Friday, April 25, 2003

The other night (a sleepless night because of impending illness, stress and other factors), I flipped on CSpan and found myself mesmerized by a press conference with Kanan Makiya, an Iraqi exile, scholar and member of the Iraqi National Congress who has also been writing for The New Republic of late. He had just returned from the confab in Nasariyah, and I have to say that I found it impossible to stop listening to this quietly authoritative, intelligent man.

Here's a piece he has on the situation in the newest TNR, but I think the link requires a not-free registration. Too bad. His point is that the situation is miserable in Iraq, but he found the INC meeting very hopeful, but also that the situation is shifting very rapidly, and the US response has been inadequate because of poor planning and intra-Administration disagreements:

In Iraq, the world's most powerful military has crushed the hated rule of a despot. When U.S. Marines reached Baghdad, Iraqis cheered. Barely two weeks later, however, what Iraqis see before them is a foreign army that has de facto control over their country but has not facilitated the reconstitution of basic order. There is a naïve belief stalking some corridors of power in Washington today that, since the United States has liberated Iraq, it can now stand aside and let 100 flowers bloom. This, supposedly, is democracy. Iraqis have no idea what to make of this bizarre conception. And, as confusion and disorder grow, creating a power vacuum, some of the most dangerous and illiberal groups in Iraq are amassing power.

The severity of the problem hit me when I entered Iraq last Monday. Along with some colleagues from the Iraqi National Congress (INC), I was riding with a convoy from Kuwait and transporting supplies to the 700 fighters of the Free Iraqi Forces (FIF) based outside of Nasiriya, supervised by Ahmed Chalabi of the INC. No sooner had we crossed the border than we were besieged by hordes of children. They were desperate for water and food, standing in the road so we couldn't drive past without heeding their pleas. Never have I felt so conflicted. I soon found myself in an exchange with one young boy who had to be convinced I was a fellow Iraqi. I had been gone for more years than he could comprehend. I found myself telling him about the schools I had attended, the family I came from, the books I had written. One of his friends started pointing at the military supplies we were hauling and musing aloud about what he'd like to have. The crux of the problem was that, in the absence of my ability to help them (I could not empty the vehicle of supplies), they grew suspicious, and then hostile. How, after all, can someone powerful enough to drive in a convoy be powerless to provide food or water? This, I realized, is how they see the United States.

Currently, no means of providing law and order in Iraq's cities exist--a small but critical step on the road to a democratic Iraq. CENTCOM has repeatedly said that its ongoing combat requirements supercede any police function it might possibly provide. As a result, looting has happened under the noses of American fighters, prompting confusion among Iraqis who want order and do not understand why heavily armed Americans cannot provide it.

The lack of civil authority has been accompanied by a remarkable mistake by CENTCOM: It has allowed the eastern border of Iraq to remain open. As a result, thousands of people have been trucked into Iraq from Iran in recent weeks, mainly to provide support for hard-line Shia clerics who have stepped into the power vacuum and are rallying shocked Iraqis around them. As a result, new radical Muslim groups are developing local support, surpassing in power the older, long-standing fundamentalist group Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). If American forces, helped by Iraqis, had shut the eastern border, policed Baghdad and southern cities, and helped restore law and order, this could have been avoided. Even now, there is still time: If the United States moves to close the border with Iran and checks entrances to Baghdad and other cities, they can reverse this dangerous influx. But time is short.

The absence of civil authority has also had an effect on American forces. In the south, I encountered few checkpoints, and people were free to go as they pleased. Consequently, soldiers appeared nervous, constantly fingering their weapons because they feared some of the Iraqis moving around might want to hurt them. In an unfamiliar country, unable to speak the language, confronted by occasional outbursts of anger, they are poorly equipped to distinguish friend from foe and are wary of becoming targets.

