A Date of Destiny for Iraq

The Washington Post

The self-imposed deadline of June 30 for the transfer of sovereignty from American to Iraqi authorities is often treated as marking the start of U.S. disengagement. In fact, the formal end of occupation changes the nature of the American engagement, not the need for it. It requires a new strategy for converting power into legitimacy and hence a new dimension to diplomacy.

American objectives in Iraq are often stated abstractly, as if we went to war exclusively to reform the country. But we have a stake in the political orientation of Iraq, not only its internal structure. A sovereign Iraq on whose soil coalition forces will remain by agreement rather than occupation presupposes a government that is representative, secure, accepted internationally and compatible with a peaceful world. The countries recognizing it must be brought to conduct complementary policies lest their competition rend the delicate fabric of the new Iraqi authority. The Iraqi authorities must accept the basic arrangement and not see themselves as victims of it, lest their irredentism inflame the region.

Despite major powers' pre-war disputes, their interests in Iraq have, in fact, become more congruent. They would all be threatened by a resurgent, radical Islam. They know that the consequences of failure in Iraq would spread across borders; they have much to gain from cooperation and much to lose from a repetition of their disputes. If the sovereign Iraq turns radical or fundamentalist, every country threatened by terrorism or by radicalized Islam will be in jeopardy. The moderate Islamic countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco and even Indonesia share this perception, though some may be too intimidated to avow it. This common purpose based on a common fear could be the beginning of a new approach to international order, much as was the post-Cold War order.

Under the best of circumstances, it will be a daunting task. The internal dynamics of a sovereign Iraq will be extraordinarily complicated. The American tradition seeks a guarantee against arbitrary political acts in a system of checks and balances. But there is no comparable experience in Iraq. As a result, its various components do not look to their government for protection; instead they seek safety through enhancing the role of their communities, tribes, families or faiths. The early stages of democratization thus tend to fragment the country rather than unify it. Each community seeks the maximum guarantee against domination by the others and the maximum share of power and wealth. This is why, after June 30, the security situation in Iraq may worsen – at least temporarily – as the various disaffected groups shift their attacks to the institutions of the new government.

This is where the frequently invoked analogy to the occupations of Germany and Japan breaks down. Germany and Japan were national states without serious separatist movements or internal guerrillas. After their defeats, they quickly came to a consensus that cooperation with the occupying power was the key to restoring their societies and international standings. Leaders achieved support by demonstrating closeness to the occupation forces.

In Iraq, none of these conditions are met. The population treats the war as a defeat for Saddam Hussein, not for the nation. Hatred of the deposed dictator does not translate automatically into support for the United States. Indeed, many Iraqi leaders seek legitimacy by distancing themselves from the United States. It took almost seven years for Germany and Japan to achieve full sovereignty. In Iraq, the goal is to accomplish this process in seven months.

Three major communities are striving for influence in the new Iraq. The Shiites, being a majority, insist on elections whose practical effect would be to give them dominance. The issue for the other groups is to what purpose the Shiites would use their majority, especially in light of the demands by some Shiite factions for the creation of an Islamic Republic. The Iraqi radical and fundamentalist ayatollahs have so far sheathed their most potent weapon, the capacity to organize mass demonstrations. The future stability of Iraq will depend on whether they are waiting on showing their power for the end of the occupation or have genuinely accepted a pluralistic, secular outcome.

By contrast, the Kurds, with their history of oppression by Baghdad, urge a federal system that would confine the central government to defense, foreign policy and largely administrative functions with few, if any, enforcement powers or local governance. Kurds define self-government as only microscopically distinguishable from independence.

The heretofore dominant Sunnis are mourning their lost preeminence. Having dominated Iraq for all of its history, they have no stake – at least yet – in preserving the emerging new structure. Whatever compromise emerges in the formation of a government will likely only mitigate their hostility, not dispel it. Thus, in the debate over the new arrangements, the Shiites pose the challenge of the limits of pluralism, the Kurds of the limits of federalism and the Sunnis the challenge of reconciliation.

Perhaps the single most crucial determinant for America's role is the impact of our democratic ideals on traditional Iraqi values. Overcoming the institutionalized inequality of women, for example, will bring us into conflict with the Islamic religious establishment, whether Sunni or Shiite. Thus the ultimate domestic issue in Iraq may well turn on secularization versus Islamization. And the main secularizing force in Iraq was the Baathist party, which we have ousted. Finding domestic partners in Iraq will become a principal test of American statesmanship.

