- When the war ended in Iraq in April, the United States
and Britain seemed strangely unready for the peace. That unsettled conditions
would follow the collapse of Saddam Hussein's repressive regime was predictable,
but force commanders and Pentagon planners proved unready for the chaos
that accompanied sudden release. Picking up the pieces from the ensuing
mess, including such tasks as restoring power, communications, health services
and transportation, have occupied the team of US civil administrator L.
Paul (Jerry) Bremer perhaps more than arranging Iraq's political future.
While Bremer is not in charge of military operations, he and his team
have been bedeviled by violent situations ranging from ordinary crime to
insurgency, and it appears touch and go as to whether he and his team will
get a new Iraqi system of governance in place before the country flies
- One of the most promising features of this situation
is the makeup of Bremer 's core team, largely hand-picked by him. He has
brought in one of the best administrators in foreign affairs, one of the
best experts on terrorism and politically motivated violence, one of the
few really experienced American professionals available on Iraqi and Iranian
affairs, and a well-placed member of the neo-conservative hawks who started
this fray. His overall team, however, numbers only about 600, less than
the governments of many American cities. He will need more than that to
put the government of a country of 24 million people back together.
- While the Iraqis understandably are pressing for a faster
handover process than Bremer is likely able to deliver, statements he made
during a recent visit to Washington indicate that he has a well-developed
plan. To be fair, Bremer is an experienced public administrator, but like
virtually all public figures he has worked in systems that are already
fully up and running, and his contributions, however important, were usually
incremental. In Iraq, however, he has a clean, if sloppily erased, new
slate, and he has to do much of everything at once.
- As Bremer indicated in a July 20 interview on Fox News,
right now his team is (a) nurturing a new governing council (b) restoring
basic public services, (c) initiating economic reforms, (d) building a
new Iraqi army; (e) starting a police academy, (f) building an Iraqi border
guard system, and (g) raising an Iraqi civil defense corps. Any one of
these tasks would be a sufficient challenge for a skilled public official
in a system that is already running well. He forgot to mention dodging
bombs and bullets, but judging from his comments, Bremer appears to harbor
no illusions about the complexity or the risks of his mission. Obviously
among his major concerns is getting it all done in a timely way.
- In recorded times, no one has handled the hostile takeover
of a government without conflict. One of the problems is that an established
system of governance, even one run by a brutal dictator such as Saddam
Hussein, is habitual in many areas of public behavior and expectation.
Change therefore does not come easily, even if people are happy to see
the tyrant go. The problem is even more complex in Iraq because the whole
operating system collapsed and the top-level leadership structure simply
vanished. Ability to govern, at least to maintain order, such as it is,
appears to have descended on the Iraqi side to tribal, communal, clan,
and family levels, and in many respects, that is where it remains, pending
creation of a new government.
- Bremer has articulated a plan for Iraq's political evolution
but without a specific timetable. Two weeks ago he launched a governing
council that > tapped into the lower levels of traditional governance
in Iraq. That was critical to starting with a level of public acceptance
and consensus. Now, states Bremer, the task before the governing council
is to facilitate convening of a constitutional conference that will produce
a new constitution. Upon the adoption of a new constitution, elections
can be held, and a new sovereign Iraqi government installed with a functioning
Majlis, meaning parliament, representing the Iraqi people. At this point,
as Bremer commented in his Fox News interview, the US civilian administration
of Iraq "goes out of business." His job is done.
- It is hard to argue with that program of work, despite
the many hurdles to cross between now and the establishment of a new government.
The real problems are getting the insurgent elements calmed down or contained,
and defining and establishing a system of governance that is acceptable
to Sunnis, Kurds, and Shiites, as well as a sizeable secular population
that was part of the Saddam era legacy. When the Iraqis install a new sovereign
government, however, those problems presumably will have been managed one
way or another.
- As he works the problems in Baghdad, Bremer must be aware
of the exit strategy issues to be resolved in Washington. It is still
not clear why we went into Iraq. After months of rhetoric, dissimulation,
and outright deception, the public can discern no clear-cut rationale;
official explanations shift before a collapsing panoply of mis-, dis- and
spinformation. The exit strategies depend on why Bush and the neo-conservative
hawks insisted upon doing so, and what they plan to do with Iraq will certainly
bear upon and may well undercut Bremer's political strategy.
- It is worth examining the apparent front-running rationales
for the Iraq invasion as well as the implications of those scenarios for
when, how, and whether the United States exits Iraq. For our purposes,
we will borrow a number of popular themes afloat on the Internet, as well
as increasingly in print and electronic media.
