Rebuilding Iraq

American officials are squabbling over how to put post-Saddam Iraq back together again. The fate of the entire region may rest on whether they get it right.

Topics: Iraq, Middle East

Rebuilding Iraq

Two dueling models for rebuilding post-Saddam Iraq are being touted in Washington. The first — call it the “clean sweep” program — is the favorite among the highly ideological, pro-war civilian leadership of the Defense Department: Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, Undersecretary Douglas Feith, Richard Perle of the Defense Policy Board (a civilian group that advises the secretary of defense) and others. The second model, advanced by the State Department, is sometimes referred to as “head transplant.” To judge by the rhetoric swirling around these two options, Washington has become an upside-down, inside-out wonderland, where fanatically conservative hawks have started talking like old-time, starry-eyed ’70s progressives.

Little is known about the administration’s plans for postwar Iraq, but signs so far suggest the neocons are winning the peace — that is, if there will be any peace to win. The current preparations to establish an American civilian administration, run by retired Gen. Jay Garner under the military leadership of Gen. Tommy Franks, bypass the rest of the world, most notably the United Nations. That fits into the neocons’ hopes to hand over the running of the nation to an interim Iraqi government with a minimum of interference from outside.

On Tuesday, the British newspaper the Guardian reported that Wolfowitz had been given a relatively free hand in appointing key “Iraqi advisors” to the American leadership of the postwar interim Iraqi government being assembled in Kuwait. Some of his appointments have been made over the head of Garner, who is officially in charge.

In the neoconservatives’ vision, a democratic and economically vibrant Iraq will spread reform throughout the Middle East — the “democracy domino” theory. In a Feb. 28 speech at the American Enterprise Institute, President Bush signaled his support for this notion, saying that setting up an exemplary government in Iraq will lead to changes in other Arab nations and “show the power of freedom to that vital region.”

Some moderate commentators, like New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, have cautiously embraced this theory. But in order for Iraq to be an example, it must first be put back together after a war that is clearly going to be longer, harder and more destructive than the Pentagon’s initial estimates.

Central to the neocon reconstruction strategy is the concept of “federalism.” Writing in the March 17 issue of the New Republic, Lawrence F. Kaplan, coauthor with William Kristol of the pro-invasion book “The War Over Iraq,” declared that “Iraqi federalism amounts to a precondition for Iraqi democracy.” And, indeed, federalism — that is, the distribution of power among the country’s various regions, much as governmental power is distributed to the states in the U.S. — appeals to most Iraq hands. “It sounds like a good idea,” says Sandra MacKey, author of “The Reckoning: Iraq and the Legacy of Saddam Hussein.” “But the devil’s in the details.”

In opposition to this noble-sounding plan is what Kaplan decries as the State Department’s anti-democratic intention to “retain a unitary central government in Baghdad,” bolstered by the presence of a U.S. military governor who will rule the country for up to two years, hopefully transferring power to a U.N. administrator at some point. As for the reconstruction project, Kaplan complains that “the Iraqis to whom American officials anticipate delegating this responsibility will mostly be former employees of Saddam Hussein.” The State Department’s fixation on maintaining a central authority, Kaplan argues, has led to “a modest and halfhearted plan for the removal of Saddam loyalists.” State’s blueprint for “de-Baathification” (the purging from Iraq’s power structure of all members of Saddam’s Baath party) is, Kaplan complains, meant to be “neither deeply nor widely” implemented.

That does sound like the old-fashioned, Cold War-style strategic meddling in the affairs of foreign nations that the American left deplored during the late 20th century. In the classic State Department realpolitik quest for stability above all, the “new boss” could well look a lot like the old one. The goal of such neocons as Wolfowitz and Feith, on the other hand, is to see to it that, in Kaplan’s words, “the levers of Iraqi power [are] turn[ed] over to the country’s democratic exiles within months.” Sounds better, right? But appearances can be deceptive.

Iraq is a synthetic, patchwork state, cobbled together by the British in the early 20th century from bits and pieces of the newly defunct Ottoman Empire. It consists, as many Americans know by now, of three large groups: the non-Arab Kurds in the northeast, an Arab Shia Muslim majority spread over the nation but concentrated in the south, and a ruling Arab Sunni Muslim minority who mostly live in the nation’s center. (There are quite a few smaller ethnic and religious groups as well.) Many observers have worried that, minus the tyrannical but strong leader it had in Saddam, Iraq will splinter into warring groups as Yugoslavia did after the demise of Tito. “Only it will be worse than Yugoslavia,” says Dilip Hiro, author of “Iraq: In the Eye of the Storm,” a book critical of the United States’ Iraq policy, “because Yugoslavia didn’t have oil or powerful neighbors.”

