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.

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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.”

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.

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.

How Kerry could internationalize the occupation

In an April op-ed, Kerry noted that a “stable, peaceful, and pluralistic Iraq” needed to precede a democratic one. But stability in Iraq will require increased security and a better-managed reconstruction effort. On the former, Kerry may have to simply hope for the best, despite all his talk about internationalization. “Bringing in allies” will probably not work in the way commonly thought. No American president at this point is likely to sit down and convince, say, Germany or France to send more soldiers to Iraq.

It is possible that Kerry could entice non-neighboring Muslim Countries such as Malaysia and Pakistan to commit troops. Those countries, however, would only enter Iraq under the auspices of a UN command structure, which is precisely why the Bush administration rebuffed just such a plan, proposed by Saudi Arabia, in September. Kerry has hinted that he would reconsider the Saudi proposal, though it is likely that this approach would create more problems than it solves—Iraq, after all, would then have several overlapping militaries trying to maintain order, and previous UN commands in Somalia and Bosnia were not very effective. Still, militaries in countries like Pakistan, Egypt, and Malaysia can boast extensive counterinsurgency experience, and merely the presence of an international force can have a calming effect. Gen. William Nash, who led troops in Bosnia, described his experiences in the Balkans: “You look at what the troublemakers do when everybody is ganged up on them. It’s a big deal, it really is. All of the sudden, it seems like everybody is on the same side.”

Nevertheless, Kerry seems prepared to face the fact that more troops may not be forthcoming; he recently tried to explain to reporters in Tipton, Iowa, what internationalization would entail: “Now, does that mean allies are going to trade their young for our young in body bags? I know they’re not, and I understand that. What it means is that we have to get them to take on different roles.”

What different roles? As far as security goes, Kerry is not likely to get Iraqi forces trained any faster than the Bush administration would—especially after the White House recently convinced European nations to send about 3,000 NATO troops for an expanded training mission. What improvements Kerry can make on this front, then, will depend entirely on whether he can turn reconstruction around in Iraq. The poor performance of the Iraqi National Guard has largely been the result of low morale: In a country with unemployment hovering near 45 percent, too many disinterested Iraqis are signing up for a uniform solely for the paycheck.

That leaves reconstruction, and here Kerry may have an opportunity to change things around. A Kerry administration would be more likely to pressure France and Germany into providing wider debt relief for Iraq—both countries have pledged to reduce Iraq’s debt only 50 percent this year. The Bush administration has proved either unable or unwilling to make headway on this front. (Naomi Klein recently reported in The Nation that James Baker, the Bush administration’s envoy for Iraq’s debt, has held up the debt relief process while trying to strike a deal between Kuwait and his private firm, the Carlyle Group.)

European nations could also provide valuable assistance in rebuilding the country. “A lot of the countries that opposed the war were responsible for much of the construction of the original infrastructure in Iraq,” said Frederick Barton of CSIS. “There’s a lot of untapped technical expertise that’s still out there.” As yet, however, foreign countries have disbursed only $2.4 billion of the $8 billion they pledged to rebuild Iraq. (An estimated $55 billion is needed.) Bringing in other nations to rebuild Iraq may require letting foreign nations—France, Germany, and Russia especially—bid on reconstruction contracts, something Kerry has said he would do.

Why isn’t Europe pledging these things now? “Right now there is a skepticism among European countries that ‘more of the same’ is going to sort out Iraq,” says Rosemary Hollis, director of the Middle East program at Chatham House in London. Countries such as France, Germany, Belgium, and Spain are unwilling to make a strong commitment Iraq unless a president spells out a realistic exit strategy. Says Hollis: “The general sense in Europe is that Iraq is a mistake, and they would rather work for someone who thinks it is a mistake. They want to see a sensible definition of success.”

How Kerry could improve reconstruction

Throughout the campaign, Kerry has paid close attention to the need to do something different in Iraqi reconstruction. He has promised to cut ties with those corporations guilty of fraud or mismanagement, and replace those officials “responsible for mismanaging the reconstruction effort.” That’s certainly a good start. More importantly, however, Kerry recognizes the need to “draw up a list of high visibility, quick impact projects” that employed Iraqis directly. Thus far, the Bush administration has relied too heavily on American reconstruction firms, often bypassing unemployed Iraqis who would be willing to work for a fraction of the cost. “There’s too much of a focus on efficiency,” said one military official. “We would rather hire 100 Iraqis to dig a hole over an eight day period than have a U.S. firm use a backhoe to dig it in three hours.” Gen. William Nash remarked on how different the Iraq rebuilding process is from that in the Balkans: “In Bosnia my most serious problem was always with jobs. So I created a CCC-type program,” referring to a New Deal-era job creation act. “That is unfortunately what is not appreciated in this administration.”

