The Interregnum

by John Q on April 24, 2004

I’m looking ahead to the June 30 “handover” of power in Iraq with increasing trepidation. As this NYT story indicates, the handover is shaping up to be a complete sham (more on this from Nathan Brown, guest commentator for Juan Cole). Anybody silly or corrupt enough to join the new “government” will be in the same position as the Iraq governments of the British Mandate/Treaty period, taking responsibility for policies dictated by a foreign occupying force, while having no effective power over anything that matters.

It’s worth recalling how we got to this point, since it gives an indication of likely future developments. When the June 30 date was announced, the US (most notably Bremer) wanted to install a puppet government through a set of tightly-controlled “caucuses”. The Iraqis (most notably Sistani) wanted early elections with ration books being used to draw up a provisional electoral roll. Both had an effective veto. Sistani could stop the caucuses going ahead with the threat of boycotts (and the background threat of the Shiite militias). Bremer could prevent elections simply by doing nothing to make them possible (Garner, the first US Administrator was sacked largely because he had wanted early elections).

Sistani’s plan is looking better and better every day, and there are clearly quite a few people in Washington who now wish it had been followed. Nevertheless, there are powerful forces in the US Administration (most obviously the Chalabi lobby) determined to hold off any real handover of power until they can be sure of controlling the resulting government.

Any attempt to hold on to control past the end of 2004 is, I think, doomed to disaster. Given that Bush is unlikely to reintroduce the draft before November, it’s clear that the number of Coalition troops in Iraq can’t be increased, and is in fact bound to decline in effective terms as more of the allies and the for-profit private armies pull out. But if it’s impossible to hold on into 2005, it’s probably also impossible to manage the proposed interregnum.

There are no easy ways of avoiding the slow motion train wreck going on in front of us. The best chance is for the UN to refuse to countenance the current US proposals and to pass no resolution unless it puts the interim Iraqi government in charge of its own country, scrapping the deplorable Article 59 of the interim constitution imposed by the US. If the US was willing to put a large army under ultimate Iraqi command, it might finally be in a position to deliver on the promises made when the country was invaded.

I can’t see the Bush Administration agreeing to this, and I don’t suppose the other UN members will insist on it, so we’ll probably get an outcome in which the UN effectively washes its hands of the entire business and leaves the Americans to sink or swim as best they can. Assuming this analysis is accurate, which will become apparent in the next ten weeks or so, I think it’s time for other members of the Coalition, including Australia and the UK, to cut and run.

fn1. While I’m on Iraq I’ll link to what is claimed to be an internal CPA memo predicting civil war. (hat tip to reader Robin Green). I’ve seen, but can’t currently locate, claims that the memo is bogus. Whether or not it really comes from the CPA, the generally pessimistic statement of the facts seems pretty accurate.



Jake McGuire 04.24.04 at 9:29 am

I don’t know where this fascination with the draft has come from in recent days, but saying that it’s impossible to increase the number of troops in Iraq without one is just plain factually incorrect. The US has shitloads of troops in Germany, ostensibly to defend against a Red Army that is getting it’s ass handed to it by the Chechens.

The US Army has a total of 9 active duty divisions, of which two are in Iraq. There’s a reason they use the term superpower.

The reluctance to deploy more troops is due to a) political issues, and b) no one buys enough spare parts and ammunition during peacetime to last in a war. Neither of these will be helped by a draft, and as such, there’s no way a draft will happen, leftist wishful thinking aside.


John Quiggin 04.24.04 at 12:20 pm

From my reading it would seem that the total number of troops that could be redeployed from Germany is less than 50 000. Given standard needs for rotation, backup and so on, the sustainable increase in numbers in Iraq from this source is probably no more than 20 000.

But you’re probably right that supply constraints are going to bite first.


Nasi Lemak 04.24.04 at 5:47 pm

“Of the 31 combat brigades in the US Army’s active component, some 22 are currently deployed (including the two from the 2nd Infantry Division in South Korea), in the process of rotating to and from deployments or having just returned from deployment. Of the two Armored Cavalry Regiments both are also deployed”


roger 04.24.04 at 9:21 pm

It is interesting how the Chalabi crowd works. This week, while the Chalabi nephew magically gets to preside over the trial of Saddam Hussein — a blackmail goldmine, if you don’t mind the metaphorical mix of colors — is also the week that the UN corruption story is starting to break. Interesting how the U.N.’s corruption in the Saddam era is coming out now, when the U.N. plan threatens Chalabi (and the Pentagon’s) plan. There is a very reason that the Pentagon let Chalabi get hold of the papers of Saddam’s secret police.
Chalabi’s hacks in the press — Hitchens, Hoagland and Judith Miller — will probably shortly be writing about the awful UN bribery scandal. They seem to be the first line of diffusers of crooked neo-Con strategy. Interesting to see how they will jump. The first two, as mere pundits, merely stir the water a bit — but will Miller, who is under attack for being a Chalabi puppet, bring off her usual “scoop” in the Times? Inquiring minds will be eager to see.