- It was all about oil. On the Internet, this explanation
was the front-runner well before the war actually began, and its advocates
tended to ignore if not dismiss the weapons of mass destruction argument.
As the story went, the United States had been virtually shut out of the
Iraqi oil market by French, Russian and other players. Moreover, the United
States, already dependant on imported oil for half its requirements, faced
declining domestic resources and increasing reliance on oil that was largely
in the hands of OPEC member countries. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting
Countries, formed in Cairo in 1961 as the brainchild of the Arab League
Petroleum Bureau, was the opening gun of an effort by Middle Eastern oil
exporters and Venezuela to take their oil industries away from foreign
oil companies. Initial outsider bets were that it would fail, but it actually
succeeded, and OPEC largely determines how oil export markets will be run
today, mainly because its members control the bulk of exportable oil.
- The neo-conservative hawks in the Bush administration
and the Israelis, perhaps others as well, would like to see OPEC supplanted
or eliminated, and one of the ways to weaken OPEC is to gain control of
Iraqi reserves. Those reserves are now second only to Saudi Arabia and,
speculatively at least, could be greater. To put it simply, if this was
the rationale for invading Iraq, there will be no US exit strategy anytime
soon. Bremer's efforts may be well intended and even successful, but they
will be window dressing for a fundamental change in petroleum export ownership
and management, one that will perforce require continuing military occupation
of Iraq. The US and other Coalition members may pay for it with many more
- It is part of the War on Terrorism. Except in a backhanded
way, this was not an early entry in the Iraqi sweepstakes. However, Deputy
Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz came back from Iraq last week to tell
the Congress that Iraq is now "the central battle in the War on Terrorism."
Prior to this sudden revelation, Saddam Hussein had been accused of having
close ties to Al Qaida and Osama bin Laden, but those charges, much touted
by the Bush administration, had no proven factual basis and the stories
had no standing in US or other intelligence communities. Thus the Wolfowitz
statement came as a surprise to many analysts. But what he did was create
a peg for the War on Terrorism at a time when there was really nowhere
else to take it.
- Under the Wolfowitz formula, so long as significant numbers
of Iraqis dislike the occupation enough to fight back, he can call them
terrorists, and the War on Terrorism has a home. Spurious it may be, but
keeping US forces on the point for the War on Terrorism in Iraq is a devilishly
clever way to sustain the otherwise faltering image of a wartime presidency.
That could cause the Defense Department to keep troops in Iraq well beyond
any need either Bremer or a new Iraqi government might see for their help.
- We need new bases in the Middle East. This argument
involves some elements of reality and some of pique. It is certainly not
based on economics, because staying with the well-equipped bases the US
already had before the Iraq war was the least costly option, short of coming
home. Nor was the perceived need based on security, because if US forces
can be attacked successfully in Saudi Arabia, they are fair game anywhere.
Perhaps the lead argument is that Iraq offers a better platform than Saudi
Arabia for watching either Iran or Syria, and the US could perhaps moderate
Kurdish behavior to the benefit of the Turks and other Iraqis.
- Some reports indicate that out of pique with the Saudis
for not joining the coalition of the willing, the Pentagon (meaning most
likely Rumsfeld) would like to find other bases. However, if Iraq is the
choice, it would mean either negotiating basing arrangements with an as
yet unformed Iraqi sovereign government, or simply planning to stay without
consent. In his July 20 Fox News interview, Bremer may have hinted at the
latter possibility with his suggestion that US forces may stay in Iraq,
in the background, to keep the peace.
- Under this agenda, the Defense Department would be interested
in a long-term entry strategy, not an exit strategy. How that would play
with any new Iraqi government is predictably negative, especially if the
Iraqis think US forces intend to play an active role in Iraqi affairs.
Bremer's efforts to promote formation of a new government would probably
be sabotaged by any announcement that US forces intend to stay in Iraq
for the long haul. The situation is tricky, because no long-term basing
arrangement can be negotiated until that government has been formed. Given
a choice, a new Iraqi government may want no part of a US presence.
- The Iraqi campaign was to benefit Israel. Closely behind
and even sometimes in front of "it was all about oil" theories
on the Internet is the charge that Zionists in Israel's Likud Party and
their close friends among the neo-conservative hawks in the Bush administration
promoted the invasion of Iraq as a way to assure Israel's security domination
of the region. Before the war, on paper at least, Saddam posed the most
serious Middle East power threat to Israel. Because Bush and Sharon appear
so close, this argument has many subscribers.