Many of the current problems stem from a division in the Bush administration between economists who want to privatize Iraq’s state-owned industries, and military commanders who simply want to create jobs. In December 2003, Paul Bremer threw open Iraq to foreign investment, ordered the privatization of Iraq’s state-owned industries, placed a cap on income taxes, and slashed tariffs. In the short term, however, such drastic measures can lead to rapid turnover and unemployment. While the United States’ Agency of International Development (USAID) has plans to create 100,000 new public jobs, these will only make a small dent in the unemployment. “Reconstruction projects are simply not getting enough money into the hands of entrepreneurial Iraqis and large segments of the Iraqi workforce,” observes Robert Looney of the Naval Postrgraduate school. Looney notes that the current loans and microcredit programs are “dwarfed by the country’s needs.”

Despite such problems, the State Department has insisted on making privatization a key priority, having recently awarded the New Jersey-based Louis Berger Group $120 million to help privatize Iraqi state-owned enterprises. While these reforms are certainly necessary, they should not take precedence over short-term job creation measures. A Democratic administration that understands how to adapt to market failures can change all that.

On a strategic level, Kerry’s advisers have repeatedly emphasized the need for ameliorating the conditions that give rise to Islamic insurgencies. In an interview with The New Republic, Rand Beers, a Kerry national security adviser recently said, “One of the things that we will want to think about is an educational fund” to help fend off Islamic radicalism. These sorts of ideas could go far in Iraq. Kerry himself has repeatedly shown an interest in winning the ideological struggle in Iraq. “This war is a struggle for the heart and soul of the Muslim world,” Kerry recently said. “We have to win the war of ideas.”

Although Kerry has been ridiculed for his desire to conduct a “sensitive” war on terror, that worldview could translate into a huge on-the-ground advantage in Iraq. “All the Bush administration understands is force,” said one U.S. military analyst, who recently returned from Iraq. “That filters down to the troops on the ground. It’s created a whole mindset that the best way to deal with Iraqis is to beat them on the head until they agree to be liberated.” The analyst, speaking on condition of anonymity, told me that the Bush administration’s near-obsessive focus on foreign fighters like Abu Musab Zarqawi has distorted the counterinsurgency effort. “They’re equating Iraqi nationalists with lunatics like Zarqawi, and when that happens, the military isn’t going to negotiate with mainstream Sunnis.” A new president—and a new mindset—could change all that.

How Kerry could deal with Iran

The next step towards winning the peace will be to start talks with Iraq’s neighbors. Of those neighbors, Iran will pose the largest challenge for a Kerry administration. Donald Rumsfeld has repeatedly accused the country of “meddling” in Iraq, although the extent of such meddling remains unclear. “The government in Tehran certainly doesn’t want Iraq to collapse, but it probably wants to perpetuate some low-level instability,” says Ray Takeyh, an Iran expert at the Council of Foreign Relations. “More than anything else, they worry about a strong Iraqi state emerging.”

Iran is likely positioning itself to wage a guerilla war in Iraq against U.S. troops in the event of a confrontation between Tehran and Washington. Intelligence officials have often expressed fears that Iran’s security force could inflame a wider Shiite insurgency in Iraq, and a second Bush term could lead to just such a confrontation, as many administration officials have advocated an aggressive policy of regime change in Tehran. Recently, however, a task force at the Council of Foreign Relations expressed doubt that the U.S. could overthrow Iran’s hard-line government anytime soon. In that case, Kerry’s pledge to open talks with Iran on a host of issues, including Iraq, may well prove the wiser course of action.

That doesn’t mean that Kerry will be able to shut off all Iranian influence in Iraq. “That would be like trying to stop the Pope from having influence in Ireland,” says Juan Cole. But Kerry could make it worthwhile for Iran to invest in Iraq’s stability. “Right now, Iran and the U.S. want different things in Iraq—the U.S. wants stability, and Iran wants an unstable, relatively weak state. So it’s difficult to come to an accord,” says Rosemary Hollis of Chatham House in London. “But, if Iran finds that diplomatic engagement with the U.S. is worthwhile, and if they derive enough benefits from engagement, then they wouldn’t want to endanger that by fomenting instability in Iraq.”

That scenario is admittedly tenuous. But there is some evidence that Kerry could make negotiations work. “Across the political spectrum—from the hard right to whatever left there is—the Iranian press has been very respectful towards Kerry recently,” says Takeyh. “It looks like conservatives in Iran are regretting the fact that they weren’t more forthcoming with President Clinton, that they missed an opportunity to engage the United States. That’s not to say that diplomacy will succeed if Kerry were elected president, but Iran will almost certainly show a new level of willingness.”

