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What Kerry Can Do In Iraq

Cleaning up Bush's mess won't be easy. But Kerry has some good ideas for Iraq, and they just might work.

| Wed Oct. 27, 2004 2:00 AM EDT

The question everyone seems to be asking these days is what John Kerry would do in Iraq, if elected. How would he prevent the country from imploding? How would he get us out of this mess? Thus far, Kerry's "plan" for Iraq—asking our European allies to help us out, speeding up training of Iraqi forces, relying less on American contractors—has garnered a tepid response. Critics have been quick to note that Kerry has basically promised to do more or less what the Bush administration is already doing, only somehow to do it better. As Tony Karon, a columnist for Time, recently wrote, "It's hard to disagree with Vice President Cheney's sneer that Kerry and Edwards have simply packaged the administration's current efforts as their own plan."

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That isn't quite fair. True, there are few good options left in Iraq, and a Kerry approach isn't likely to differ all that drastically from the current one. And true, Kerry's one supposed trump card—bringing in allied troops—isn't likely to happen. But the options available to a Kerry administration would go far beyond merely cozying up to France and Germany. From negotiating security deals with Iraq's neighbors to shaking up the reconstruction process, Kerry would find himself in a position to do a few things that the Bush administration hasn't done. It won't be easy, and there's certainly a chance that he could fail. But Kerry has a shot at fixing Iraq, and it's is time to take a look at what a Kerry plan would really entail.

What Kerry will face

If elected, Kerry will face a now-familiar bevy of problems in Iraq. Sunni and Shiite insurgencies have dragged the country into chaos, bringing reconstruction to a virtual halt. Although the recent military sweeps into Samarra and other insurgent strongholds appear promising, even these operations will depend on the Iraqi National Guard's readiness to control the cities. That in itself is a problem: According to the State Department's most recent Iraq Weekly Update, only 39,041 out of a "required" 135,000 Iraqi soldiers have been trained, and of those only 8,000 have gone through the full eight-week training.

Such concerns led Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to admit recently that Iraq's January elections might be held in only "three-fifths" of the country. Yet if elections proceed without cities such as Fallujah or Ramadi, thousands of Iraqi Sunnis would be disenfranchised, which could in turn trigger an even wider uprising. Unfortunately, the interim government is in no position to delay elections—Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the spiritual leader of the Iraqi Shiites, has demanded that elections take place as scheduled.

At present, then, coalition forces have limited themselves to clearing out insurgent strongholds in the hope that elections can proceed somewhat peacefully. That certainly sounds good; but it's worth noting that, even if Iraq does proceed with elections, the real problems have yet to emerge. The new government will need to draft a constitution that protects minority rights. If the elected National Assembly is dominated by Iraq's majority Shia population, as is likely, it will no doubt move for a strong centralized government. In that case, Iraqi Sunnis might rebel out of fear of being marginalized. The Iraqi Kurds, for their part, have asked for greater autonomy; if Shiite leaders refused, the Kurds could easily declare war or secede. Meanwhile, Kurds are flocking back into the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, from which they were expelled under Saddam Hussein, and displacing hundreds of Iraqi Arabs and Turkomen. Ethnic conflict in Kirkuk could easily explode into a larger war that might provoke Turkey to intervene. It's no wonder that a July National Intelligence Estimate prepared by CIA noted that the possibilities for Iraq's future ranged from "tenuous stability" at best to "civil war "at worst.

Kerry's structural advantages

What would a Kerry presidency bring to the table in Iraq? Above all a renewed commitment to competence. It is difficult to imagine that his administration could possibly make as many mistakes as the Bush administration. From the start, the Pentagon ignored State Department plans for the postwar occupation, expecting instead that the Iraqi people would "greet us as liberators," as Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz predicted in 2003. This disdain for expertise continued throughout the occupation, as the Coalition Provisional Authority was stacked with political appointees rather than actual experts, and fatal decisions such as disbanding the Iraqi army were made over the objections of military personnel.

The advisers in Kerry's inner circle, by contrast, are known for prizing competence and facts over mere ideology. Consider Richard Holbrooke, who is on the short list for Secretary of State in a Kerry administration. When tasked with managing the occupation in Bosnia during the 1990s, Holbrooke "scoured the Foreign Service, the military, and the civilian bureaucracy for experts who knew the Balkans, who could speak the local language, and who could do the jobs for which they were recruited," according to then-Croatian ambassador Peter Galbraith.

Kerry has shown himself ready to fire people and replace staff who can not get the job done. One of the most bewildering aspects of Bush's handling of postwar Iraq has been his reluctance to fire anyone for incompetence. The disastrous tenure of Iraq's first proconsul, Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, ended only after he opposed White House plans for the rapid privatization of Iraq's industries. Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, who was responsible for overseeing Abu Ghraib, is quietly being considered for a promotion. There is every reason to think this pattern would end under a Kerry administration—the Democrat has already called on the president to "fire civilians in the Pentagon responsible for mismanaging the reconstruction effort," and he is well-known for replacing advisers who don't measure up.

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