Wednesday, April 21, 2004

John Negroponte looks to be Our Man in Baghdad. He is an experienced diplomat. A man with renowned taste and rumored connections with key CIA operatives. He served as Henry Kissinger’s pointman on Vietnam, is now our ambassador at the United Nations and seems to excel in positions that require apt crisis managers. He carries a conservative, with a small “c,” reputation and has been sticky labeled “a careerist,” which if true is undoubtedly a good thing. Success in Iraq means better and higher job prospects for John Negroponte.

However, when he assumes control of the sprawling U.S. diplomatic compound in the heart of the Iraqi capital, his biggest challenge will not be Fallujah, foreign insurgents or insolent Iraqis. It will be the British.

British newspapers are reporting growing friction between the U.S. military and the British army in Iraq.

The head of the British armed forces, Gen. Michael Jackson, in an opaque reference to simmering tensions between the two militaries over ” operational doctrine,” recently told a parliamentary committee that “we must be able to fight with Americans. That doesn’t mean we fight as Americans.”

The British have been keen to avoid protest marches and rebel takeovers, letting them burn out as they bribe middle managers in the rebels’ ranks, and work through tribal and religious chiefs. Instead of attacking Fallujah directly, British commanders apparently favored a wait-and-see approach.

The caution exhibited by the British has resulted in understandable American annoyance and British exasperation at the “Yankees’ rough and unnecessary tactics.” Gen. Jackson already has sent a polite signal that his troops will not be participating at the moment in American counter-insurgency operations.

Mr. Negroponte’s first task will be to resolve this tension quickly. L. Paul Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority cannot. Mr. Bremer himself is dismissed as a naive and arrogant viceroy who has failed to grasp what ‘occupation by consent’ means: working through, not abolishing, existing Iraqi political institutions.

The British would know — as it was the same approach they used when ruling over 300 million Indians at the start of the 20th century.

De-Ba’athification, one of the hallmarks of Mr. Bremer’s reign and one of his most daring attempts at abolishing existing political institutions, reportedly has not proceeded with the same intensity in the British zones of control. American-controlled Baghdad and British-administered Basra are now politically run on much, much different lines.

These disagreements, smoldering as they are, can be dampened considerably if Ambassador Negroponte — the self-styled “listener” — appreciates the British method.

Mr. Bremer’s hardline attitude and style has not yielded much satisfaction from our principal ally in running Iraq. Mr. Negroponte’s assent could be a turning point for the better. Coalition policy and unity could be enhanced. The careerist is now in charge. Prepare for Act I.

Thomas Cheplick is researching France’s Deuxieme Bureau and is writing from London.

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