Breaking the circuit

by John Q on April 14, 2004

Since the situation in Iraq seems to have stabilised momentarily, this might be a good time to think about measures that could prevent a renewed downward spiral. An essential starting point, and a relatively easy measure, would be to dump both Bremer and Chalabhi. Every major decision Bremer has made has been a disaster, from the dissolution of the Iraqi army to the failed attempt at rigged elections based on “caucuses” to the decision to pick a fight with Sadr. The cumulative result is that the Coalition is stuck with a promise to hand over power on June 30 and no-one remotely credible to hand it to.

The other party in all of this is Chalabhi, who is still apparently Bremer’s preferred candidate, despite the fact that he has zero credibility in Iraq or, for that matter, anywhere outside the Pentagon. It might not be feasible to remove him from the Governing Council, but he should be dumped from any administrative position he holds, and particularly from his role in the disastrous de-Baathification campaign.

My suggestion for the next step would be to send Powell to Baghdad to take personal charge of the proposed transition. Although he’s been compromised like everyone else in the Administration, he’s by far the most credible person they have.

A direct approach from Powell and (UN advisor) Brahimi might induce Sistani and other Shia religious figures to shift from the sidelines into support for a sustaniable outcome. The crucial elements would have to be
* Pushing for elections as soon as possible. Since this would produce a government with a clear Shia majority, this would provide an incentive for Shia militias to comply with calls to abandon armed resistance to the occupying forces
* Abandoning the most objectionable provision of the Interim Constitution, namely those endorsing the US claim to continued military control. Instead, the US needs to accept that, as of June 30, it will have to put its troops under the ultimate command of some combination of an interim Iraqi government and an international successor to the CPA (either the UN or NATO).
* Dropping the “three-province” provision that gives the Kurds an effective veto of the new constitution, while making it clear that the existing autonomy of the Kurdish areas was non-negotiable

At the same time, Powell would need to make more serious attempts to reconcile the Sunnis. An obvious starting point would be to repeal Bremer’s dissolution of the army, and offer former soldiers either re-enlistment or a cash payment on discharge.

As I’ve said before, I’m not confident that this approach would work. In any case, judging by the inane rhetoric from Bush about “staying the course”, there is no willingness in Washington to admit that the whole Iraq enterprise is in serious danger of failure. Moreover, many in the Pentagon would rather lose than put their forces under the command of foreigners. So I think we’ll see a continuation of policy based on neocon dreams. Perhaps the rush for the doors evident among the members of the “Coalition of the Willing” may be what it needs to wake them up.



Raymond 04.14.04 at 11:30 am

Boy, that Joe Stalin and Pol Pot sure would have done a better job than these yankee imperialist pigs!!!


Andrew Boucher 04.14.04 at 11:57 am

I’d agree Bremer should go, if the Iraqis request it. Does anyone know what the Iraqis think about Bremer?

On the other hand Powell just can’t go to Baghdad on a permanent basis, so another replacement needs to be suggested – probably the one who will become American ambassador to Irqa.


Barry 04.14.04 at 12:09 pm

Replacing Bremer probably wouldn’t do much good. In the end, the buck stops at Bush’s desk. Whether through ignorance, negligence, or malice, he’s the problem.


Terry 04.14.04 at 2:05 pm

“* Dropping the “three-province” provision that gives the Kurds an effective veto of the new constitution, while making it clear that the existing autonomy of the Kurdish areas was non-negotiable.”

But the “three-province” provision IS designed to make the existing autonomy of the Kurdish areas “non-negotiable”. If you (and apparently every other liberal from the English-speaking world I’ve read) want it to be non-negotiable, then why remove the provision?

