The war over the peace

The Pentagon, the State Department and the U.N. are fighting over who controls postwar Iraq. It's a battle that could be more critical than the military campaign.


Michelle Goldberg
April 14, 2003 11:18PM (UTC)

The bloody fighting on the ground in Iraq may be drawing to a close, but in offices and back rooms in Washington, London, New York and Kuwait, the battle to control the country's reconstruction rages. Three groups are vying for dominance -- the Pentagon and its neocon proxies, with their grand dreams of a new Middle East, the State Department realists, who fear Iraq could become a new Lebanon, and the United Nations, fighting the Pentagon's efforts to marginalize it. Which group prevails will determine, in part, what the next government of Iraq looks like, and whether the liberal democracy many exiles dream of is born and whether it survives.

Ultimately, there will be elections, so no group will be able to simply install Iraq's new leaders. But there are important open questions about when those elections will take place, under what kind of constitutional system, and who will rule the country in the interim. Whoever is running the country while the groundwork for democracy is being laid will be able to place Iraqis in temporary positions where they can consolidate power. According to Aziz Al-Taee, chairman of the Iraqi American Council, 36 exiles, handpicked by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, have spent the past four weeks in Virginia training for prospective roles in a transitional Iraqi government. Whoever ultimately has the power to fill such roles will have the power, at least in the short term, to shape Iraqi politics.

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On Friday, Wolfowitz told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Iraq's transition to democracy would happen in three stages. America's Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance will run the country in the immediate aftermath of the war. Meanwhile, Gen. Tommy Franks will hold meetings across the country to identify potential local leaders who can join Iraqi exiles in an interim authority. Once basic services are up and running in the country, Iraq's administration will be turned over to the Iraqi authority, which will govern until elections can be held.

Most publicized planning indicates the elections will be held under some sort of federal parliamentary system, which grants a measure of autonomy to Iraq's Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite regions. How much autonomy is up for debate. So are most other facets of the transition to Iraqi self-rule.

"There are many parties outside and inside Iraq who would like to have democracy," says Judith Kipper, director of the Middle East Forum at the Council on Foreign Relations. "What form of democracy, and how a country emerging out of Stalinism becomes a democracy, all those things have to be worked out. The wrangling between the State Department and the Pentagon is built into the American system. The reason it continues is the president has yet to declare himself about who wins."

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Among most liberals, the conventional wisdom is that U.N. oversight is preferable, State Department control tolerable and Pentagon dominance disastrous. Yet among the Iraqi liberals who sympathize with the Iraqi National Congress, the poles are reversed. They believe only the hawks with an ideological passion for this war will show the necessarily zeal to create the right kind of peace. The State Department, they say, values stability over democracy, and factions of the U.N. want to sabotage the whole project. One of the major Kurdish groups, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, also trusts the Pentagon to safeguard Kurdish interests, and even some experts who advocate a broad U.N. role acknowledge that the international body is likely to give short shrift to Kurdish aspirations.

On the other hand, other experts say that only the U.N. can provide international legitimacy to the rebuilding process in Iraq. As for the State Department, some see its incremental approach to democracy as the best hope of staving off sectarian warfare.

"There is no easy answer," says Judith Yaphe, a senior research fellow at the National Defense University who spent 20 years as a senior Middle East analyst for the CIA. "None of these people comes out looking really squeaky clean and heroic. Maybe that's a reflection of what Iraqi politics has looked like forever. It's a scary and often violent business and these people are often swimming in dangerous waters."

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A look at the factions involved, each with their own tricky mix of self-interest and competing ideals, suggests why easy answers are so hard to come by.

The Pentagon and the Iraqi National Congress

Many observers sneer at the Iraqi National Congress. After all, the group's head, Ahmed Chalabi, was convicted of bank fraud in Jordan and only escaped his 20-year sentence by fleeing the country. The INC is backed by the neoconservative hawks at the Pentagon and at far-right think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute, and the group's cordial attitude toward Israel and Chalabi's close ties with American supporters of Ariel Sharon lead some to think of it as a stooge for Israel's right-wing Likud party. The CIA grew disillusioned with the INC in 1996, after the group launched a failed coup against the Iraqi regime, and recently circulated a classified report about the group's lack of support inside Iraq. A UPI story quoted a former U.S. intelligence official who'd read the report as saying, "They basically say that every time you mention Chalabi's name to an Iraqi, they want to puke."

