National Review Online
December 18, 2003
by John F. Cullinan
After pinpointing and plucking Saddam Hussein from a hole in the ground in a state the size of California, how does the U.S. translate this stunning demonstration of military power and professionalism into effective political leverage that safeguards vital U.S. national interests during Iraq's stalled political transition?
In just over six months, an Iraqi transitional legislative assembly — however chosen — will assume full sovereign authority. That date is set in stone, thanks to the American electoral calendar and to aroused Iraqi expectations. Yet between now and then, nearly every other issue remains to be settled between the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council (IGC).
With so much up in the air — and so much at stake — how does the U.S. secure an acceptable political outcome that begins to justify its ongoing outlay of blood, treasure, and prestige? What's a workable strategy for bringing about the possibility of a more democratic and decent Iraq that's at peace with itself and its neighbors?
The immediate challenge is to put back on track the November 15 "Agreement on Political Process" that was single-handedly derailed by Iraq's most senior Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Hussein al-Sistani. Under this agreement, a transitional assembly selected through regional caucuses would form a fully sovereign Iraqi government on July 1, 2004, based on a "Fundamental Law" — or interim constitution — now being worked out within agreed parameters by the CPA and IGC.
Ayatollah Sistani has insisted on direct elections for the transitional assembly, as well as assurances that the interim constitution will defer to Islam, most likely in the form of a blanket prohibition against any legislation deemed contrary to Islam by unelected clerical overseers. His first demand, which concerns electoral mechanics, is eminently negotiable; but his second, which wholly subordinates politics to religious ideology (Islamism), unduly risks creating a failed state.
The imperfect November 15 agreement is by now the only game in town. It's the only available framework for resolving how to choose Iraq's transitional government and settle its basic rules of the road in the form of an interim constitutional. These are nominally separate issues but underlying opposition to U.S. policy in both cases is the impetus to eliminate all U.S. influence over Iraq's future — both on the part of various Iraqi factions and of the so-called international community. That's worth bearing in mind is considering how best to deal with the IGC and with Ayatollah Sistani.
As for elections, there's almost universal agreement among Iraqis that conducting a nationwide vote before July is a practical impossibility, given the absence of an agreed-on census, an electoral law, or adequate electoral machinery — as well as the mounting Baathist/jihadist insurgency. Insistence on elections in these circumstances is akin to demanding repeal of the laws of gravity.
At the same time, there's nothing sacred about the particular mechanics spelled out in the November 15 agreement. There's ample room for compromise on these essentially procedural issues, despite legitimate U.S. concerns that snap elections in decidedly unpromising circumstances might empower extremists of various stripes. A senior administration official quoted in the November 27 New York Times put it this way: "The nub of this is, how do we get to enough elections in enough places to satisfy the ayatollah's insistence on elections. We should be able to do that."
In fact, there's now a belated scramble for a face-saving solution, as IGC members begin to acknowledge reality and Ayatollah Sistani begins issuing hints of flexibility. But the existing dynamic needs to be reversed. For it's the CPA that's doing all the heavy lifting, according to Tuesday's Washington Post, "scrambling to negotiate a compromise with Iraq's two main religious strains." "The Americans are very nervous," They know they have to make changes but they don't know what those changes should be."
That's getting things exactly backwards. Clients exist to serve their patron's interests, not vice versa. It's up to America's handpicked political leaders — plucked from obscurity in most cases last July — to devise a deal that will stick and sell it to their constituencies. President Bush made that point rather more politely during a brief encounter with four IGC members after Thanksgiving dinner at Baghdad International Airport. "I will support any decision you make," recounted Shiite IGC member Mowaffak al-Rubaie. "I won't make decisions for you. I will help you in implementing your decision." That's exactly right — Iraqi electoral mechanics are well below the pay grade of the president of the United States.
IGC members must be made to understand that their political futures are at stake. After all, the sole issue to which IGC members have devoted sustained attention is the preservation of their own political prerogatives and prospects. Nearly all are exiles or political neophytes without any following in Iraq; and all stand to lose when the IGC goes out of business next July. They need a forceful reminder — in the universal language of interest — that appropriate roles might be found in the new Iraq for individual IGC members, but only insofar as they prove themselves helpful in the present crisis. After months of fecklessness and intransigence, the IGC's free ride is over. It's showtime.
Ayatollah Sistani, however, is not an American client whose political influence is largely a product of American patronage. But his studied coyness and polite but firm refusal to deal directly with U.S. officials are largely responsible for serious misunderstandings of his true concerns. In the absence of direct contacts, the U.S. has been forced to rely on intermediaries with their own agenda putting their own spin on the reclusive cleric's pronouncements. These include various IGC members, notably representatives of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), an Iranian-based exile group with strong ties to Iran's theocratic regime.
It may well be in Sistani's interests to keep the U.S. guessing and to preserve his own options. But his aloofness seems responsible for his own misunderstandings of U.S. aims. Barely ten weeks after the fall of Saddam's regime, Sistani expressed deep suspicions about U.S. intentions: "We feel great unease over their [U.S.] goals, and we see that it is necessary that they should make room for Iraqis to rule themselves without foreign interference." Sistani characteristically declined to spell out the grounds for his unease apart from the perceived risk of the "the obliteration of [Iraqi] culture" — which he views as synonymous with Islam.
Sistani does not refuse in principle to meet with foreign officials. He met with the late Sergio de Mello, the U.N.'s top man in Iraq, in a transparent piece of political triangulation with America's determined institutional adversary. But until recent days, Sistani declined every request for direct communication with Ambassador Paul Bremer. Whether his first response to Bremer — described in Tuesday's Washington Post as "conciliatory" but firm on the subject of elections — will establish a badly needed direct channel remains to be seen.
Also remaining to be seen is whether a clearing of the air will result in a meeting of the minds — especially in regard to Iraq's interim constitution and political architecture. The U.S. needs to make clear to all hands that its commitment to Iraq's political development is not unconditional or unlimited. Congress in particular will almost certainly balk at subsidizing the indirect theocracy that SCIRI and Dawa (another Islamist party) seem determined to impose. That's a much tougher issue than Iraqi electoral mechanics, which is capable of resolution within days. The skeletal outline of Iraq's interim constitution wisely defers the whole religion-and-state issue. By February 28 — the deadline for finalizing that instrument — the U.S. will discover if its search for a Karzai has produced a Khomeini.
John F. Cullinan is an adjunct fellow with Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom.
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