- Other subscribers to this theory believe that Israel's
ambition is to create a Greater Israel extending from the Mediterranean
to engulf Iraq and acquire the waters of two great rivers of the Fertile
Crescent, the Tigris and the Euphrates. In this context, how the US plays
its Iraq exit strategy will be closely watched, especially by Arab and
other Muslim countries. Any indications that the Israelis benefit especially
from the US occupation or post-occupation arrangements in Iraq, say through
special oil deals, other contracts or rights to Iraqi water for Israel,
will be taken as proof of a > US-Israeli cabal. Bremer's job would
not be made easier by such revelations.
- The problem of Weapons of Mass Destruction. It may prove
tragic that this > excuse of the Bush administration for invading Iraq
does not hold water. Had it been the truth of the matter the exit strategy
could have been fairly simple. Send US forces in, get rid of Saddam and
his coterie, clean up the Iraqi stocks and capabilities to produce weapons
of mass destruction, turn the country back over to the Iraqis with some
well-arranged UN assistance, and leave. This strategy, focused on a goal
that could have withstood international scrutiny, might have gone better
with Iraqis in general. To be sure there were risks that, if he had them,
Saddam might have used WMDs against the invading forces. That was not
the case; no one appears to have asked, "What happens if we are wrong",
and the failure to make a case for Iraqi WMDs has undercut the entire Bush
- No exit makes sense unless the country is restored to
the Iraqis. In Iraq the Bush team walked into nation building by default.
There was no post-war Iraq plan ready on the last day of the formal war,
and chaos ensued because of it. Had it been focused on nation building
rather than on getting rid of the vestiges of Saddam, what seem after the
fact to be obvious and costly mistakes could have been avoided:
- The US drove the Baath party members underground, but
it should have kept them in the open, prosecuted the criminal element,
and begun to work with the rest. Now, aside from the search for Saddam,
time and lives are spent chasing Baathist insurgents in the Sunni triangle.
Ending insurgency in that region has brutal aspects that daily cost the
US casualties and may well prolong the process.
- The US disbanded the army as part of the expunge Saddam
process, when on reflection it was better to keep them around, pay them
and put them to work on civil reconstruction or other community tasks.
That error has now been caught, and may be retrievable, but in the meantime
a lot of chaos and hurt feelings have ensued.
- Keeping the United Nations out of the process is a major
error. It is still not clear whether the Bremer team will impose a system
of governance rather than accept one of local design. Imposing an American
style democracy appears unlikely to be accepted, but in any case an imported
governing model will take time. It is likely to take less time and to
be more acceptable if the UN has a major role in defining terms and getting
a new government installed.
- The real exit strategy depends on the Iraqis. The framework
for a coalition exit strategy requires the Iraqi people to move as deliberately
as possible toward secular governance. That is not necessarily a Western
democracy. Under Saddam Iraq was the most secular of Muslim societies.
With strong cultural, religious and tribal differences a secular government
in which all participate is the only one that will permit each major element
of Iraqi society to observe its own practices, provided of course that
each gives the others room. Saddam enforced that kind of peace, despite
Iraqi tendencies to disintegrate. The Iraqis must enforce a peace themselves;
the alternative is civil war and/or political violence on a continuing
basis. Bremer's team can perform only a mediating role in this process
for as long as the Iraqis need, which could be several years. This process,
rather than US policy or preference, should define when and how the exit
- Sorting the debris and exiting will not be easy. Coping
with rampant suspicions of US motives for invading will be one of the hardest
tasks of executing an exit strategy from Iraq. Every significant action
will be subjected to microscopic scrutiny. One way to deal with such suspicions,
of course, is not to care and do nothing. However, the US reputation as
a great power has been badly sullied by headstrong leadership and flimsy
as well as shifty rationale for the US attack. > The means to recoup
US standing in world opinion are first to stop making matters worse by
generating more off the wall excuses; second to do a good > job of helping
the Iraqi people transit as quickly as possible to a government of their
own choosing; third to involve the United Nations, that is to internationalize
the process as much as possible; and fourth to exit as gracefully and quickly
as possible. This is also the only path the US has to legitimate its presence
- Bremer's task is to get the Iraqis through this process
successfully. Washington's task is to keep it clean.
- The writer is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer
of the US Department of State. He will welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org