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Yet there are uncertainties surrounding Chalabi's conviction. His defenders insist it resulted from pressure Saddam put on the king of Jordan, not from any criminality on Chalabi's part. In any case, both the State Department and the CIA supported Chalabi for years after his banking scandal. According to Chalabi's supporters, when the State Department and the CIA finally did turn on the opposition leader, it was not because of ethical lapses on his part, but because his broad democratic aspirations were at odds with their preferred post-Saddam scenario of a more pliant military government.

Whatever one thinks of Chalabi and his backers, his group also contains some of the most passionate, sincere Iraqi liberals, people whose values mirror those of the Pentagon's fiercest domestic opponents. The INC's theoretician, Kanan Makiya, is the primary chronicler of Saddam's atrocities, and he's deeply respected by many observers across the political spectrum. A liberal humanist, Makiya is also no supporter of the Likud: in "Cruelty and Silence," his devastating indictment of Arab intellectuals' failure to condemn Saddam's regime, he blasts the Israeli occupation. Other members of the group talk about human rights and democratic institutions the way George Bush talks about Jesus. It's one of many ironies of the moment that the most illiberal forces in America are allied with the most liberal of the exiles.

Mansour Farhang, a professor of international relations and Middle Eastern politics at Bennington College, was revolutionary Iran's first ambassador to the United Nations and a mediator during the early months of the Iran-Iraq war. An opponent of the war in Iraq and a proponent of U.N. oversight of the reconstruction, he nevertheless admires Makiya, an old friend of his. "I know Kanan Makiya and I deeply respect his humanity and his liberalism," he says. "He has a solid commitment to liberalism and democracy and human rights."

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That commitment is evident in the INC's dream for Iraq. Makiya knows that elections in the absence of civil society often lead to tyranny, and the INC has thus called for strong protections of individual rights, a federal system that will give a large degree of autonomy to Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni regions, the strong separation of mosque and state and a drastically reduced military, with elections to follow once these safeguards are in place.

In other words, Makiya wants for Iraq all the things that American progressives want for their country. "I love Kanan Makiya," says Yaphe. "Kanan's got a beautiful vision in his brain. He has a lot of credibility and he's under heavy fire from unfair quarters." Unfortunately, Yaphe says, "Visions are one thing, reality is something else."

And the reality is that to achieve his vision, Makiya and the INC have tied themselves to the Pentagon hawks. "The INC doesn't have its own army. The INC has the Defense Department," says Farhang.

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The group is beloved by the neocons partly because it is sympathetic to Israel, but also because it is rooted in the values of the West. As Michael Lind has noted, the American Enterprise Institute crowd shaping Bush's foreign policy are ideologues, not opportunists. Espousing classical liberalism, the INC's message resonates with the neocons' messianic faith in exporting America's political system.

Joshua Muravchik, an American Enterprise Institute scholar who describes himself as a Chalabi fan, says his admiration lies in Chalabi's commitment to ideals they share.

"When I first met him during the Gulf War in 1991, he was advocating democracy then, and he's advocated it for a dozen years," Muravchik says. "I do take the point that when you're not in power its easy to advocate. The only thing that I would say on the other side, as someone who has been a democracy advocate worldwide, is that over a couple of decades I've worked with lots of exile opposition groups in lots of countries, and even though it might cost them nothing to advocate democracy, I haven't met many who advocated it as consistently as Chalabi has."

Meanwhile, INC liberals, desperate to unseat Saddam, say they haven't been in a position to be picky about their backers. "We did not ally ourselves with the conservatives. The conservatives decided to support the Iraqi liberals in liberating their country and building democracy," says Adil Awadh, a member of the INC who met with President Bush last week.

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"I am a hardcore liberal, and I'm puzzled that the opponents of the Iraqi liberals are the American liberals," Awadh says. "Unless the liberals question the credentials and the devotion of the Iraqi liberals to their cause, I cannot understand their position. I hope they engage the Iraqi liberals in a dialogue, and try to understand the dilemma of the Iraqi people. We would like to look at ourselves as independent, but the Pentagon is supporting the INC and we think that the Pentagon is the best option to handle the reconstruction of Iraq."

Yet Farhang expresses a widely held sentiment when he says it's impossible to consider the INC irrespective of its unsavory alliance with the Pentagon.

"These people have reactionary positions on domestic politics and on foreign policy going back to Vietnam," he says. "People like Rumsfeld and the Weekly Standard crowd, they were the supporters of the Vietnam War. They were always in favor of using force. They ridiculed the idea of pushing human rights in the past. If you look at the background of these people, one is plagued with the irony and paradox that suddenly they have become promoters of democracy in the Middle East region."

As a result of these strange alliances, "People are torn," he says. "It's such a paradoxical situation."

