Seven Challenges in Facing Iraq

By Danielle Pletka, the vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute (THE WASHINGTON POST, 19/01/07):

On January 10, President Bush acknowledged that the U.S. had made mistakes in Iraq. Some of those mistakes have fueled the insurgency and others have stoked sectarian tensions. But acknowledging mistakes should not mean accepting defeat. Rather, correcting mistakes can better enable victory.

President Bush’s announcement of a troop surge is welcome. These additional troops and a seasoned commander well-versed in counterinsurgency tactics provide a foundation on which to jumpstart Iraq’s reconstruction. However, stabilization will not translate into success if the U.S. Embassy and reconstruction team repeat the errors of the past.

As more American troops prepare to deploy to Iraq, it is essential that U.S. policymakers understand past miscalculations, avoid reliance on flawed ideas and address festering problems.

1. Partition. As sectarian violence flares, some members of congress have proposed partitioning Iraq along ethnic and sectarian lines. The idea that sectarian affiliation is a unifying force and that all Iraqis should submit to such vivisection ignores a century of development, a strong Iraqi nationalism and a broad diversity of ideas within communities in Iraq. Redrawing maps will not solve old problems and may, indeed, create new ones.

2. Corruption. Iraqi politicians treat ministries not as responsibilities, but rather as prizes in their patronage networks. That means legions of ghost employees and unqualified workers — most notoriously in state-run hospitals. Accountability and performance metrics are non-existent. It is not enough to have a panel overseeing ministries; there must be new competency tests and oversight to ensure technocrats replace kleptocrats.

3. Oil. Failure to grasp the importance of oil production, the vital necessity of securing exports and the inequities of oil income distribution have undercut both reconstruction and security. Iraq’s previous finance minister estimated that up to 40-50 percent of Iraqi oil revenue gets siphoned off into the insurgency or militias. Corrupt officials have stymied equipment upgrades and metering equipment necessary to undercut theft at Iraqi terminals. This is not a hard fix, and one that should happen immediately.

4. Politics of Personality. It has always been a foible of American leaders to latch onto personalities in foreign policy. While the short term benefits of an alliance with a particular leader may be great, the long term costs are greater. President Bush has asserted on many occasions that he trusts the Iraqi Prime Minister (whoever he may be). At best, however, each prime minister has been a small man standing astride state institutions that barely exist. Prime Ministers come and go; only strong institutions can last. Key Iraqi institutions remain pitifully weak, rarely bolstered by serious technical support programs. Focus on institutions. Any prime minister today will soon be little more than a memory.

5. Ideas matter. Since Saddam Hussein was toppled, it has become an article of faith that political allegiances in the Middle East grow out of tribal, racial and sectarian affiliation and that political parties based on ideas like women’s right, socialism, or liberalism cannot succeed in “tribal societies.” And though it is true that under totalitarian rule, societies do cling to close knit and familiar structures, there is little good reason to perpetuate those structures once the tyrant is dead.

The U.S. government has never put a premium on promoting civil society or the kind of political system that could nurture new parties. Instead, the Bush administration has clung to the familiar and “authentic,” preferring to work with a nation of mini-dictatorships like the Da`wa Party and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. The administration’s support for a list-based voting system — so-called proportional representation — exacerbates the problem by ensuring politicians are accountable more to populist leaders than to their constituents.

6. Civil war. It has become popular to say Iraq is in a civil war. This has far less to do with the nature of the battles and far more to do with a desire to describe Iraq as “not our fight.” The vast center of the Iraqi population is less fixated on sect and more fixated on security. Much as Neville Chamberlain derided the “quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing,” so too, political opportunists have harped on sectarian violence as a reason to exit the Iraq scene. Isolationism, though, will not work in the 21st century. If the U.S. scuttles from Iraq, the vacuum will be filled, and those that fill it will follow Americans to our shores as surely as bin Laden did on 9/11.

7. De-Baathification. The Baath party was responsible for the mass terrorization of Iraqi society and the murder of tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of innocent civilians. Suggestions that senior officials should be reintegrated into the Iraqi government deny the Iraqi people the justice they deserve and the closure that a peace and reconciliation process might afford. Failure to understand this dynamic has already led to a Shiite loss of faith in Washington’s bona fides. There is no reason to make things worse. Many analysts say de-Baathification was divisive, cooling any possibility of Sunni support for the new Iraqi government. In fact, the policy was well received by most Iraqis — even Sunnis. Violence grew in proportion to re-Baathification. Nor was de-Baathification sweeping. While statistics on de-Baathification are scattered and unreliable even at the upper range, less than 0.4 percent of the Iraqi population was implicated.

Responding to failures on the ground, President Bush replaced his top commanders in Iraq. The time has now come to replace the civilians responsible for the political and economic problems plaguing U.S. efforts in Iraq. The Iraqis must do their part: A new Iraq must be built on solid foundations. The same is true for American foreign policy.