Time for Iraqis to Run Iraq

What to do in Iraq?

The question is made urgent by the steady attrition of coalition forces, punctuated by seven large car-bomb explosions. The latest of them, on Sunday, killed six and wounded dozens at the Baghdad Hotel.

More broadly, the briefly-held gratitude to the coalition for being relieved of Saddam Hussein’s hideous rule has been overtaken, as the weeks turn into months, by feelings of resentment. Iraqis complain that the bridges have not been rebuilt fast enough, the currency is not steady enough, and utilities are not regular enough. A people accustomed to live in the confines of a totalitarian state finds the free-for-all disturbing.

Even Iraqis working closely with the coalition are grumbling with Washington’s decisions. The Iraqi Governing Council (IGC), an appointed body, has expressed dismay at the prospect of Turkish troops being stationed in Iraq – something the Bush administration had worked particularly hard for.

These divergences between Iraqis and their liberators are likely to increase over time.

What to do?

It’s simple, actually: Turn power over to the Iraqis. Let them form a government. Reduce the scope of Presidential Envoy Paul Bremer’s role.

Take coalition forces off their patrols of city streets and away from protecting buildings, and put them in desert bases. From there, they can undertake the key tasks of controlling the borders, guaranteeing the oil and gas infrastructure, chasing down Saddam Hussein, and providing the ultimate authority for the Iraqi government – without being in the Iraqi population’s face.

Admittedly, this advice runs roughly along the lines of what the French government is calling for; President Jacques Chirac has said that “There will be no concrete solution unless sovereignty is transferred to Iraq as quickly as possible” and called for a shift of power over six to nine months.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell responded by dismissing such a transfer as “totally unrealistic.” The U.S. plan is for the Iraqis to take control in a matter of years, not months.

But Iraqis hostile to the coalition and the French are not alone in wanting a speedier transition; so too do those Iraqis working with the coalition, whether they are tight with Tehran, Riyadh, the CIA, or the Defense Department. Most notably, Ahmad Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Congress, is urging for Iraqis at least partially to take over the finance and security ministries. This has met with wide support, enhancing Chalabi’s popularity. The Financial Times reports that his “proposals on sovereignty strike a chord among ordinary Iraqis, who feel the best way to get the country moving is the return of control.”

So major a change in direction has unpleasant implications for Washington. It raises questions about American staying power; forfeits much of the credibility that came from the successful war against Saddam Hussein; risks throwing away a chance of victory; and permits Arab, European, and Democratic critics to crow. Worse, it will be noted that sustained violence against U.S. troops works, perhaps inviting further attacks on U.S. forces elsewhere.

These are valid reasons not to pull out – but they lose their pertinence if one expects, as I do, that the mission in Iraq will end in failure. I predict that unhappy outcome not due to shortcomings on the American side but by calculating the U.S. motivation for being there versus the Iraqi motivation to remove them. The latter strikes me as more formidable. It reflects the intense hostility commonly felt by Muslims against those non-Muslims who would rule them. For examples, note the violence undertaken by (among others) Palestinians, Chechens, Kashmiris, and Moros.

From this pattern, I draw a rule of thumb: unless a non-Muslim ruler has compelling reasons to control a Muslim population, it will eventually be worn down by the violence directed against it and give up. Note that the U.S. government has already given up twice in recent years, in Lebanon and Somalia.

The U.S.-led effort to fix Iraq is not important enough for Americans, Britons, or other non-Muslim partners to stick it out. That is why I advocate handing substantial power over to the Iraqis, and doing so the sooner the better.