President Bush's speech last night on the future of Iraq wasn't a bad beginning. But it's a bit late to be offering beginnings a mere 37 days before the end. Had Bush delivered this speech last May, in the wake of Saddam's downfall, it might have been hailed as visionary—a bold expression of America's role as liberator, not occupier, and of its disinterest in the spoils of victory. Now, however, it seems inadequate, sketchy, and desperate.
His "five-point plan" is less a blueprint for democracy than a checklist of truisms. Transfer sovereignty to an interim government selected by the United Nations envoy in consultation with Iraqi leaders; maintain U.S. forces to provide security and train a new Iraqi army; rebuild the economy; enlist international support; help organize national elections. Duh.
It is sad to recall the months, following the triumphant toppling of Saddam's statue in downtown Baghdad, when Bush rejected just these measures—a period that will go down in history as a near-seamless saga of ill-conceived, poorly planned, mismanaged, and bafflingly incompetent decision-making.
Among its sorrowful highlights: Bush dismisses the United Nations' offers of "postwar" assistance and excludes countries outside the "coalition" from bidding for reconstruction contracts; Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld shrugs off the looting and mayhem as natural byproducts of freedom; Paul Bremer, the head of the occupation authority, disbands the Iraqi army (and thus ensures still greater disorder).
Meanwhile, just in the year since Bush declared the end of "major combat operations," nearly 700 American troops have been killed, as well as more than 5,500 Iraqi civilians. Reconstruction has barely started. Security has worsened. Iraq, which (it turns out) wasn't an al-Qaida outpost under Saddam, is now teeming with terrorists, some of them sired by the occupation itself. The country's ethnic tensions, which Saddam brutally suppressed for decades, have erupted like a volcano, its lava spilling across the landscape.
So now, Bush is changing gears, even while pretending that nothing has changed at all. He has directed Maj. Gen. David Petraeus of the 101st Airborne Division, the U.S. Army's most imaginative commander in Iraq, to train a new Iraqi army—mainly (though this part is barely whispered) from the vestiges of the old Iraqi army. And he is practically begging for outside help, to the point of giving the U.N. envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, carte blanche to form Iraq's transitional government.
It's still not clear, though, whether there is any new gear to shift into or whether, at this point, the car might be totaled.
There was one new wrinkle in the resolution that the United States and Britain presented to the U.N. Security Council yesterday, though for some reason Bush didn't mention it in his speech. This was the provision that turns over the development fund—including oil revenues—to direct Iraqi control. As recently as last week, the Bush administration was talking about keeping the fund in American hands. The new formula still envisions a board of supervisors, but—as long as the board is strictly an advisory and administrative one (and not entirely American)—this may simply be necessary to prevent blatant corruption. In any case, this is a significant development.
Otherwise, the Bush speech didn't clear up Iraq's mess of uncertainties. A few key ones:
- No one yet knows who will (and won't) be in the transitional government; whether the country's true power brokers (Grand Ayatollah Sistani and the like) will find the new regime acceptable; or what will happen on June 30 if they don't.
- The precise powers of U.S. and coalition armed forces remain ambiguous. Bush said an Iraqi general will command the Iraqi army, but this Iraqi general will apparently report to an American general. Tony Blair and Colin Powell have said their troops will leave if the transitional Iraqi government wants them to—a nice gesture of a statement, but they issued it knowing very well that it's a most unlikely scenario. Between those stark boundaries—staying or leaving—who controls the foreign legions? If the Iraqis don't, do they really have sovereignty, much less "full sovereignty"?
- Bush has not remotely spelled out any incentives that might lure would-be allies to join the cause. In his speech, Bush said, "The coalition is strong." No, it is not. Spain and Honduras have departed. Others are wavering. The home fronts in nearly every coalition country are opposed to extending their involvement. Not so much as a Band-Aid has been applied to this hemorrhage.
Here are a few steps that Bush could take. If he takes them, disaster still might strike. If he doesn't take them, it certainly will.
First, open up reconstruction contracts to all bidders, in all countries, and let the United Nations pick the winners. No foreign leaders are going to spill blood or spend money unless, at minimum, they have a stake in the matter. Contracts are one way to give them a stake. Bush and Cheney are capitalists. They should know this in their bones.
Second, to the extent foreign soldiers are still needed for Iraqi security (and they will be for a few years at least), turn the task over to NATO. An American general could still be in command, but he would be acting on behalf of—and reporting to—an international body, not the former occupier. The distinction may seem symbolic, but symbols and hierarchies are important in such matters, especially in the Middle East.
Third, step into the shadows. From this point on, nothing should bear American fingerprints. Everything should look homegrown, even if it isn't.
These steps are minimal, but crucial. As for the rest—the nature of the government, the settlement of ethnic strife, the contents of a constitution—this, as Bush is now realizing, is up to the Iraqis. Maybe we could have shaped things if Bush had played his cards well a year ago, but he didn't. So the best we can hope for now is an Iraq that doesn't fall apart and Iraqis who don't want to kill us.