....For the sake of Iraqi democracy and U.S. security, Washington needs to immediately stop putting off the difficult decisions about Iraqi political authority. The difficult choice the United States has to make is between effectiveness and representativeness. If it wants to create an effective peace in Iraq that can pave the way for a liberal constitution and elections, it needs to allow a liberal Iraqi leadership to emerge, stay involved in Iraq (rather than moving troops out), close the border with Iran, and promote a group of Iraqis--both exiles and internals--who can serve as a police force and eliminate the security vacuum that exists today and benefits the Islamists. If it favors instant representativeness--the appearance of allowing all Iraqis, no matter how incapable and illiberal, to quickly have a role in politics--if it reduces its troop presence, if it does not foster law and order, it will leave the country in a chaos that breeds the worst kind of intolerant politics. I did not return home for that.

Other good stuff in the issue:

Peter Maass on the Shi'ites:

A few days after American troops entered Baghdad, I went to Saddam City, a sprawling slum inhabited almost exclusively by Shia Muslims. But, by the time I got there, Saddam City was gone. Yes, the people were still there, as was the poverty--the kids playing barefoot soccer on dirt lots and the young men carrying AK-47 assault rifles. But it was Saddam City no longer. THIS IS SADR CITY, announced a spray-painted sign as I drove into the slum, renamed for Sheik Mohammed Sadek Al Sadr, who was killed along with two of his sons in 1999 for speaking out against Saddam Hussein. Another sign welcomed me to REVOLUTION CITY.

My first stop was the local hospital, which was surrounded by gunmen and presided over by an imam who refused entry to my colleagues and me. Our next stop was a nearby mosque, but the gunman at the entrance told us we could not speak to the imam and told my interpreter that Western journalists only tell lies. We then went to El Hekmah, the main mosque in the slum. The gunmen there were not warm, either, though a mid-level cleric agreed to speak with me outside the mosque for a few minutes. He told me they were under orders not to talk to journalists. As we chatted, a stream of stern-faced imams came and went, all of them surrounded by the sort of no-nonsense gunmen with whom you do not mess unless you have a death wish.

Although Iraqi police and American troops had begun foot patrols in other parts of Baghdad, they were nowhere to be seen in Saddam/Sadr/Revolution City. That's true throughout Shia population centers in Iraq. In Karbala, which contains the holiest Shia shrines, and Najaf, home to the main Shia seminary, the imams are in control. The gunmen are theirs, the hospitals are theirs, the banks are theirs, the streets are theirs.

Peter Beinart on Iraq and freedom:

Nothing makes me more nervous about the future of Iraq than hearing Bush officials declare that its people are free. Donald Rumsfeld said so six times in his post-looting "freedom's untidy" press conference on April 11. A few days later, President Bush told a crowd in St. Louis that, "Thanks to the courage and might of our military, the Iraqi people are now free."

No, they're not. The president and the defense secretary are playing a semantic game. Just because the Iraqi people are free from Saddam Hussein doesn't mean they're free. Freedom, after all, is not just the absence of centralized dictatorship. If it were, the Somali people would have been free in 1991, when they overthrew the tyrant Mohammed Siad Barre and saw anarchy and starvation follow in his wake. Political theory 101 says that, while people might be theoretically free in the absence of an effective sovereign, that freedom has little real meaning. And, today in Iraq, there is still no effective sovereign--there is only the strongest guy on your particular block. If he's an American soldier, you may indeed enjoy the beginnings of freedom. But, given how thinly American forces are stretched, most blocks don't have a GI; they have a cleric with a gun. And many of those clerics have about as much respect for individual liberty as Mullah Omar.

Why does it matter that Bush and Rumsfeld are overstating what the United States has thus far achieved? Because in the coming months there will be enormous pressure to declare political victory and get out--before the foundations for real Iraqi freedom have been established. If the president says that, with a new, decent government, Iraqis can become free, he implicitly tells Americans that our work there is only beginning. If he says Iraqis are already free, he implicitly tells Americans that our work there is done.