Federalism, in its ideal form, promises representation for each group without allowing any one faction to completely dominate the fundamental rights of the others. The threat of reprisals in the wake of Saddam’s ouster is very real, says Hiro. “The Shiites have been sat upon since about 1638 and naturally they’ll want to get even with the Sunni, who have treated them as second-class citizens.” Some of the Shia uprisings following the 1991 Gulf War consisted of just such violent score-settling.

Under “a federal political structure,” writes Kaplan, “different regions of the country would enjoy a measure of autonomy.” But that’s federalism in its ideal form, and ideals are hard to come by in Iraq. Who will represent the interests of each group while this glorious new federal government is being designed? Any emerging and potentially challenging leaders have been brutally eliminated by Saddam during the decades of his totalitarian rule. Neocons and left-wing hawks like Christopher Hitchens point to the blossoming in recent years of self-governance in the semi-autonomous Kurdish regions of the north, but the rest of the nation, the predominantly Arab portions of it, has little experience with self-rule that transcends traditional, bellicose tribal affiliations.

The neocons’ idealistic talk of democracy and freedom arouses skepticism from some longtime Mideast observers. William B. Quandt, professor of politics at the University of Virginia, says, “There used to be a view, conservative and culturally deterministic, that said that the Arabs are not cut out for democracy. That used to be the conservative line. Now, and somewhat correctly, people say that’s patronizing; you can’t condemn a whole people to dictatorship because of their religion. The thing is, this is all meant to sound more open-minded, but it’s being said by people who have never before shown any sympathy at all for the Arab world. I’ve never seen these people in the debate [about Arab democracy] before. Suddenly, they’re rosy-eyed optimists.”

But the hawks’ newfound passion for Iraqi democracy makes more sense when you understand who they’d like to see installed as the interim Iraqi leaders in charge of setting up that new democracy. Asked who he envisions running the new Iraq at a March 21 panel discussion at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, Richard Perle said, “I have a personal preference, and it’s for the Iraqi National Congress and its leader, Ahmed Chalabi.” Chalabi, his nephew and other INC members are among Wolfowitz’s proposed appointees to the interim Iraq government, according to the Guardian.

The INC is a squabbling band of Iraqi exiles led by the well-dressed and well-spoken Chalabi. With the exception of the two Kurdish representatives in its ranks, the INC has no real constituency inside Iraq. Furthermore, Chalabi, a businessman who was convicted of embezzlement in Jordan, is considered to be — by all but his staunch neocon supporters — something of a rascal. Retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni once disparaged Chalabi and his INC colleagues as “silk-suited, Rolex-wearing guys in London.” Most of the INC’s members, like Chalabi, who left Iraq when he was a child, have not set foot in the country in years.

Where Chalabi has spent a lot of time, however, is in Washington, where he has ingratiated himself with pro-Israel officials and members of Congress. (He has been friends with Perle, intellectual guru of the neoconservatives, for years.) David Wurmser, special assistant in the State Department and another neocon hawk, told the Jewish newspaper the Forward in 1998 that, once in power, Chalabi would extend a no-fly, no-drive zone in northern Iraq, thereby providing Israel with key protection from Syria and Iran. “It puts Scuds out of the range of Israel,” he said. (In fact, neither the Israeli nor the U.S. government expects the new Iraqi government to have good relations with Israel; both will be content with an Iraq that no longer threatens the Jewish state, according to an article in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.)

“I hope that people understand that a large measure of this war is being fought for Israel,” says MacKey. In fact, even the neocons’ new commitment to Arab democracy has its utilitarian aspect, to judge by a March 21 Wall Street Journal article by Robert S. Greenberger and Karby Leggett. The story traces the roots of the drive to replace Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship with a democratic regime to both the Project for a New American Century, a neocon think tank, and the Israeli Institute of Policy and Strategy. Uzi Arad, director of the institute and a former advisor to former Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, researched the causes of war and concluded that “democracies do not attack democracies.” Since there’s no sign of a pro-American, pro-Israeli Arab democracy rising up on its own anywhere in the Middle East anytime soon, the neocons are determined to make one from scratch.

Yet how “democratic” would an INC government in Iraq be? “The exiles are the people who left Iraq because they had the money to do it,” says MacKey. “The people they left behind had to suffer the Saddam regime. They’re not going to tolerate the INC as their government.” Nor is Chalabi’s support for Israel and close ties to Likudnik American neocons likely to endear him to Iraq’s Arab population. The more Baath Party members who are purged from Iraq’s extensive administrative bureaucracy, the more slots there are to pack with the beneficiaries of American and INC patronage, but those administrators are unlikely to know much about running the nation. The neocons present their “democracy now” plan as a way of keeping U.S. involvement in Iraq brief and minimal, but it’s hard to see how an INC-led government could hold power for long without a lot of American muscle to back it up.

