Can Lakhdar Brahimi save Iraq?

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
May 13 2004 5:29 PM

U.N. Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi

Can he save Iraq?

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Although Lakhdar Brahimi has yet to figure out exactly how the United States should hand over quasi-sovereignty to the Iraqis—or, more important, to whom we should hand it—the United Nations envoy to Iraq has already performed one very important service for President Bush: He's allowed the president to adopt a position of Roveian resoluteness on the subject of the June 30 deadline for the sovereignty transfer. "Brahimi" has become the president's clear, consistent answer to all June 30-related questions. Who's going to run Iraq on July 1? Ask Brahimi. What's going to happen? Ask Brahimi. Do we have any clue how this is going to play out? Ask Brahimi! No one ever accused this president of being unable to delegate.

A full year after "mission accomplished," Brahimi is the third Mr. Fix-It the United States has put its faith in, and the Bush administration is betting heavily—or at least hoping weightily—that the 70-year-old Algerian is the proverbial charm. Jay Garner, the first pick for cleanup man, lasted only a month. Garner's replacement, L. Paul Bremer, lasted longer (he's still there, in fact), but Bremer's ideas for how to transfer sovereignty to the Iraqis kept getting vetoed by Grand Ayatollah Sistani. So, now it's up to Brahimi to concoct a Sistani-approved way out of the mess.

Is he up to the task? He's certainly got the résumé. For a decade, Brahimi has served as the U.N.'s paratrooper of peace, descending on war-torn hot spots and attempting to institute diplomatic solutions. His most notable successes took place in South Africa, where he oversaw the 1994 elections that made Nelson Mandela the country's first democratic president, and in Afghanistan, where he helped to construct a new government after the United States defeated the Taliban in 2001. Brahimi's track record isn't perfect, however. Here's how the Los Angeles Times summed up his two years in Haiti, from 1994 to 1996: "Though his immediate objectives were achieved—military despots were forced out; a democratically elected president was sworn in—Haiti today is still a political shambles, riven by corruption and violence." Hey, we'll take it!

Brahimi's mandate in Iraq is much smaller than the ones given to Garner and Bremer as U.S. administrators, and his diplomatic record suggests that he'll be able to craft a solution that's acceptable to most of the squabbling parties. Maybe he'll even be able to do it in the next two weeks, in time to meet his self-imposed deadline to name the members of the transitional government by May 30, in order to give them a month to prepare to take over.

As an Algerian, Brahimi knows what an anticolonial insurgency looks like—what it can do, good and bad, to a society. His diplomatic career began during Algeria's struggle for independence, when he was the National Liberation Front's representative to southeast Asia from 1956 to 1961. But he also knows the dangers of Islamic radicalism. Brahimi served as Algeria's foreign-affairs minister from 1991 to 1993, and during that time the Algerian government canceled elections out of fear that Islamic theocrats would win them. A civil war ensued—one that's still ongoing—and Brahimi is said to consider the episode a stain on his career. Surely he doesn't want to be seen as contributing to a sequel in Iraq.

"The best that can happen to you is that no one notices what you do," Brahimi told the L.A. Times before he began his 1994 Haiti mission. But instead of going unnoticed, Brahimi's actions over the past month have resulted in a torrent of criticism, mostly from conservatives who supported President Bush's Iraq invasion. To state their beefs broadly, Brahimi's critics argue that he's an anti-Israel Arab nationalist and Saddam apologist who at best has good intentions but no credibility with Iraq's Kurds and Shiites, and who at worst actively favors the Sunnis. Most frequently cited as damning is Brahimi's silence, as an official with the Arab League from 1984 to 1991 and later as Algeria's foreign minister, during Saddam's massacres of those Kurds and Shiites. "Mr. Brahimi hails from the very same political class that has wrecked the Arab world," savaged Fouad Ajami in Tuesday's Wall Street Journal. "His technocracy is, in truth, but a cover for the restoration of the old edifice of power." Michael Rubin, an American Enterprise Institute fellow and a former official with the Coalition Provisional Authority, echoed Ajami last month in the National Review Online, writing, "As Iraqis discover and excavate new mass graves every week, there are constant reminders of Brahimi's silence."

What especially tweaks Brahimi's critics is that he has used his current perch to criticize Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government and the Bush administration's support for Sharon. Most notably, Brahimi told a French radio station last month, "There is no doubt that the great poison in the region is this Israeli policy of domination … as well as the perception of all of the population in the region, and beyond, of the injustice of this policy and the equally unjust support … of the United States for this policy." When asked by ABC News about his comments, Brahimi didn't back down, saying, "I think there is unanimity in the Arab world, and indeed in much of the rest of the world, that the Israeli policy is wrong, that the Israeli policy is brutal, repressive, and that they are not interested in peace no matter what you seem to believe in America."

Fortunately for President Bush, he appointed Brahimi to negotiate a solution in Iraq, not in Israel and Palestine. And as much as Brahimi's statements enrage supporters of Israel, they're not particularly relevant to his ability to carry out the president's mandate. In fact, Brahimi's statements might help him with those Iraqis who are suspicious of him as a tool of the Americans.

There isn't much time for Brahimi. Like the Coalition Provisional Authority, Brahimi is scheduled to vanish from Iraq on June 30. Those close to him say it's because he's tired, that he has promised his family a much-needed vacation. That's surely the case. But it's also true that Brahimi knows a lost cause when he sees one. In 1999, while trying to negotiate an end to Afghanistan's civil war between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance, Brahimi threw up his hands and went home. "I have tried everything I know, and it hasn't been of much use," he said.

It took two years and another war before Brahimi returned to Afghanistan to clean up another mess. This time, he's got six weeks.

Chris Suellentrop is the deputy editor for blogs at Yahoo News and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. He has reviewed video games for Slate, Rolling Stone, and NewYorker.com. Follow him on Twitter.