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Complicating matters further is that the INC's backers are also the staunchest supporters of Israel's right-wing Likud party. James Woolsey, the ex-CIA director whose name was floated for a ministry position in the interim Iraqi government, is a major INC supporter who sits on the board of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, which Lind describes as "The major link between the conservative think tanks and the Israel lobby."

JINSA even claims direct links with Chalabi and his opposition group. In a 1997 report, it said, "JINSA has been working closely with INC leader Dr. Ahmad Chalabi to promote Saddam Hussein's removal from office and a subsequently democratic future for Iraq."

All this is why Al-Taee of the Iraqi American Council, a lobbying group that holds itself aloof from the organized opposition parties, says, "Ahmed Chalabi represents Israel's interest."

And it's why some say the Iraqis and their neighbors will never accept the INC. "That affiliation will sow suspicion not only in Iraq but in the broader Arab world that the war and the postwar Iraqi government are being done for Israel," says Chris Toensing, editor of Middle East Report magazine. Indeed, the suspicion does not need to be sown: Most of the Arab world believes that the war was fought in large part for Israel's interests, as well as for oil.

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Farhang says that all this makes the INC, for all its idealism, damaged goods. "People like Kanan Makiya and Ahmed Chalabi and their friends, they made the removal of Saddam Hussein and the destruction of his regime an absolute and urgent necessity, and therefore any means necessary was justified to remove him," he says. "They searched for the people in Washington who supported that perspective, and the support came from the most right-wing elements of the government. They identified with this perception that Saddam is the ultimate evil. Both groups became extremely callous about the means they had to use to get him," the means being war at all costs.

Now, Farhang says, a similar absolutism in pursuit of Western democracy could backfire. "Makiya says Iraq should be a country where ethnic identity, religious identity and Arab identity all should be discarded and there should be a country named Iraq and all the people who live there should be Iraqis," he says. "This is a wonderful idea. Very few human communities in the world could live up to it."

He believes that if instituted too quickly, federalism, in which the government would represent proportional sectors of the population, will give way to simple sectarianism. In other words, it will become a so-called confessional system, in which competing religious and ethnic groups are awarded various political positions: the prime minister might always be a Shiite, the president a Sunni, etc. "This was the system in Lebanon, and it collapsed," Farhang says.

Yaphe, too, agrees with Makiya's goals, but doesn't think he'll achieve them through an alliance with the neocons. "I like to think what [Makiya] is saying is right in terms of democracy and freedom, but I'm not sure that the way to get there is through the path that he's chosen," she says.

Right now, Chalabi and the INC are riding in on the military's coattails. The Pentagon gave the INC a leg up last week by airlifting Chalabi and a few hundred supporters into southern Iraq to serve as translators and peacekeepers. Makiya wrote in the New Republic Friday that his group is pushing the military to have these forces take over policing in southern Iraq. "[T]he Free Iraqi Forces being assembled by the Iraqi National Congress in southern Iraq are the nucleus of a new Iraqi police force," Makiya wrote. "It is a force that needs to grow, quickly, from its current strength of 700 or so men, with the help of the coalition forces. I shudder at the thought of Americans and Britons policing Iraqi cities. That task must be taken up by Iraqis. Let us make the mistakes that will inevitably occur."

The State Department, though, has no intention of giving the INC that opportunity, and it's won a few victories in the war over the peace. Last week, Congress gave the State Department control of the $2.5 billion it allotted to reconstruction in an emergency war-spending bill, with the Senate explicitly forbidding the Pentagon use of the money, a move Makiya described as a loss for "the forces of democracy."

Meanwhile, Rumsfeld's vetoes of some State Department appointees to oversee the interim Iraqi authority were themselves vetoed. The reconstruction effort will still be led by retired Maj. Gen. Jay Garner, who reports to Gen. Tommy Franks, but the administrator of Baghdad will be Barbara Bodine, a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen whom the Pentagon tried to block.

The larger staff is coming from State as well -- the Washington Post reported on Tuesday that "administration officials said a dispute between the Pentagon and State Department over the assignment of foreign service officers to Garner's team of roughly 200 people has been resolved in favor of the State Department."

This is a good thing, according to Elizabeth Rindskopf Parker, former general counsel to the CIA and dean of the University of the Pacific Law School, because the State Department is more capable than the Pentagon of managing the competing claims of Iraqis inside and outside of the country.