I remain astonished at the non-serious attitude of American, and now apparently Austrailian, liberals to the concepts of “federalism” and “autonomy”. The US constitution, recall, had to be unanimously approved by all 13 states. The TAL requires that the Kurds get a 2/3 majority in all three provinces to veto the constitution, a pretty high bar for the formation of a true federation with true autonomy. I don’t think it’s too stringent. What is foolish – extremely foolish in my opinion – is that the Kurdish veto can only be exercised through the referendum on the constitution, not by their provincial representatives at the constitutional convention (if there is one, it seems the TAL gives the first elected parliament the right to write a constitution with 51% of parliament’s support!), which is just asking for brinkmanship and a catastrophic rejection of the constitution.

There are plenty of constraints on Kurdish maximalism. One, Turkey is still there; two, US support can still be withdrawn; three, their interest in Kirkuk; four, the threat of an Arab-Kurd civil war, that they would lose, if they reject everything; five, the divisions within Kurdistan. Just to list the major ones.

The problem is not that Iraq will end up too federalist, but that given the foreignness of the idea in the Arab world (Lebanon aside) and the strange American incomprehension of the origins of their own politics, there will be too little.


roger 04.14.04 at 2:16 pm

What can the American occupation give Iraq? If there is a small grain of truth in the neocon idea of making Iraq a democracy, then sending over another man who has spent his entire life in control and command structures, and never dealt with a union, a garbage collector, or a p.o.-ed city council member is probably not a good idea.
Surely instead of Bremer and Powell types, we need someone with instincts honed by doing real political work in a real democracy — a former big city mayor, a governor, etc. The inability to understand where to compromise and where not to is the bread and butter of American political life.
On the negative side, mayors and governors don’t often have to deal with military high command. It is obvious, over the last couple of weeks, that the military high command has gone into a very unhelpful revanchist mode — with statements about the killing of Sadr ranking high among the kinds of things that completely alienate Iraqis. So the mayoral or gubernatorial type has to have the arrogance to go nose to nose with the military. People like Rudy Giuliani, or Willy Brown, seem to me the more likely candidates for what the Americans can really do in Iraq. Somebody who understands that the garbage has to be picked up, rather than someone who views the Presidential Palace as a CEO perk.


Doctor Memory 04.14.04 at 3:13 pm

As much as the idea of sending Rudy Giuliani to Iraq has a certain…gonzo poetic brilliance to it, I have to call foul. Giuliani was an effective city manager, but only in a context where his personal abrasiveness and high-handed authoritarianism were made (barely) tolerable by the constraints of local law and the obvious absence of any credible leadership alternatives. I can’t see his act playing well in front of Sistani, Sadr, et al.

Plus, the idea of Rudy with command authority over a military force is too terrifying to contemplate.


des 04.14.04 at 3:23 pm

Hey, Merkins! If you play your cards right, Tony Blair could conceivably be persuaded to part with the services of “Red” Ken Livingstone, currently mayor of London…


Rms 04.14.04 at 4:28 pm

Terry: Ratification of the US constitution required the approval of 3/4 of the states – some of the original 13 states actually ratified the constitution well after it became the governing document. I don’t think that liberals necessarily dislike federalism. (I think that preserving the existing levels of Kurdish self-government is a good thing – why screw with what works?) If however, it is likely that the three main factions in Iraq vote as blocs, why should the Shia favor giving a new minority control after finally getting out from under the thumb of the Sunni. The key to federalism (and democracy) is balance. I cannot say whether current plans set this balance appropriately


paul 04.14.04 at 4:35 pm


You wrote: “The US constitution, recall, had to be unanimously approved by all 13 states.”

This is not correct. (You may have been misled by a quick reading of the second sentence in section VII). My copy reads (Section VII):

The ratification of the conventions of nine states, shall be sufficient for the establishment of this Constitution between the states so ratifying the same.
Done in convention by the unanimous consent of the states present the seventeenth day of September in the year of our Lord…

I don’t know that this has any implications for the strength of your argument. I fact check, you decide.


rea 04.14.04 at 4:39 pm

“The US constitution, recall, had to be unanimously approved by all 13 states”

Not what Article VII says:

“The Ratification of the Conventions of nine States, shall be sufficient for the Establishment of this Constitution between the States so ratifying the Same.”


