembly elections.

The bargain with the international community would entail transferring international authority in Iraq to a UN-run Iraq assistance mission. It would help the Governing Council in elections and aid the interim government in rebuilding Iraq. A US-led NATO force would provide security, as authorized by the UN Security Council, to operate until Iraqi forces could do so.

All this would entail some loss of face by the administration, but there must be change. Washington has neither the competence, the popular mandate within Iraq, nor the political will to rule there indefinitely. Yet to walk away, leaving chaos, would be a strategic and moral disaster.

Critics should help the administration shift course. However much we may have questioned this undertaking, the administration did not make a Republican commitment to Iraq. It is an American commitment.