Dan Simon 04.25.04 at 6:56 am

“There are no easy ways of avoiding the slow motion train wreck going on in front of us.”

“Train wreck” compared to what? The Saddam Hussein regime? The regime that would be in place today had the UN “taken over” (whatever on earth that might have meant) the reconstruction job right after the fall of Saddam? The government that would have been elected to “rule” (until such time as one or more ethnic/religious/nationalist militias could be organized to flout its authority with impunity) had elections been held as quickly as Sistani wanted?

There’s no doubt that some supporters of the Iraq war have set themselves up for failure by creating absurdly optimistic expectations for Iraq’s miraculous transformation from fascist hellhole to democratic role model. But that’s no excuse for the rest of us to live in their dreamworld. Iraq is, and most likely will continue to be, a better place for Saddam Hussein’s having been toppled. To be dissatisfied at the lack of more spectacular progress there is to embrace the neocons’ own fantasies of democratic transformation–a rather poor position from which to critique them.


Jeff 04.25.04 at 12:57 pm

“Train wreck” compared to what?

Arguing that things are not as bad yet as they could be doesn’t in any way advance the argument that things are not going well in an absolute sense.

Simply put: what percentage of Iraqis are willing to take up arms on *behalf* of Americans or our hand-picked IGC? In comarison, what percentage of Iraqis are willing to take up arms for Sadr now, or for Sistani should he call for it? Citing polls in a country where, in the past, answering a poll wrong could land you in jail (and arguably, given continued efforts to arrest suspected insurgents, might still land you in jail) is, I think, a less accurate indicator of opinion trends than the fact that the police we trained, armed, and pay are not only unwilling to die for us, but in isolated cases are *shooting* at us. We have already had to turn the major highways into free-fire zones just to maintain supply lines into the city. Our current security measures are insufficient to allow consistent resupply. We clearly don’t have enough security to even control our supply lines, let alone trying to impose our will upon Sadr City, for example. Could things be going worse in some hypothetical alternate universe? Sure. But that’s not the point –are things going well *now*? And if not, what are we doing to change that situation?


Jeff 04.25.04 at 12:59 pm

doesn’t in any way advance the argument

I meant to say doesn’t in any way *rebutt* the argument.


Copeland 04.26.04 at 5:24 pm

When one considers what has happened recently in Fallujah, the train wreck comparison seems all too real.

This goes beyond the cliche of losing hearts and minds. In response to the siege, it was reported that some British officers felt that the US military showed signs of treating Iraqis as less than human, with respect to tactics used in Fallujah.

A degenerative process seems to be taking place in this war. And this shows no sign of being reversed, since the Bush Administration appears incapable of admitting error or changing their fundamental approach.

Recently, I saw a photograph of John Negroponte (proposed US Ambassador to the New Iraq). He was standing in front of a painting: it was Picasso’s Guernica. I hope the doors of Hell are not about to be flung open.


Dan Simon 04.26.04 at 8:11 pm

Arguing that things are not as bad yet as they could be doesn’t in any way advance the argument that things are not going well in an absolute sense.

I have no idea how one could possibly gauge how well things are going anywhere “in an absolute sense”. My point is that the correct reference point for how well things are going in Iraq (or anywhere else) is not how well or badly they might be going, but rather how well they should be expected to be going. The fact that some people (including, it seems, several in the Bush administration) had absurdly high expectations for postwar Iraq doesn’t obligate anyone else to share their unrealism. As far as I’m concerned, things are going much better than would normally be expected in a place with Iraq’s recent (and not-so-recent) history. Moreover, the American military intervention there appears to be the major contributor to that relative improvement.

Of course, one could argue that this improvement has not been worth the costs America has incurred, or will eventually incur if both the improvements and the costs accumulate at the current rate. (The second part of this argument, I’d say, is fairly tenable, although I don’t think the first is.) But unless one’s foremost concern is minimizing American suffering (and as a non-American, I see no reason to adhere to that accounting method), it’s hard for me to see why anyone would claim that things in Iraq are going badly at all–let alone a “train wreck”.


SqueakyRat 04.26.04 at 11:50 pm

But unless one’s foremost concern is minimizing American suffering (and as a non-American, I see no reason to adhere to that accounting method), it’s hard for me to see why anyone would claim that things in Iraq are going badly at all—let alone a “train wreck”.

And I guess it would just be terribly selfish for us Americans to care that it’s our arm that’s half-way up the meatgrinder, mmm?

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