Monday, December 1, 2003

With its wealth of domestic political genius, it is astonishing that the Bush administration’s post-Saddam policy for transitioning to an indigenous Iraqi government overflows with foolishness.

A free, democratic, secular nation that honors individual rights and equal justice under law is the objective. The Bush administration hopes such a reconstituted Iraq will ignite victories for moderate and democratic elements over terrorism and religious extremism throughout the Middle East. But it fashioned a flaccid, amateurish plan for a supersonic transformation of Iraq last Nov. 15 that already is crumbling. Indeed, the United States no longer dictates the course of events there. Islamic fanatics, terrorists and separatists do. Within 6-12 months, international terrorism will be surging in the Middle East and Asia, Osama bin Laden will be celebrated throughout the Arab world as the dragon-slayer of the United States, and Iraq will be convulsed by lawlessness and civil war.

The Nov. 15 transformation plan began to unravel before the ink dried. The 24-member appointed Iraqi Governing Council immediately protested its scheduled dissolution on June 30, 2004. Some members urged that the council become the Senate of a transitional bicameral legislature or become the provisional Iraqi government. Several Shi’ites, who constitute a 60 percent majority in Iraq, insisted the provisional national assembly be popularly elected instead of vetted by provincial organizing committees and caucuses of local notables. Within a week, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the de facto sovereign for the majority of Shi’ites, sermonized that nothing less than direct elections (which the numerically superior Shi’ites would dominate over Kurds, Sunnis and Turkmen) would legitimize a provisional government. Ayatollah Sistani further demanded that no law or constitution offend the Holy Koran or Sharia, which would doom Iraq to denying freedom of religion, equality for women, and the rule of law as opposed to rule by the whimsies of imams, mullahs or ayatollahs.

The Bush administration responded by negotiating with the grand ayatollah as though he were the legitimate leader of Iraq. It has accepted the principal of direct elections in hopes of retaining support for the remainder of the plan by the Shi’ite majority. Under active consideration is a new plan for balloting in Kurdish and Shi’ite areas but caucuses in Sunni territory where resistance to the U.S. occupation has been fiercest.

The initial Nov. 15 transformation plan and impending revisions bear the earmarks of Bush administration desperation to be done with Iraq before the 2004 presidential elections. The plan was hurriedly and unexpectedly cobbled together in a few White House meetings. It was instantly reduced to a negotiating plank with the IGC and Ayatollah Sistani.

The administration seems eager to concede whatever revisions are necessary to provide a “decent interval” between the scheduled dissolution of United States sovereignty next June and the deluge that will ineluctably ensue. On Thanksgiving Day, for instance, President Bush met with four members of the IGC and voiced support for implementing any council decisions, but not to make decisions for its 24 members.

The president distanced himself from responsibility for a benighted and lacerated Iraq staring him in the face by trumpeting that “it’s up to [the IGC] to seize the moment, to have a government that recognizes all rights, the rights of the majority and the rights of the minority, to speak to the aspirations and hopes of the Iraqi people.”

It had been previously thought by the Bush administration that the United States, as the liberator and occupying power of Iraq, shouldered both a moral and legal duty to remain sovereign until the cultural, institutional and political sinews of freedom, democracy and the rule of law had developed. But that happy day is years away.

Only a microscopic percentage of the Iraqi population comprehends democratic fundamentals. Elections within six months would be captured by organized religious and tribal cult leaders who reject the moral and political values of Western democracies.

The pernicious influence of extremist mullahs ruling in neighboring Iran would be incalculable. And none of the building blocks of free and fair elections is in sight: no voting rolls, no electoral districts, no campaign finance, broadcasting or political party rules, and no consensus on first-past-the-post or proportional representation in determining winners.

The desperation of the Bush administration was perfectly captured by a senior administration official quoted Nov. 28 in The Washington Post regarding a possible patchwork plan for selecting members to a provisional national assembly: “Will it work? Something’s got to work. June 30 is turnover day, which is when Iraqis will have full authority and power, and nothing’s going to change that.”

In other words, the United States is open to “extortion” by the IGC, Ayatollah Sistani or additional claimants to leadership in Iraq because of President Bush’s willingness to compromise democracy and the rule of law there to further his re-election chances.

The United States will be departing on June 30 or earlier, not on its own terms but on terms set by its opponents to a free and democratic Iraq and at a time driven by Islamic terrorists and thugs. The prestige of Osama bin Laden will climb, and fanatics will rally to his wretchedness. And many brave American soldiers will have died in vain.

Bruce Fein is a partner of Fein & Fein.

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