Bremer’s last gift

by John Quiggin on December 6, 2004

As the American ruler of Iraq, Paul Bremer had the amazing knack of being able to pick the worst possible decision on every occasion[1]. From the dissolution of the Iraqi army to his refusal to hold elections in 2003, when there was some chance they could have worked, he did everything wrong he possibly could. Now he’s gone, and most of his policies have been abandoned, but he’s left one last gift, which may turn out to be the most poisonous of the lot.

When Bremer set up the electoral system for the elections that are supposed to be held in January, he went for a single nationwide electorate, rather than having representatives of provinces or individual constituencies[2].

In any case, what this means is that, to the extent that fighting depresses the turnout in Sunni areas, Sunnis get less seats. Being a minority, they’re bound to lose most of the power they’ve traditionally held in any case, but under Bremer’s rules, they could be excluded almost completely. By contrast, under a constituency system, provided some sort of ballot could be held, Sunni candidates would be elected from Sunni areas.

To address this problem, Juan Cole is suggesting an emergency intervention, setting aside 25 per cent of the seats for Sunni candidates. It’s probably about the best that can be done in the circumstances, but the outlook is not that good.

Meanwhile, the onset of civil war has been announced, not by leftist opponents of the war, but by arch-hawk Charles Krauthammer who complains (haven’t we heard this before) about the unreliability of our native allies

People keep warning about the danger of civil war. This is absurd. There already is a civil war. It is raging before our eyes. Problem is, only one side is fighting it. The other side, the Shiites and the Kurds, are largely watching as their part of the fight is borne primarily by the United States.

I don’t recall Krauthammer mentioning civil war as part of the plan in 2003. But maybe this is one of those four-war things.

fn1. I don’t think this was simple stupidity. His orders were, as far as I can see, to establish a secular free-market democracy that would be a reliable ally of the US and Israel. Any halfway realistic policy would have required him to abandon these objectives, and settle for a moderately theocratic, semi-socialist and imperfectly democratic state, on the “Iran-lite” model, because that’s what a majority of Iraqis want. Instead, he followed the dream.

fn2. My guess is that his motive was to allow votes for Iraqi exiles who could be presumed to be more favorable to the occupation than the people who were actually experiencing it.

{ 17 comments }

1

Hektor Bim 12.06.04 at 10:39 pm

Yes, this is a problem, but I don’t see how setting aside 25 percent of the seats for Sunnis will fix this.

First of all, Sunni Arabs aren’t 25 percent of the population, so this overrepresents them. Overrepresentation of hated minority overlords isn’t going to make the Shia or Kurds happy. Secondly, guaranteed minority representation to such a large extent is not going to encourage the Sunni to adapt themselves to being a minority in the country.

Frankly, Juan Cole always seems to argue for restraining the Shia and punishing the Kurds, and I don’t think that is a realistic viewpoint on Iraq. The Shia have the numbers and the Kurds have the power (military forces and a better economy). Also, the Shia and Kurds have legitimate grievances that the Sunni so far have absolutely refused to credit.

I don’t know what a good solution is, but locking in overrepresentation of the Sunni when many of them seem to be under the collective delusion that they will be able to run Iraq seems to be to be a really bad idea.

It may be that the election will have to go forward and the Sunni Arabs lose out. Since the election hasn’t even happened yet and the Sunni rejection of a reasonable post-war equitable society seems to be widespread, I’m not sure what good options exist.

I am sure however, that any solution that attempts to restrain both the Shia and Kurds in favor of the Sunni will fail and fail spectacularly.

2

roger 12.06.04 at 10:48 pm

I think a better idea might be to stagger the election. There are a number of election-ready regions in Iraq — for instance, around Basra — and a number of not election ready — the all of the Anbar province. It seems to me that those less ready regions would be impressed by a legitimate government in Baghdad — one not run by puppets. With Yawer talking about a six month to year schedule for the withdrawal of American troops, any government elected by some Iraqis would at least be an improvement.
However, there is a still a problem: there needs to be press freedom before the elections are held, amnesty for political prisoners, and the right to organize has to be respected. With Allawi locking up who he wants to, the Americans “detaining” high aides to Sistani and the like, the election atmosphere is much grimmer and repressive than, say, that preceeding the Ukraine elections.

3

roger 12.06.04 at 10:49 pm

I think a better idea might be to stagger the election. There are a number of election-ready regions in Iraq — for instance, around Basra — and a number of not election ready — the all of the Anbar province. It seems to me that those less ready regions would be impressed by a legitimate government in Baghdad — one not run by puppets. With Yawer talking about a six month to year schedule for the withdrawal of American troops, any government elected by some Iraqis would at least be an improvement.
However, there is a still a problem: there needs to be press freedom before the elections are held, amnesty for political prisoners, and the right to organize has to be respected. With Allawi locking up who he wants to, the Americans “detaining” high aides to Sistani and the like, the election atmosphere is much grimmer and repressive than, say, that preceeding the Ukraine elections.

4

Kevin Donoghue 12.06.04 at 10:49 pm

“I don’t know what a good solution is, but locking in overrepresentation of the Sunni when many of them seem to be under the collective delusion that they will be able to run Iraq seems to be to be a really bad idea.”

Cole proposes this as a one-time measure, not something to be locked in. It might do the trick. It is not all that unusual to give a group more than they are entitled to on the grounds that the alternative is civil war.

5

Giles 12.06.04 at 10:59 pm

Doesn’t Iran have a nationwide elections too – if so it’s hard to see how this is incompatible with creating “Iran-lite”.