Robert Lyman 04.14.04 at 5:24 pm


Do you have an argument (or a link) to back up your claim that the US “picked a fight” with Sadr, and that this was the wrong decision?

I really value a contrary viewpoint, but your belief that anything that happens in Iraq is 100% the US’s fault smacks of boneheaded reflexive anti-Americanism. But I could be wrong. Why not prove it?


Andrew Boucher 04.14.04 at 5:31 pm

Maybe closing his newspaper was choosing to pick a fight?


Robert Lyman 04.14.04 at 6:18 pm

Maybe, but this was a newspaper that advocated violent rebellion against the occupation and the establishment of an Iran-style state. So Sadr may have been a tiny bit provacative himself. And maybe he had some sort of uprising in the works before then, given that he appears to have men under arms at the ready.

And even if we grant that closing the paper was a provocation, was it the wrong thing to do? Should we have let him consolodate his armed power base and attack a nascent Iraqi democracy?


Thomas 04.14.04 at 8:12 pm

What’s to be feared from another “downward spiral” if stabilization can come so quickly?


Matt Weiner 04.14.04 at 8:23 pm

Robert, this David Ignatius column (via Matthew Yglesias at TAPPED) describes the confrontation with Sadr as a “war of choice” and discusses it in terms of a decision to attack Sadr’s militia. He argues that it wasn’t smart to do this while fighting in Falluja.
This paragraph from today’s WaPo:
Sadr’s black-clad Shiite militiamen, known as the Mahdi Army, have clashed with U.S.-led occupation forces in Baghdad and across southern Iraq during the past two weeks, since authorities closed the 30-year-old cleric’s weekly newspaper, arrested one of his top aides and announced plans to put him on trial for allegedly ordering the killing of a rival Shiite religious leader in Najaf a year ago.
indicates that it went past closing his newspaper; announcing that you’re going to put someone on trial is initiating a confrontation. (Which may or may not have been the right thing to do.)
Your insults toward John are unworthy of you. Nowhere does he say or imply that everything that happens in Iraq is the US’s fault; he faults Bremer for specific decisions.


a different chris 04.14.04 at 9:01 pm

>It might not be feasible to remove him from the Governing Council,

Why the hell not? Chalabhi’s our puppet, not the other way around. Without the US, he has the same number of divisions as the Pope.

I’d dispatch a few Marines to collar him and drag his butt to Jordan. Basically a nice public 21st century tarring and feathering.

Who besides his immediate family would not be happy? The publicity on it would be wonderful. The Middle East might pause for a second and wonder if maybe we are capable of getting a clue every once in a while.

And I don’t see any downside. I can’t name a single thing he brings to the table that somebody else couldn’t do just as well, and that even includes toadying to Bushie/Neo-Con power.

Hell Instapundit doesn’t seem to have anything really important to do, and he takes bootlicking to a new level almost daily. Give him a whack at it. I’ll chip in for airfare.


mitch 04.15.04 at 9:42 am

[Chalabi] has zero credibility in Iraq is conducting a net-poll for Iraqi president right now. The candidates are ten members of the Iraqi Governing Council, including Chalabi, and “none of the above”. None-of-the-above has a massive lead, with 43% of the vote, but of the listed candidates, Chalabi is coming third, with a respectable 8%; the most popular, Pachachi, is only marginally ahead at 11%. (Second place is Bahr al-Ulloum, a Shia cleric who we don’t hear much about, for some reason.)


John Quiggin 04.15.04 at 12:26 pm

A commentator on my personal blog points to a poll where Chalabhi got 0.2 per cent. YMMV.


Robin Green 04.18.04 at 3:19 am

It’s a strange world in which 8% is considered “respectable” as set against 43% for “none of the above”.

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