All Writings
April 26, 2004

A Disaster In The Making

I do not mean to be a prophet of doom, but as an Iraqi with some grasp of the psyche of a people who, tormented for so long, have throughout their history shown intense disdain for foreigners, I strongly suggest that the Bush administration reconsider its Iraqi policy. Iraq will not become a democratic state by a fatwa from Washington: "Thou shall become a democratic state by July 1." And the Iraqi people will not after that date be manipulated into enduring a government subservient to our whims. The Bush administration, thus far, has demonstrated utter ignorance about who the Iraqi people really are: their history, culture, tribal politics, and religious divergence have been brushed aside. Policies that continue to be based on ignorance will sow the seeds of disaster.

From the day we invaded Iraq, we made repeated mistakes and held on to many assumptions without any basis in reality. The string of mistakes has continued, culminating in the current escalation of violence. One of these mistakes was to disband the entire Iraqi army and than attempt to maintain order without the help of experienced officers. Another bad mistake was to fire Iraqis who were Ba'ath members in name only, especially bureaucrats and professionals such as teachers, doctors, and engineers. To close the newspaper of Moktadah Asder without carefully considering the consequences was also a terrible mistake. To encircle Falluja and impose a curfew in preparation for actions against the insurgents who killed contract workers, without first consulting tribal leaders and coordinating our efforts with them was a stupid mistake. To use brutal force to suppress the insurgents, causing residents to flee the city was one more mistake. And to try to make decisions on Iraq based on American election-year politics was and is a terrible mistake. The president and his advisors may find comfort in suggesting that the escalation of violence in Iraq is driven by the deadline for the transfer of power; but this is simply another mistaken assumption: the current violence is only a prelude to what's to come after the transfer.

The administration is also under an illusion if it, as it seems to, takes as permanent the relative cooperation currently extended by Ayatollah Sestani. The Shiite majority will rise up the moment some political development occurs that seems contrary to, or inconsistent with, their interests. We have already seen a higher level of cooperation than ever before between the Sunnis and the Shiites when the Sunnis came under severe American attack. Regardless of their historic animosity, the Shiites will come to the Sunnis' aid and will fight with them hand-in-hand because there is increasing disillusionment with the occupation among the general population, and, consequently, a growing sympathy with the insurgents, if not outright cooperation, as the sense of personal insecurity deepens. We must not aggravate the situation by invading Falluja. For the same reason, we must also stay clear of the city of Nejaf. Even inadvertent damage to Shiite holy shrines because of violence in that city will effectively dissolve what remains of Shiite tolerance of the occupation. To try to kill or capture Moktadah Asder, who may not be personally popular but whose message strikes a popular chord, will make an otherwise inconsequential cleric a symbol of resistence to the occupation. We must now commit ourselves to a negotiated settlement. The Iraqis understand American power and resolve only too well. We do not need to show off our prowess at every turn; in other words, we do not have to flatten Falluja to prove our point. Although it is necessary to use force when we are actually threatened, applying it in Falluja to eliminate insurgents must be absolutely a last resort. Nothing will undermine our position more than the notion that we consider ourselves too powerful to be bound by the norms of conduct we so readily require others to follow.

While continuing to press for the least violent outcome, we must forge a new political strategy that will eventually culminate in the true liberation of Iraq. For example, from all over Iraq Sunni sheiks are streaming toward Falluja, hoping to avert disaster there. We should use their good offices to negotiate a peaceful end to this crisis. In addition, although there is no love lost between the Bush administration and the UN, and the relationship with NATO's two leading members, France and Germany, remains strained, we must ask these two institutions for help in forging a political solution. While taking credit for removing a brutal dictator, Mr. Bush must turn over the governing of Iraq to the UN, and to NATO the task of taking charge of the country's security. Obviously, such transfers of authority will not work unless we allow both organizations to exercise real power. Although we must relinquish some control, we will still exercise substantial leverage in shaping events in Iraq because we are a major force in each organization. And we must recognize that we only become stronger when working in concert with allies that share our values.

Almost exactly one year ago, the president stood on the deck of the carrier Abraham Lincoln, a huge banner behind him proclaiming our mission accomplished, and declared the end of major operations in Iraq. That premature victory statement, and the theatrical trappings that accompanied it, underscore how little this administration knew about the Iraqi people then. Events in Iraq today show how much it still does not want to learn. Certainly, most Iraqis desire freedom and prosperity, but they do not want American-style democracy that fits our needs, not theirs, shoved down their throats by some decree backed up by brutal force. The only viable option is to internationalize the process to help the Iraqis develop their own brand of democracy. Unless this administration devises a sound exit strategy like this, the current violence will seem a prelude of the bloodbath that will engulf Iraq.