Why Legitimacy In Iraq Matters

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

January 29, 2004

You know things aren’t going well for the Bush administration when Cheney, on only his second trip abroad in three years, is leading the call for allies to cooperate in addressing the terrorist and other threats in the world. “Cooperation among our governments, and effective international institutions,” Cheney told the World Economic Forum in Davos on Saturday, “are even more important than they have been in the past.” This from a man who counseled against going to the U.N. or seeking allied support in the run-up to the Iraq war.

Cheney’s appeal followed a week of feverish administration attempts to enlist the United Nations to help with the transition from occupation to sovereignty in Iraq. Paul Bremer, the civilian administrator in Iraq, was hastily recalled to join an Iraqi delegation in New York last week to meet with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. In Washington, meanwhile, President Bush pressed Lakhdar Brahimi, Annan’s newly appointed representative for the region, to travel to Baghdad soon and assist the U.S. occupation in managing the transition.

There are also indications that the administration is willing to abandon its latest plans for how to conduct the transition, so long as the June 30 deadline of handing power back to the Iraqis remains in effect.

All this suggests that the Bush administration now realizes that its efforts in Iraq are running into trouble. The core problem, however, is less that its particular transition plans and many of its actions supporting the occupation are flawed (though they are in many cases), than that its actions in Iraq lack legitimacy—not just in the eyes of the world, but also, and increasingly, in the eyes of the Iraqi people.

George W. Bush went to war against Iraq believing that the legitimacy of his actions was guaranteed both by the merits of America’s case and the purity of its motives. Opponents of the war would come around once the beneficial results of the use of force would become clear—once the threat Saddam Hussein posed to his people, the region, and the world was eliminated; once the Iraqi people were freed from their tyrannical ruler; and, especially, once his large stocks of weapons of mass destruction had been captured and destroyed.

To President Bush, the war’s legitimacy was also deeply grounded in American values. “America is a nation with a mission,” the president explained in his recent State of the Union speech, “and that mission comes from our most basic beliefs. We have no desire to dominate, no ambitions of empire… [We] understand our special calling: This great republic will lead the cause of freedom.” America therefore went to Iraq not as an occupier with territorial or material ambitions, but as a liberator to free the people of Iraq from Saddam’s horrific rule.

The problem with these arguments is that not many people bought them. Some, perhaps much, of this initial skepticism might have been overcome had the Iraq war produced the outcome the administration had promised. But that, in important measure, was not the case. Not only were no weapons found, but months of close-up investigation revealed that Saddam Hussein had not actively pursued weapons programs for much of the 1990s. In other words, the very combination of inspections, sanctions, and deterrence that the Bush administration had derided as ineffective had in fact worked in much the way its opponents had insisted it would.

The president is now left with the tortured claim that inspectors had found not weapons, not active weapons programs, but “weapons of mass destruction-relate program activities.” His words this year lack the requisite urgency that underpinned his decision to invade and his determination that we could not wait for the rest of the world to join us.

Developments inside Iraq after Saddam was toppled also undermine the claim to legitimacy—even, worrisomely, among the Iraqi people themselves. While the Iraqis are grateful for the removal of Saddam from power and the prospect that he will stand trial for his heinous crimes against them, many if not most have come to regard the American presence as an illegitimate occupation.

Most resent the failure to provide basic security in the weeks immediately after Saddam’s removal last April—and to secure law and order in the months since. Many also fear the insurgency that followed, which has killed many more Iraqis than Americans and resulted in an iron-fisted U.S. response that has left many with a deep sense of humiliation. And many more distrust Washington’s opposition to holding elections for a transitional administration as reflecting a desire to play favorites with those Iraqis who, like the Iraqi Governing Council it appointed, will do its bidding.

And so the administration, faced with the failure of its third transition plan in just nine months, is hoping that the United Nations will help bail it out from the mess it has gotten itself into. Kofi Annan is, understandably, very reluctant to do Washington’s bidding. Not only did Bush go to war when a clear majority in the U.N. opposed him, but even if the U.N. does come in now, there is of course no guarantee that it can overcome the stalemate that now characterizes the Iraqi political landscape.

The lesson of all this is clear—without legitimacy, the exercise of power alone can only get you so far. With legitimacy comes international support and assistance—and a cushion of good will when events go awry. Without legitimacy, you are on your own, making success that much less likely. Legitimacy, in short, is not a luxury for the powerful and a necessity of the weak, as some argue—it is what is necessary to translate power into success.