By contrast, the State Department’s grim-sounding “head transplant” plan starts to look better, especially in the face of greater-than-expected Iraqi resistance to U.S. efforts to refurbish their government. “It makes a whole lot more sense,” says MacKey. “Even throughout Saddam’s reign, Iraq has had a pretty good bureaucracy. The whole area will already be so destabilized that anything you have that can maintain order would help. Iraq’s bureaucracy has always administered the [U.N.] oil-for-food program. Why tear that down?”

According to Jon Alterman from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “the fundamental question is, to what extent do you rely on the existing structure and which parts of it? [The existing structure] administers the water and sanitation, the electricity, the policing duties … There’s an attraction to not building everything from scratch from the outside. What if it’s not better than it was before? And if you build it from scratch, well, what makes you so good at that? How many Americans who speak Arabic does the U.S. even have available to work on this?” He passes on a joke making the rounds among those who advocate less radical change in post-Saddam Iraq: “You can’t throw the baby out with the Baath Party.”

And then there’s the question of oil. The kind of strong, centralized government advocated by the State Department tends to accompany an economy dependent on revenues from a nationalized oil industry. That’s not a good recipe for democracy and civil society. A government that owns the nation’s source of wealth distributes those resources to dependent and therefore passive citizens, while a government funded by taxes levied on wealth generated by its people tends to treat citizens like customers who must be pleased. “There are not a lot of checks” on government power in petro-rich states, Alterman acknowledges. Nevertheless, Iraq needs to get the most from its oil wealth if it wants to rebuild.

Decentralization might be appealing, but it’s hard to pull off in a country that gets the majority of its revenue from oil exports, and the possible repercussions of decentralization on Iraq’s oil business are murky. The conservative Heritage Foundation recently commissioned a study by Ariel Cohen and Gerald O’Driscoll that calls for the “massive, orderly and transparent privatization of state-owned enterprises [in Iraq], especially the restructuring and privatization of the oil sector.” (Chalabi is said to support such plans.)

Privatizing Iraq’s oil industry would possibly help the federalism project, but it could also benefit foreign oil companies. Protests from Iraqis and the Western left that the current war is a cynical attempt by the U.S. government to grab Iraq’s oil for American oil companies are partly mistaken — simply lifting the U.N. sanctions would have accomplished that. But a privatized and fragmented Iraqi oil industry would have less bargaining power, and foreign oil companies would be better able to negotiate more favorable terms in their contracts with that industry. According to Daphne Eviatar, writing for Newsweek International, “the oil giants are likely to push a controversial form of contract that gives them an ownership stake in the oilfields and guaranteed relief from national tax and environmental laws” in compensation for the cost of restoring Iraqi oil production. Strong, nationalized oil industries (like that in Kuwait) tend to be more successful at resisting such contracts, known as “production-sharing agreements,” or PSAs.

Furthermore, as John B. Judis points out in a Jan. 20 article in the New Republic, “If Iraq privatized its oil, it would inevitably leave OPEC, which requires each member country to strictly regulate their output and oil exports.” This would not only weaken OPEC but, “more important to the neoconservatives, it would undermine Saudi Arabia’s economic and political clout and perhaps endanger the Saudi regime itself … They see the fall of OPEC and of the Saudi regime as a desirable outcome of a U.S. ouster of Saddam.”

The neocon hawks in the Bush administration have made little effort to hide the fact that they consider the invasion and “democratization” of Iraq to be merely the prelude to a revamping of the whole Middle East. If this stage of the project goes well, Syria and Iran are next in line. A decentralized Iraq with a privatized oil industry that upsets the balance of power in the OPEC cartel could have other benefits as well. “For them,” says MacKey, “stabilizing the Middle East means ending Arab opposition to Israel without any compromises from Israel on [its treatment of] the Palestinians.”

But all this depends on having a reasonably peaceable Iraq to run. Hiro, who said that initially he assumed the U.S.-led coalition “would prevail militarily,” now says, “honestly, I’m not so sure … I could see a situation where this thing would go on until the U.N. Security Council would have to intervene. The siege of Beirut [during Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon] went on for 69 days and there was no al-Jazeera then — not to mention the 18 other Arab satellite TV companies — to stir up the Arab and Muslim world … There could be massive uprisings all over — Egypt, Pakistan, where there are already big protests, and Afghanistan … How can you bring democracy at the point of a gun?” That might be the biggest fairy tale of all.

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is a senior writer for Salon. She is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia" and has a Web site,

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