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Iraq War a Poor Vehicle for the Spread of Democracy

As the situation in Iraq deteriorates, President Bush has outlined a grand vision for democracy in the Middle East. But the U.S. will have to change tactics quickly if legitimate elected bodies are to rule in Iraq.
 
 
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The Bush administration is trying to sell the disastrous war in Iraq to the American public as a vehicle for promoting democracy in the Middle East. This approach is misbegotten, especially given the vehicle the United States has chosen to promulgate democratic institutions -- the Iraqi Governing Council.

Iraq's purported weapons of mass destruction, the original reason given by the White House for the war, were never found. The administration was forced to admit that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with the Sept. 11 tragedy, thus eliminating their second reason. With these linchpins in the official justification for the war removed, the entire logic of the operation collapsed.

Even the mantra, "The Iraqis are better off without Saddam," began to fall flat, as U.S. mercenary redevelopers Haliburton and Bechtel proved unable to turn on the power and water and as killings of Iraqi citizens became part of the routine of daily life.

Then the worst disaster of all for the Bush administration occurred: American public support for the war dipped precipitously.

President Bush's Nov. 6 speech before the National Endowment for Democracy reflected this latest attempt to staunch the hemorrhaging U.S. public opinion on the war. Bush painted a rosy picture of the creation of democracy in Iraq, which would spread throughout the region. "The establishment of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East will be a watershed event in the global democratic revolution," Bush claimed. The president echoed these sentiments in two other speeches within the next week, and Secretary of State Colin Powell followed suit in a speech of his own.

Then on Nov. 9, Robin Wright and Rajiv Chandrasekran reported in the Washington Post that the administration was thinking of sacking Iraq's Governing Council. This is the hand-picked, largely exile group that the United States established as window dressing earlier this year to give the appearance of Iraqi local control. Earlier this year, Washington hailed the Council as proof of its good intentions in transferring power to Iraqis.

The Governing Council proved problematic from its first meeting in July. Its mix of exiles and unknown figures gave it low credibility among Iraqis. Moreover, Ambassador Paul Bremer, the U.S. viceroy in Iraq, always had veto over the council's actions. And Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi confidant of Donald Rumsfeld and Richard Perle who hopes eventually to rule Iraq, was placed on the Council. Bremer did this despite numerous warnings that Chalabi was utterly discredited as a potential leader among Iraqis.

The Council began to unravel almost as soon as it began its work. One Council member, Aquila al-Hashimi, was assassinated on Sept. 24. Another, prominent Shi'a cleric Mohammad Bahr al-Uloom, quit after the United States failed to protect an important Shi'a shrine in the holy city of Najaf. After having appointed 25 interim ministers, the Council had nothing else to do, and its members frequently failed to even show up for meetings. They were reportedly out trying to make the most of their temporary positions by peddling their dubious influence and consolidating supporters for future political moves.

The Council's behavior shows how astonishingly incompetent the U.S. administration has been in trying to transfer power to Iraqis. If the disintegration of the Governing Council was not enough, President Bush continued to tout its existence as proof of American commitment to the founding of democracy in Iraq in a speech before the conservative Heritage Foundation on Nov. 12.

It becomes increasingly clear that the Bush administration is not going to tolerate anything like free elections in Iraq. There are too many people the administration would like to declare ineligible. United States officials have made it clear that they will not allow Shiites to win, or former Baathists, or Kurds, or anyone with connections to Iran. This leaves almost no one left to run, except members of the former exile community.

First among the acceptable candidates will be Ahmad Chalabi, of course, but he and his ilk among the exile community will never be able to rule without using authoritarian methods.

Ambassador Bremer was recalled to Washington for talks on Nov. 12, to try and untangle the mess with the Governing Council. Internationalizing the process, as America's European partners have repeatedly suggested, would lend it credibility and remove the stigma of American dominance. The United Nations or another international body, such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which has been monitoring elections and election processes internationally for many years, would be ideal for this task.

But the Bush administration is now so desperate to earn credit for some modicum of success that they are unlikely to turn over the reigns either to the broader international community or to the denizens of "Old Europe." It appears that President Bush's need to control the process trumps his desire to see acceptable democratic institutions established in Iraq.

PNS contributor William O. Beeman teaches anthropology and directs Middle East Studies at Brown University. He is author of the forthcoming "Iraq: State in Search of a Nation."