And, given that the Sunnis are more dispersed – if he had gone for local elections there would have been all sorts of districting problems in places like Mosul, kirkuk, around Sadr city and so forth. This would then have lead to accusations that the system was rigged for or against the Sunnis and so been pretty divisive.

6

dsquared 12.06.04 at 11:06 pm

I was thinking of doing a post noting in passing that the latest member of the Sadrist wing of the somewhat fragile Shia coalition centred on Al-Sistani is one Ahmed Chalabi, but to be honest every time I write it down it just ends up turning into a stream of bitter personal attacks on other people.

7

rd 12.06.04 at 11:17 pm

I agree that the single nationwide electoral district is problematic, but to lay it at Bremer’s door is not quite right. The UN’s election team first proposed it, largely because it lets you bypass the lack of an accurate census that would allow you to correctly apportion numbers of delegates to different electoral districts. The problems you mention were why a number of neocons, supposedly allied with Bremer, have written furious
op-eds against it. But even though the problems are very real, trying to work out another system runs into the fact that different groups in Iraq disagree furiously about the population distribution, and that an thorough impartial census would be very hard to range in time for elections any time soon because of security issues.

8

Hektor Bim 12.06.04 at 11:28 pm

Kevin Donoghue, one-time procedures tend to get locked in over time. For example, Serbs are still greatly overrepresented in the Kosovo parliament, at something like twice their actual proportions, and they boycotted the parliament anyway.

I hate to agree with Krauthammer, but there is no alternative to civil war. There already is civil war in Iraq. The issue is whether we want to create more sides in the civil war. Right now it is the Americans versus the Sunni, with small outbreaks of the Sunni versus the Kurds and the Sunni versus the Shia. Frankly, there is no way Sistani will accept a 25 percent lock-in for the Sunni, and if he turns against the Americans, the current casualty figures for the Americans and especially the British will look great in comparison. Our objective should be to end the current civil war in some way, and locking in overrepresentation of the current fighting force is likely to only create great resentment in the Kurds and Shia.

The Shia will dominate the new government whether the Sunni vote or not. The real question is whether the Kurds can be accomodated and some segment of the Sunni population encouraged to take part in the election.

9

ogmb 12.07.04 at 12:50 am

Problem is, only one side is fighting it. The other side, the Shiites and the Kurds, are largely watching as their part of the fight is borne primarily by the United States.

I’m too lazy to get out my Bellicose-English dictionary, but what’s the term for local non-declared combattants fighting the standing army of an occupying power? That’s not “civil war”, is it?

10

Vaughn Hopkins 12.07.04 at 1:39 am

ogmb,
I can vaguely recall that during WWII when something similar happened we had a different name for it. And, as I recall, we didn’t denigrate those who were doing the resisting of the occupying power. Resisting such an imposition on ones country was even considered a form of extreme bravery and patriotism. But, my mind seems to harbor resistance to thinking of the name we gave to it.

11

mauisurfer 12.07.04 at 2:15 am

Agreed, Bremer DID make many mistakes, on direct orders from Bush/Cheney/Rummy.
Agreed, USA COULD have held elections a year ago (using the same Saddam ration cards that are being used now) but Bush/Cheney/Rummy/Bremer wanted their puppets in control, ie, Chalabi (remember, sitting with Laura at State of the Union) and Allawi (the trustworthy CIA bomber), and it was clear that Shia majority would NOT elect these puppets, so USA delayed holding elections. Now USA wants elections even though they will surely empower Shia majority. Conclusion: this shows how far USA’s game plan has failed, and Shia/Sistani are last best hope to limit civil war.
Highly recommended: Bernard Lewis Revisited, What if Islam isn’t an obstacle to democracy in the Middle East but the secret to achieving it? By Michael Hirsh,
http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2004/0411.hirsh.html

12

Giles 12.07.04 at 3:24 am

Funny how its charecterised as sunni’s vs the US; the Kurds are Sunni, the “sunnis” are Arab. Seems to me that its more of a race war!

13

Michael Connolly 12.07.04 at 3:36 am

No Giles, it’s not race. It’s nationalism – the most powerful force of the last 150 years. Kurds v. Arabs. The 25 million Kurds, by the way, were promised their own nationstate by the Treaty of Versailles, just like the 30 million Poles and the 25 million Yugoslavs.

And MauiSurfer has hit the nail on the head. Because the US was trying to get its own boys selected (not elected – just like Bush himself) we spent a year telling Sistani to fuck off and forget about elections.

This civil war was not inevitable. We worked hard to create it.

14

Michael Connolly 12.07.04 at 3:38 am

No Giles, it’s not race. It’s nationalism – the most powerful force of the last 150 years. Kurds v. Arabs. The 25 million Kurds, by the way, were promised their own nationstate by the Treaty of Versailles, just like the 30 million Poles and the 25 million Yugoslavs.

And MauiSurfer has hit the nail on the head. Because the US was trying to get its own boys selected (not elected – just like Bush himself) we spent a year telling Sistani to fuck off and forget about elections.

This civil war was not inevitable. We worked hard to create it.

15

Giles 12.07.04 at 3:51 am

“Yugoslavs” didn’t they get their own nation state “Michael”?

16

john b 12.07.04 at 10:50 am

“Did” that last comment “mean” anything, “Giles”?

17

Giles 12.07.04 at 7:46 pm

NO

Comments on this entry are closed.