Iraq's neighbors will have their own ideas on this process. Syria can live with a secular, developing Iraq, but not with a Shiite one, and it will be uneasy about a pro-Western orientation. Iran fears a strong Iraq and will resist a pro-American one. Turkey would welcome a pro- Western Iraq but would be uneasy about Iraqi federalism.

Iran's position is the most complex. It has a strategic interest in the weakest possible central government in Baghdad to forestall Iraq's reemergence as a major force balancing Tehran's aspirations to regional hegemony. It favors federalism but fears the Kurds lest their autonomy challenge Tehran's rule over Iran's Kurdish population. Iran's trump card is the majority Shiite population of southern Iraq. Opinion is divided as to whether the Iraqi Shiites prize national independence over religious comity. Some suggest that because historically southern Iraq was the focal point of Shiite orthodoxy, the Iraqi Shiites might emerge as ideological rivals to the Tehran ayatollahs – though surely not without establishing some sort of Islamic rule of their own, weakening prospects for stability in the rest of Iraq.

In any event, Iran is clearly in a special position to generate support in the Shiite region and to hinder a consolidation inimical to its interests. But Iran will probably try to keep our frustration below a level that would cause us to retaliate. Its conduct in Iraq will therefore be heavily influenced by America's ability to come together on an Iranian policy that combines firmness with a diplomatic option.

Turkey, as a NATO ally, has a significant interest in preventing a setback for the United States. And it is prepared to extend assistance in stabilizing Iraq. There are two limitations, however: the history of Turkish rule during the Ottoman Empire and the potential conflict over governance of the Kurdish regions. The former prevents – or at least complicates – Turkish participation in the security field. And Turkey has an interest in the Kurdish region not entirely compatible with American support for Kurdish autonomy. Its leaders fear similar claims for autonomy among the Turkish Kurds, representing 20 percent of Turkey's population. If Kurdish autonomy goes beyond a certain point, there is a not negligible threat of Turkish military intervention, perhaps backed by Iran.

If Iraq's neighbors multiply complexities, the attitude of other countries opens hopeful prospects. France and Germany have had second thoughts about tensions with the United States: Their pressure for a more rapid transfer of sovereignty under U.N. auspices is being overtaken by events. Iraq will have achieved sovereignty in a matter of months regardless of auspices, and the administration has involved the United Nations in the run-up to it. The key question for the future is how the allies deal with the emerging Iraq: Will they close ranks with the United States behind a common process or will they use their enhanced access to the sovereign Iraqi government to begin competing with us to reduce U.S. influence in Baghdad? Will Europe attempt to be a counterweight or a partner in charting the future of Iraq and the Middle East? Is Europe prepared to make a security and financial contribution commensurate with enhanced influence?

Paradoxically, the future of Iraq, which two years ago threatened to destroy the alliance, may turn into an opportunity to rebuild the Atlantic Alliance and, beyond that, the international order in general. Until July 1, the United States is in a position to shape the institutions of a sovereign Iraq by itself. After that, Iraqi sovereignty will give other nations an inevitable participation. And even before that, the administration is involving the United Nations to help resolve the electoral issue. A wise U.S. policy would therefore seek to shape events before it is forced into it by the very process we have started.

  • The transfer of sovereignty to Iraq must not be the beginning of U.S. withdrawal from Iraq but the start of a new phase of a different kind of American involvement.
  • Security remains essential, but the new phase may permit a gradual assumption of domestic security functions by Iraqi forces, with American troops dealing with frontiers, infiltration routes and attacks by large units.
  • Because the process of internationalizing the political future of Iraq will start on July 1 at the latest, it is better for the United States to lead it now by involving more countries in the process by means of a contact group within NATO to bring about a basis for joint allied action in Iraq, in international institutions.

Such an arrangement is all the more important if it becomes necessary to face the ultimate challenge: that like Yugoslavia, Iraq, created for strategic reasons, cannot be held together by representative institutions, that it will tend toward autocracy or break up into its constituent groups. While this is far from the preferred outcome, a breakup into three states may be imposed by events. But it would require firm international guidance.

This implies not an abdication of U.S. policy to a multilateral consensus but shaping it with strong leadership. We are bound to have a major – probably dominant – voice because of our military and financial contributions, much as we have in Afghanistan. We achieved the important objective of removing the threat posed by Saddam Hussein by leading a coalition of the willing. Building a new structure of peace requires a wider basis.

© 2004 Tribune Media Services International