Acting Against the Clock in Iraq
Graham Fuller is a former deputy chairman of the CIA's National Intelligence Council and author of The Future of Political Islam (2003).
Washington -- The establishment of the Iraqi governing council was the first truly wise political step United States authorities have made since taking over Iraq, a positive indicator after months of negative trends. Although late in coming, the new council offers hope that power will eventually be transferred back to the Iraqi people for the first time in 40 years. Many Iraqis skeptical or cynical about US policies are now beginning to watch developments more closely.
But clearly the governing council is not the final answer. Many Iraqis still complain that the council -- whatever powers it may have been granted -- was appointed by US chief civil administrator Paul Bremer and was not elected by the people. Nonetheless, the council does represent a good cross section of the Iraqi population, from religious, ideological and ethnic points of view: Shia and Sunni Arabs, Kurds, Islamists and secularists, Communists and liberals. The balance is good. Regrettably, however, the council does not enjoy the legitimacy of being elected.
However, these political steps are not taking place in a vacuum, but against the background of growing military resistance. The Bush administration is now racing against the clock. Washington must quickly convince Iraqis of the legitimacy of this council, but here it faces key problems.
First, will the council remain satisfied with its limited powers and work within those limitations, or will it demand from Washington ever greater powers? Second, will the Iraqi public accord the council respect as a vehicle for Iraqi aspirations, or will it be considered a puppet organization designed to meet American interests? Third, will guerrilla attacks against US forces dominate the political scene, dragging the US deeper into military confrontation, making the whole idea of the council an irrelevant joke?
The growth of armed resistance to the US occupation is a deeply disturbing phenomenon that may already be in the process of changing all the facts on the ground. Despite initial Pentagon claims that it represented a desperate last gasp of pro-Saddam loyalists, it now appears that the resistance is not truly centralized but rather decentralized and spreading. The resistance may not speak for most Iraqis at this point, but when guerrilla wars begin, they rarely speak for the population at large.
The main goal of the guerrillas is to make governance by the occupying powers impossible, polarizing the situation and eventually forcing even the moderates into supporting a national resistance movement. Leading Shiite and Sunni clerics have so far refrained from lending support to any armed violence against the occupation, but how long will they wait? They cannot allow themselves to appear to be pro-US while a more national movement rises against the occupation.
Eventually this resistance could turn into a broad national movement if the governing council is not perceived as a power with growing independence from the US and loses credibility with the majority of the population. Conversely, if popular hope is raised by the creation of the council and its actions, the guerrillas may not win broad popular support, and the new Iraqi authorities will work with the US to end the violence.
The most important reality for Washington is that on average one American soldier is now killed every day. The tolerance of the US public for casualties resulting from occupation will be limited. Most important, US presidential elections are coming next year. Chances are, in a few months, US foreign policy may in effect be taken over by Karl Rove, President Bush's chief political advisor, who will be looking solely at the impact of Iraq on the coming election campaign. Unless events in Iraq start to move in a positive direction quite soon, one might predict the US will "declare victory and go home" by next summer, leaving behind some elementary structure of Iraqi self-rule, prematurely left to fend for itself.
If this occurs, Bush can still take satisfaction that he eliminated the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein. But think how far short this reality falls from the hugely ambitious geopolitical plans that the neocons envisaged before the war. Contrary to their hopes and plans, Iraq will not become a major US ally in the Middle East. The US will not be able to compel the new Iraqi regime early on to establish diplomatic relations with Israel (at least until a genuine political settlement is reached in occupied Palestine). Furthermore, talk of building a new pipeline between Iraq and Israel will not be realized.
Finally, the US will not be able to establish four major military bases in Iraq as it had hoped, which would have made Iraq the linchpin and nerve center of US interests in the Middle East.
There is no doubt that Iraq will be much better off. But from the point of view of the Bush administration's expectations and interests, the outcome will be disappointing indeed.