When being 'right' is bad policy

The US wants to see an inclusive regime in Iraq, but dictating its composition or policies is dangerous.

barry rubin 88 (photo credit: )
barry rubin 88
(photo credit: )
The months go by, and still there is no government in Iraq. Elections were held in December but there is still no constitutional regime to take charge or dispense with the need for so many foreign troops. Now comes disturbing news, perhaps more serious than anything else that has happened in that country since the fall of dictator Saddam Hussein, and a greater danger to the US position than the daily violence taking place there: the attempt by Washington, with whatever good intentions and even sensible ideas, to dictate that government's composition and policies. This is an extraordinarily dangerous policy. To begin with, let's focus on the relative successes of US policy in post-Saddam Iraq. Three years after the war that overthrew the dictator the vast majority of Iraqis have supported a continued American role and presence. Clearly, mistakes have been made, the pace of recovery has been slow, and there has been a great deal of sabotage and bloodshed. The fault, however, lies with the coalition of Saddam diehards, radical Islamists and Sunni communal nationalists, who would rather see the country in ruins than the Shi'ites and Kurds in power. With about 80 percent of the population of Iraq being Shi'ite or Kurdish, the dominant view among these groups is that the American role is a positive one because it is helping them to gain and keep power. People tend to like those who are on their side. American and other coalition forces fight and risk their lives largely to protect the majority from terrorists whom they despise. As long as this relationship continues the US task in Iraq may be heavy but it is not impossible. But what if that equation should change; what if, instead of saying, "Thanks to the Americans, who are helping us be in power," Shi'ites shifted to claiming, "Down with the Americans, who are keeping us from exercising power"? The anti-American forces in Iraq would increase, in very rough terms, from about one-tenth of the population (i.e., some of the Sunni Arabs) to half or even more. Such a situation would make what has gone on in Iraq so far seem like a picnic by comparison. THAT IS why it is so dangerous for the US government to do what can certainly be called "the right thing" in theory. First, it told the ruling United Iraqi Alliance that it should make more concessions to the Sunnis in a - probably forlorn - attempt to win them over. Next, it has been trying to block the renomination of Acting Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari and pressing for a national unity government to include all the main parties. The truth is that al-Jaafari has not been doing a great job in that post. But for the US government to take sides with Sunni and Kurds against him injects America into Iraqi internal politics in a way that will not endear it to the Iraqi majority. Favoring good and honest government or ethnic compromise may seem virtuous, but it will inevitably be portrayed as imperialistic. It certainly puts US policy in opposition to how most Shi'ites see their interests. The United States has the right to give or deny aid, as well as to express its opinions on any government, a process that makes particular sense when you are dealing with enemies. But to try to engineer the outcome against forces which have been pretty reliable allies is something else entirely. One element in this process, as Israelis know, is that people are always going to tell the most shameful lies about you, often manipulated to correspond with disputes. On March 26, Iraq's media and leaders are now charging, US forces seized, tortured and murdered 16 worshipers in a Baghdad mosque. The US this, saying that military forces were merely returning fire from a building several blocks away from the Mustafa mosque. I believe the US denials. But such accusations will be repeated endlessly, new ones will be made up, and murderous passions will be stirred. Some of this disinformation will even be accepted as truth in the Western media. The longer US forces remain in Iraq, the more friction will take place. The truth is that the Shi'ite and Kurdish majority can defeat the insurgency whether or not the forces that do so are wearing the official uniforms of the Iraqi army. The Saddam supporters and jihad advocates are not going to win. But it would be idea for the US not to be there on the ground and responsible for the methods the former will use. A KEY element is what President George W. Bush really believes. If he is planning to withdraw most American forces over the next 18 months, he can claim a success in Iraq. The dictator was overthrown, the threat from Saddam was defused, and the Iraqi people were enabled to elect their own representatives. But if he actually thinks that the US should stay until the insurgency is repressed and an ideal democracy is installed, his administration is heading for far more trouble than it has yet accumulated. The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center and edits the Middle East Review of International Affairs and Turkish Studies.