"In Iraq, you immediately see where these very deep fissures are going to be between the groups who are available to step in and try to create some kind of civil government," she says. "You can imagine the animosity and tension that will be based not only on different religious persuasions, different notions of what kind of governmental structure one wants, but perhaps most importantly, the predictable tension between the group that has toughed it out in Iraq vs. those that have been out of the country in a situation where they're divorced from the reality on the ground.

"These are the kinds of things that the State Department really has the expertise in dealing with," she says.

But those who urge immediate moves toward representative democracy in Iraq are wary of the State Department. Many in the INC have argued that the State Department has scorned them because it disdains their idealistic vision. In December, Makiya told Salon, "The Department of State and the CIA are particularly slow in supporting any genuine democratic initiative. They're among the democrats' weakest supporters. They seem to reserve their support for Islamists and former Baathists."

He's not wrong, says Farhang. "The State Department people are not at all as optimistic about prospects for democracy in post-Saddam Iraq. They think Iraq is a fragmented society and the idea of creating a sense of unity and solidarity in post-Saddam Iraq is extremely difficult to accomplish and no matter what the United States does the consequences could be counter-productive."

Of course, they may well be right, but because they're more worried about stability than the ideologically driven Pentagon, they're more inclined to trust ex-military men to run the country, Farhang says.

"Some military people who defected from Saddam's regime after the 1991 war, many of these people are close to the CIA and the State Department," he says. "Even though they have a dark background, the State Department thinks they probably are more capable of maintaining order and creating some kind of stability than the liberal exiles."

One of the people currently rumored to have State Department backing is Adnan Pachachi, an 80-year-old exile from a prominent Sunni family who lives in the United Arab Emirates. A former Iraqi foreign minister who served before the 1968 coup, Pachachi recently formed a new exile organization to serve as a counterweight to Chalabi and the INC. He has the support of Laith Kubba, an Iraqi exile and senior program officer at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington who is widely admired by Iraq-watchers.

But some exiles in and out of the INC deride Pachachi as a tool of the United Arab Emirates and the Saudis, whose agenda includes keeping Iraq's Sunni minority in power.

Al-Taee from the Iraqi American Council insists there will be room for all parties in planning for the future of Iraq. "I think in the future of Iraq, we should include as many people as possible, including all the opposition groups and all the people who are inside and have skills. The INC is one of the groups, but there are also the two Kurdish groups, the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, Al-Dawa [another Shiite Islamic party] and the Iraqi Communist Party." Yet asked about Pachachi, he's contemptuous.

"Adnan Pachachi is a product of Sheik Zayed, president of the United Arab Emirates, and of Saudi Arabia," he says angrily. "They want to bring him in because he will represent their interests. The State Department has people influenced by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Those countries finance him. He's a Sunni. These governments, they want to make sure Iraq's government continues to be Sunni. Around Pachachi you have some of the ex-Baathists. They want to stay in power and keep the power in the same category of people."

David Phillips is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who spent last summer advising Iraqi exiles in the democratic principles working group convened by the State Department. He says he has no way of knowing whether Pachachi embraces Saudi interests, but adds, "He's been on the ground in Saudi Arabia for a long time and that will affect his view of the world. To some extent he's a protector of the status quo in Iraq."

Judith Kipper of the Middle East Forum rejects rumors of Pachachi's Saudi influences as "static," but suggests another problem with him. "I don't think he's a tool of anybody," she says. "The main problem is he's very old. He is certainly symbolically extremely important, and might be able to play a role similar to the king of Afghanistan."

As for fears of Sunni hegemony, Kipper notes that the INC has almost entirely excluded Sunnis. "It's very important that he's a Sunni, because Sunnis are poorly represented in the opposition groups."

The United Nations

Pachachi has actually called for the United Nations to oversee the interim authority -- indeed, part of his antipathy for the INC stems from their willingness to attach themselves to the Pentagon. In the Financial Times on March 3, he wrote, "Serving as an advisory body attached to a U.S. military administration would be damaging and unacceptable."

United Nations control over the postwar period is the ideal for many observers, especially those who opposed the war. Clovis Maksoud, professor of international relations at American University in Washington and a former Arab League ambassador, says the reconstruction "should be a United Nations enterprise. It will have much more acceptability, legitimacy and moral influence, which is very important in this case. It should be the transitional authority in the same way it is in Afghanistan and it was in East Timor."

Aid groups also want to see the U.N. take charge. In an April 3 policy paper, Oxfam wrote, "It is crucial that the United Nations is given a mandate that is clear, credible and achievable. This will require a Security Council resolution. Securing this will need leadership in the Security Council from non-permanent members who have preserved good relations with all sides ... An achievable mandate for the U.N. will also require the U.S. government to fully back, both politically and financially, the United Nations, and then Iraqi authorities. If this does not happen, or the U.N. was perceived to be working under a U.S. authority, the U.N. would be set up to fail."

