August 2003 was a cruel month. Parties still unknown detonated a car bomb outside the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad, killing 17 Iraqis. Two weeks later, an unclaimed truck bomb devastated the UN headquarters in the Iraqi capital, killing 23 people, including UN Special Representative Sergio Vieira de Mello. On the same day, a Hamas suicide bomber destroyed a bus in Jerusalem, leaving 23 Israelis dead. Israel picked up the pace of the assassinations it had been carrying out throughout the summer, and the always sputtering US-sponsored “peace process” stalled, perhaps for good. Then, on August 29, a third mysterious blast ripped through crowds of Shi‘i worshippers in Najaf, killing more than 100, Iraqis as well as Iranian and Indian pilgrims to the shrine of Imam Ali.
Not visibly disturbed, George W. Bush waited until after the last of these events to saunter back from his Texas vacation home to his Washington vacation home. Bush had spent the entire month clearing brush in Crawford, taking time out only to headline campaign fundraisers, to assure the American Legion that he would not “retreat in the face of terror” and to appoint the bellicose Daniel Pipes to the board of the US Institute of Peace during the Congressional recess. It is tempting to employ the imagery of August — White House occupant piles up twigs while Middle East burns — to characterize US policy toward the region.
Behind Bush’s placid mien, however, the internecine battles which roiled Middle East policy, especially vis-à-vis Iraq, before the September 11 attacks have resumed. Now, as then, the terms of the debate are oddly skewed. The State Department uses each new bombing in Baghdad to court greater UN or other international involvement in policing Iraq, but these moves do not betray creeping multilateralism in the administration’s mindset. As UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan protests that the US cannot expect others to share in the burdens of occupying Iraq without also sharing in decision-making, State Department spokesmen sound just like their neo-conservative foes in the Pentagon when they scoff at the idea of “some sterile debate on authority.” Even if the Bush administration does manage to strong-arm countries like India and Turkey into sending soldiers to Iraq, a US viceroy backed by many thousands of American Marines will call the shots for the indefinite future. The fight in Washington concerns how best to hide this fact from increasingly resentful Iraqis and, just maybe, from increasingly skeptical American voters as well.
The intellectual lodestar of the neo-conservatives, Princeton University professor emeritus Bernard Lewis, surely channeled the thoughts of many a disciple when he opined in the August 29 edition of the Wall Street Journal that the US should “put the Iraqis in charge.” One had to read to the final paragraph to discover that Lewis meant none other than Ahmad Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), who, though he hardly needs help promoting himself, owes his position on the new Iraqi Governing Council solely to neo-conservative patronage. Perhaps channeling Pentagon thinking and perhaps not, Chalabi argued in the Washington Post that the US should arm militias answering to the INC, the two Kurdish parties and “others” to patrol city streets and guard pipelines while US forces concentrate on the hunt for “regime remnants.” This transparently self-interested idea seems to have fallen flat, but the possibility of fragmentation remains etched in the “Iraqi face” of the occupation.
The Iraqi Governing Council has selected a cabinet of ministers along rigidly sectarian and ethnic lines — 13 Shi‘a, five Sunni Arabs, five Kurds, one Turkmen and one Christian. One source close to the Council told Middle East Report that the size of the cabinet was set at 25 people so that each of the 25 Council members, who were also appointed according to sectarian and ethnic calculations, would have a nominee. The four most important posts — at the Ministries of Oil, Finance, Foreign Affairs and Interior — were also allotted by sectarian-ethnic affiliation. The Interior Minister, rather ominously, is an ex-servant of the old regime’s security services. Needless to say, none of these steps, which could strongly influence the shape of Iraqi politics in the future, was taken with any semblance of a popular mandate. What sort of “democracy” is the Bush administration building?
The editors of Middle East Report opposed Bush’s war in Iraq. As is now obvious, the Bush administration willfully distorted the “threat” posed by Iraq’s still missing weapons of mass destruction beyond all resemblance to reality. The war was planned and marketed by people who care more about maintaining the global hegemony of the US and the regional hegemony of Israel than they do about the security of either country. There was an honest reason to support war — the plight of Iraqis under the rule of Saddam Hussein — but, as the policies of the post-war occupation show, these considerations were distinctly tertiary in the minds of the attack-Iraq caucus.
Today, important as it is not to excuse the mendacious justifications for the war, and perilous as the security of post-Saddam Iraq continues to be, it is vital that discussion of Iraq not be reduced to the costs and burdens of the occupation upon the US. Lost amidst the posturing of presidential candidates are the problems that will stay with Iraq, “Saddam loyalists” or no Saddam loyalists. The long overdue end of sanctions has left enormous numbers of people, primarily among the Shi‘a and the Kurds, ironically enough, in a position of precarious dependency on food rations. Iraq’s dilapidated infrastructure requires massive investment, a project that will be hampered by an equally massive external debt. These challenges cannot be held hostage to political debates in Washington.
Pentagon hawks and the State Department are united against sending more American troops or taking orders from commanders in blue helmets, and their resolve is unlikely to weaken. They should be held accountable for their rhetorical support for “empowering Iraqis.” One hopes against reason that Iraqis will henceforth be empowered on the basis of integrity and competence, rather than sectarian-ethnic identity or, worse, ideological litmus tests applied by either of the competing factions in Washington.