Monday, April 26, 2004

Even without Bob Woodward’s grudgingly favorable rendering of the wartime leadership of George W. Bush, one thing has been clear for some time: Our 43rd president has been steadfast and determined in his commitment not only to liberate Iraq, but to ensure its people are afforded the chance to build a free, stable and prosperous nation. Appreciating that at least half the battle may be convincing Iraqis he will not flinch — even in the face of recent adversity like that in Fallujah, Najaf and Baghdad, Mr. Bush has insisted the United States will not, in his words, “cut and run.”

Such assurances are doubtless as heartfelt as they are necessary. Yet, a number of recent actions taken by Washington or with its assent risk being interpreted by Iraqis as evidence the U.S. is in the process, if not exactly of cutting and running, then of cutting and walking.

The roots of the present problem lay with decisions taken early on. For one thing, we should have recognized a provisional Free Iraqi government even before the invasion. Once Baghdad fell, reasonably full sovereignty could immediately have been transferred to it pending the establishment of institutions and procedures needed to produce a democratically elected successor. It would then have been up to the provisional government, not us, to decide how extensive would be the lustration of Ba’athists and whether and how to preserve some remnants of Saddam’s military, police and intelligence services.

At the very least, such an arrangement could have spared the Coalition the role of “occupiers” of Iraq, with all that has flowed from it (international opprobrium, nationalist resentment, undesirable responsibility for virtually all Iraqi affairs, etc.)

Unfortunately, the perceived need to correct that mistake and turn over sovereignty to Iraqis at the earliest possible time (and as far as possible from the U.S. elections in November) gave rise to another regrettable decision: To allow an arbitrary date — June 30 — to determine the end of the occupation, rather than making the establishment of a representative, institution-based and broadly supported Iraqi government the pacing item.

The nature of a deadline invited opponents of the U.S.-led liberation — both inside and outside Iraq — to play for time, obstructing successive Coalition efforts to broker interim arrangements and nearly scuttling the so-called Transitional Administrative Law (TAL) meant to govern them. Ultimately, the Bush administration decided to accede to pressure from those like the majority Shi’ites’ senior leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, while triangulating John Kerry, who insists Iraq be turned over to the United Nations ASAP.

Enter Lakhdar Brahimi, Secretary General Annan’s personal envoy. Suddenly, as President Bush said in his press conference last week, it is “up to Mr. Brahimi” what sort of Iraqi government will get sovereignty lateraled to it on the first of July. Mr. Brahimi says he is looking for a few good, colorless “technocrats.” But his historic hostility toward the United States — and, in the eyes of many Iraqis, towards victims of Saddam’s predations (which he studiously ignored as Undersecretary of the Arab League) — suggests we will get an interim Iraqi authority that reflects his views.

Of particular concern to Iraqis praying for stability and security, to say nothing of Coalition forces charged with helping to provide it, is the fact that — even before Mr. Brahimi handpicks the next government of Iraq — he has started telling the U.S. military what to do and not to do. For instance, he has declared his opposition to using force against terrorists holed up in Fallujah saying, “There is never any military solution to any problem.” The terrorists are under no such illusions.

Presumably, the prospect Mr. Brahimi’s government will impede and possibly preclude Coalition security operations in Iraq after July 1 is what prompted the CPA to reveal last week that what would be transferred would be only “limited sovereignty,” minus the authority to write new laws or exercise control over foreign forces in-country.

If, as a result, the new government will not be either able or inclined to provide authorization for such forces to remain, Washington is said now to be seeking such authority from — where else? — the United Nations.

The price for getting yet-another U.N. resolution, however, may be the undoing of one of the few bright spots of the past six months — the Transitional Administrative Law. The Washington Post reported Monday: “To accommodate both Iraqi and Security Council concerns, the United States is considering ‘compressing’ or scrapping much of the interim constitution or TAL, so that only pivotal provisions on human rights and dates are retained, U.S. officials say.”

The cumulative effective of these actions will inevitably be to undermine Iraqi confidence in President Bush’s assertion America will stay the course. Without the active involvement and help of the Iraqi people, there is no chance they will be able to forge a unified, peaceable and stable nation.

Already, we have been getting less of that help than we need as skepticism returns about our reliability. It is not too late to demonstrate we will not cut and run — or walk — away from Iraq’s liberation. But to do so, we will have to show our resolve in deeds, not just words.

Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is the president of the Center for Security Policy and a columnist for The Washington Times.

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