In a certain sense, this is all a moot argument, because American forces have no intention of turning authority over to the U.N. Yet while the U.N.'s role will be subordinate to America's, there's still a question of whether it will be strictly humanitarian or whether it will extend into nation-building.

At a talk at New York's Asia Society Thursday evening, Rachel Bronson, director of Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, noted that France, Italy, Argentina and Spain all have paramilitary forces that are better suited than the American military "for tasks that straddle the blurry line between policing and soldiering." She continued, "We desperately need international cooperation. Somehow we need to get the U.N. involved and endorsing this."

Yet it's not only neocons who are wary of too much U.N. involvement. Phillips, who has served as a senior advisor to the United Nations Secretariat Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, believes that the pre-war diplomatic catastrophe in the Security Council has left some nations "ill-intended" toward American efforts in Iraq. Democratization, says Phillips, "is going to be the key to making this work," but France and Russia "would like it to fail."

Furthermore, he says, it's not simply that the U.S. has shut the international body out -- the Security Council's own internecine fighting has kept it from taking a more proactive role.

"There are some countries that have spite towards this process and who are trying to delegitimize military action," he says. "They are keeping the Security Council as a whole from authorizing any post-conflict reconstruction or governance assistance lest it appear like a validation of the American and British approach."

For example, he says, the French and Russians are trying to keep U.N. Secretary General Koffi Annan from designating a special representative to Iraq "whose involvement would seem to legitimize the U.S.-led liberation of Iraq."

"They want more money out of the reconstruction, they want more contracts and they want to make sure their debt obligations are repaid," Phillips says.

Until this Security Council breakdown is somehow resolved, Phillips says any larger role would be counterproductive. "The U.N. should have a role, but it should have a role which is constructive and based on its capabilities. At this juncture, that's a humanitarian role," he says.

The fear that a faction of the U.N. wants to see democratization fail in Iraq is shared by some members of the Iraqi opposition. "It was a day of jubilation for the Iraqis to see Saddam Hussein's demise, but there will be another day of similar jubilation for dictatorships in the Middle East's non-Iraq radical Islamic groups and maybe some leftists if they see the new Iraqi democratic government failing," says Awadh.

Many of the eternally betrayed Kurds also view U.N. involvement with horror. "Those countries, especially European countries and Arab countries, who stood beside Saddam Hussein, it is not wise to give them an opportunity in the future of Iraq," says Mohammad Sabir, director of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan's U.S. office. "We want everything run by the Iraqi people in cooperation very closely with the United States. We want the United States forces to remain in Iraq until stability is maintained."

This isn't just about Kurdish anger over the contretemps at the Security Council. It's based on the belief that, from the international point of view, there's an inverse relationship between Kurdish autonomy and regional stability.

"The U.N. would be least sympathetic to an autonomous Kurdistan," says Farhang. "The Kurds, now that they're making sacrifices to make war on Saddam Hussein, they will only want to expand their power. The U.N. is a lot less sympathetic to that option, because it makes it impossible to have a unified Iraqi state." But the Defense Department, he says, "would be quite open" to Kurdish control of Kirkuk -- after all, the Kurds are their greatest allies in the region. "These are people who have worked with the Defense Department and fought with American forces," he says. (The Washington Post reported on Thursday that the Kurds who took Kirkuk were working closely with the American military, leaving the State Department to reassure Turkey.)

Of course, none of the parties (except, in all likelihood, the Kurds themselves) favors an independent Kurdish state. The debate is about the independence of the Kurds within the new Iraq -- and whether that independence will give ideas to neighboring Kurdish populations.

This leads, once again, to a difficult balance between idealism and pragmatism. After all, if anyone deserves the world's solidarity, it's the Kurds, the world's largest stateless people, sold out by the West repeatedly since the fall of the Ottoman Empire. But as Farhang says, "Once the Iraqi Kurds establish their autonomy, then there are the Iranian Kurds and the Turkish Kurds. How do they relate to this autonomy?"

That's partly why, for all the contradictions, Farhang says that if all the horror of the recent past and foreseeable future is going to result in a more just Iraq and peaceful Middle East, "That salvation could only come from the U.N. There's no question that whatever group benefits from American support in post-Saddam Iraq will be unpopular in the region and will become unpopular in the country itself because it lacks legitimacy," he says. Thus a final irony -- only the U.N., he believes, can make the hawks' dreams of a new Middle East come true.


Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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