How Kerry could deal with the Kurds

Meanwhile, a Kerry administration will have to deal with the Kurdish situation. In January, Kurdish territories will hold local elections for their own parliaments. While Kurdish officials attempt to negotiate some sort of power sharing agreement with the central government in Baghdad, there will certainly be pressure at home for Kurdistan to break away from Iraq. (One committee petitioning for a referendum on independence has claimed to have garnered over a million signatures.)

To date, little attention has been paid to the Kurds. “The Bush administration seems clueless about the whole issue of Kurdish autonomy,” said Mike Amitay, Executive Director of the Washington Kurdish Institute. “There is a better way to handle the Kurds, involving a multilateral approach that demonstrates some understanding of the situation.” Amitay suggested that a new administration could facilitate Kurdish semi-autonomy through an international summit, by sitting down with Kurdish leaders, as well as Turkey and Iran, and laying out mutual security assurances that guaranteed an autonomous Kurdistan would not destabilize the region.

Unfortunately, the Bush administration has refused to negotiate with Iran on any front, and Ankara has become increasingly hostile to the United States after botched negotiations before the invasion for Turkish involvement. There are some indications that a Kerry administration could do better: Mustafa Kibaroglu, a professor at Bilkent University in Ankara, has argued that the Clinton administration “made remarkable efforts to mend the differences between the two Kurdish leaders” while Clinton’s diplomacy “created positive feelings” among the Turkish parliament. Kerry’s foreign policy staff is filled with Clinton administration veterans who could go far in mending the divide between Ankara and Washington.

Diplomacy of this sort will come in handy in dealing with Kirkuk, an oil-rich city in northern Iraq that is quickly becoming a flashpoint for a larger regional war. In the 1970s and ’80s, Saddam Hussein expelled some quarter of a million Kurds from Kirkuk and repopulated the city with ethnic Arabs. Since the 2003 invasion, however, Kurds have been emigrating back to Kirkuk en masse, trying to form an ethnic majority before January elections so that they can vote to add the province to the autonomous Kurdish region. Already some 50,000 ethnic Arabs and Turkomen have been expelled from the city. Turkey, concerned for the rights of Turks and Turkomen in Kirkuk, have issued repeated warnings over the migrations. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently told Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani that there would be “serious consequences” for any drastic change in Kirkuk’s demographics. Barzani, for his part, announced that the Kurds “are ready to fight” for their rights in Kirkuk.

Thus far, the Bush administration has largely ignored the entire situation. The Pentagon did set up the Iraqi Property Claims Commission back in 2003 to evaluate property claims and set up some sort of compensation process. To date, however, no claims have been decided. According to David L. Philips, a Kurdish expert who worked closely with the State Department on its Future of Iraq project, “That decision, not to move forward with the commission, has exacerbated tensions in Iraq. The Bush administration doesn’t understand what’s going on there at all.”

Has the Bush administration ever understand ethnic tensions in Iraq? In March 2003, George Packer reported in the New York Times Magazine that when exiles tried to brief Bush on the differences between Sunnis and Shiites, the whole concept of an Iraqi opposition “appeared new to him”. Thus far, the Bush administration has made little effort to avoid ethnic tensions in Iraq. The military has used Kurdish peshmerga fighters to combat Arab insurgents in Fallujah, Ramadi, and, reportedly, Turkmen insurgents in Tal Afar, leading to a flare-up in ethnic hatred. After a joint Kurdish-Marines incursion into Fallujah in April, one Fallujan told the Washington Post, “I will send my brothers north to kill the Kurds.”

If anything calls out for a more “sensitive,” Kerry-esque approach, it is this. Ultimately, Kirkuk may need to be placed under international supervision. A UN resolution could force the Kurds to compromise on Kirkuk; the U.S. certainly can’t resolve the issue on its own. “The Kurds won’t listen to the U.S. anymore,” said Mike Amitay of the Washington Kurdish Institute. “The U.S. may be gone in five years time, while the Kurds are looking at long-term considerations.” In that case, John Kerry’s eagerness to work through international law could go far to help stabilize Kirkuk and prevent both ethnic violence and regional war. Staying the course simply isn’t working.

Prospects for Success

No one should assume that Iraq will be okay, no matter who is president. As a Kerry adviser told David Corn of The Nation, “There’s a chance Kerry’s approach won’t work and will be a fiasco, and we will end up staying in for a year or so longer than we should have.” That understates the case: There is a real chance that Iraq could descend into civil war, dragging its neighbors in and igniting a larger regional conflict—a conflict, note, that could drive oil prices through the roof and buckle the global economy. A failed Iraq could become a haven for a new generation of Islamic jihad groups.

Neither Bush nor Kerry is guaranteed to fix all of these problems. But Kerry’s vision for reconstruction, his commitment to diplomacy, and his willingness to face the reality of the situation is commendable. If anyone can prevent a bad situation from becoming worse, he can.


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