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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 effect of a shake-up purely for the sake of shaking things up cannot be discounted. "One of the thing that worries me the most is that we're throwing a phenomenal amount of resources at the problem in Iraq, but it's still business as usual," says Frederick Barton, co-director of the Post-Conflict Reconstruction Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). "We've got to break the old bureaucratic patterns, look for more entrepreneurial solution. A new president could do that."

Kerry could start by drawing military commanders more fully into the decision-making process. Donald Rumsfeld's civilian advisers in the Defense Department are famous for micromanaging military affairs, often overriding the recommendations of senior Pentagon planners on the Joint Staff. "I think there's been some muzzling of the military of late," said retired Maj. Gen. William Nash, who commanded an armored brigade in the 1991 Gulf War and led troops in Bosnia. "With a new administration, we could see the dialogue open up into something more legitimate and useful. That won't make everything wonderful in Iraq, but there's a better chance of improvement with an open debate."

How Kerry could help Iraq negotiate its constitution

Once he has his administration in place, Kerry will need to deal with post-election Iraq almost immediately, as the elected National Assembly starts discussing a new constitution. Kurdish leaders have already declared their intention to unite the six northern provinces of Iraq into an autonomous Kurdish "superprovince". Shiite leaders like Moqtada al-Sadr and Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, meanwhile, favor a strong central government that would make Islamic law the law of the land. Depending on how elections turn out, the National Assembly could well be stacked with Sunni and Shiite fundamentalists, making for difficult talks with the more secular Kurds. Meanwhile, if Sunnis in the central provinces fail to get adequate representation, or fear domination at the hands of a Shiite majority, they could restart an insurgency against the central government, triggering either continued violence or outright civil war.

The United States will need to tread very carefully in these negotiations. "A heavy-handed American presence could have very negative effects," said Marina Ottaway, a democracy specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP). Ottaway stressed that the only way transitional democracies ever succeed is through a process of negotiation among local political actors. "If you look at the Transitional Administrative Law, Paul Bremer was incredibly concerned with having a document that enshrined basic principles of human rights, set up a democratic framework. That to me is not productive. Anyone who has lived in a third world country knows that a constitution is just a piece of paper unless it has a real process of bargaining and negotiations behind it."

Yet a number of experts think that Iraq can hardly be expected to work out their differences among themselves. Juan Cole, a history professor at the University of Michigan, sounded a skeptical note: "Look, every group in Iraq thinks that they've been martyred for the last 50 years, and now that they have a chance at power, they think they're finally going to get theirs. Shiites have no sympathy for Kurdish desires for semi-autonomy. Sunnis have no sympathy for Shiite claims to majority rule. And so on." In that case, the UN may need to play a role in mediating discussions between Iraqi leaders. But to make that happen, a Kerry administration would need to convince Iraqis, and Shiite leaders especially, that the UN is a disinterested party, and that U.S. has no long-term designs on the region. As Juan Cole told me, "The only way the UN will be allowed to take a large role in Iraq is if Sistani invites them in, as when he got Lakhdar Brahimi to help pick the interim government."

Kerry, fortunately, seems to understand how delicate the process is. In an April interview with The New York Times, Kerry observed, "We are [in Iraq] to some measure by the grace of Ayatollah Sistani and the Shia. And if on one instant, on one morning, they wake up and say 'It's over,' we've got a serious problem." Throughout the occupation, the Bush administration and Paul Bremer betrayed a stark ignorance of Shiite politics by trying to outmaneuver Sistani, who can summon thousands of Shiites to the street at a word. Even now, the White House is backing its handpicked interim government officials in the January elections, at the risk of marginalizing Sistani and other Shiite religious leaders.

What could Kerry do differently? In the first presidential debate, Kerry offered one simple way to allay some Shiite fears, by promising to make a "flat statement" that "the U.S. has no long-term designs on Iraq." As Jessica Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment, notes, U.S. leaders need a policy that "takes deadly seriously what Iraqis believe about why the war began and what the United States intends." Polls show that Iraqis believe that the U.S. invaded Iraq to control the country's oil, to build a series of permanent military bases, and install a puppet government. If Kerry could reverse that perception, Mathews explained, Iraqis may start to trust the U.S. to act as an honest broker, and "we might begin to see a larger multilateral commitment to Iraq's future."

Perhaps most importantly, Kerry seems to have a grasp of what sorts of political arrangements are actually possible in Iraq. Bush, for his part, seems to believe that democracy is the natural state of affairs, that Iraqis naturally yearn to be free. But this belief, right or wrong, has led the administration to ignore many of the gritty details that actually allow a democratic government to take root. As Ottaway notes, there has been no process of deliberation between all of the political actors in Iraq—nothing like the loya jirgas in Afghanistan. Kerry was right when he recently told Matt Bai of the New York Times Magazine, "You can't impose [democracy] on people. You have to bring them to it. You have to invite them to it. You have to nurture the process." That mindset will be far better suited for the early stages the fragile democratic process in Iraq.

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