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The Interregnum

April 24th, 2004

I’m looking ahead to the June 30 “handover” of power in Iraq with increasing trepidation. As this NYT story indicates, the handover is shaping up to be a complete sham (more on this from Nathan Brown, guest commentator for Juan Cole). Anybody silly or corrupt enough to join the new “government” will be in the same position as the Iraq governments of the British Mandate/Treaty period, taking responsibility for policies dictated by a foreign occupying force, while having no effective power over anything that matters.

It’s worth recalling how we got to this point, since it gives an indication of likely future developments. When the June 30 date was announced, the US (most notably Bremer) wanted to install a puppet government through a set of tightly-controlled “caucuses”. The Iraqis (most notably Sistani) wanted early elections with ration books being used to draw up a provisional electoral roll. Both had an effective veto. Sistani could stop the caucuses going ahead with the threat of boycotts (and the background threat of the Shiite militias). Bremer could prevent elections simply by doing nothing to make them possible (Garner, the first US Administrator was sacked largely because he had wanted early elections).

Sistani’s plan is looking better and better every day, and there are clearly quite a few people in Washington who now wish it had been followed. Nevertheless, there are powerful forces in the US Administration (most obviously the Chalabi lobby) determined to hold off any real handover of power until they can be sure of controlling the resulting government.

Any attempt to hold on to control past the end of 2004 is, I think, doomed to disaster. Given that Bush is unlikely to reintroduce the draft before November, it’s clear that the number of Coalition troops in Iraq can’t be increased, and is in fact bound to decline in effective terms as more of the allies and the for-profit private armies pull out. But if it’s impossible to hold on into 2005, it’s probably also impossible to manage the proposed interregnum.

There are no easy ways of avoiding the slow motion train wreck going on in front of us. The best chance is for the UN to refuse to countenance the current US proposals and to pass no resolution unless it puts the interim Iraqi government in charge of its own country, scrapping the deplorable Article 59 of the interim constitution imposed by the US. If the US was willing to put a large army under ultimate Iraqi command, it might finally be in a position to deliver on the promises made when the country was invaded.

I can’t see the Bush Administration agreeing to this, and I don’t suppose the other UN members will insist on it, so we’ll probably get an outcome in which the UN effectively washes its hands of the entire business and leaves the Americans to sink or swim as best they can. Assuming this analysis is accurate, which will become apparent in the next ten weeks or so, I think it’s time for other members of the Coalition, including Australia and the UK, to cut and run.

fn1. While I’m on Iraq I’ll link to what is claimed to be an internal CPA memo predicting civil war. (hat tip to reader Robin Green). I’ve seen, but can’t currently locate, claims that the memo is bogus. Whether or not it really comes from the CPA, the generally pessimistic statement of the facts seems pretty accurate.

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  1. April 25th, 2004 at 00:56 | #1

    Agreed that if the US admin attempted to foist Chalabi onto the Iraqi people, the operation Iraqi freedom will be doomed and cut and run is the only reasonable response. Why throw good resource after bad.
    But if the US admin comes to its senses and allows direct elections, with moderate Shiite blessing, would Pr Q agree that the Iraqi people, and the soldiers who have died to liberate them, deserved better than “cut and run” from the Coaliton of the Willing?

    This will be the first and last chance to make civil rule work in the ME. It would be a tragedy to waste it just to spite the Bush admin.

  2. wbb
    April 25th, 2004 at 01:22 | #2

    There is no way the USA will leave Iraq now. It has come too far and spent too much money on this project to throw it all away just yet. It needs Iraq for the coming century. It didn’t invade by accident.

    Casualties are low and they’re not making oil anywhere yet so it still adds up for the US. The protestations from the neocons that they didn’t expect the current mess are a smokescreen. (In fact I still believe they themselves are a human smokescreen.) Rumsfeld’s more sanguine – good days and bad days – view is closer to the real US mood which is the mood of the true power brokers in USA industry.

    But after the election when Bush loses the whole thing changes again. Then they will leave – but slowly with a lot of face-saving and deal-making on the way out.

  3. derrida derider
    April 25th, 2004 at 02:13 | #3

    Anybody silly or corrupt enough to join the new “government” will be in the same position as the Iraq governments of the British Mandate/Treaty period …

    True, but I bet many of those Iraqi governments greatly enriched their members. And I’m sure with all that reconstruction money sloshing around there won’t be a lack of people willing to serve in such an administration.

    Ahmed Chalabi for one has already shown amazing skill at seperating the Iranian (via a Jordanian bank) and US government from their money.

  4. kyan gadac
    April 25th, 2004 at 02:53 | #4

    Raed has an interesting take on the June 30 headline in his post for Friday last. He points to Bremer’s most recent reversal of policy on de-Baathification(great word, that) as at least being in the right direction compared to the folly of destroying so much bureaucratic infrastructure during the invasion.

    I found his suggestion that an apology for past mistakes would be a good start just a little ironic. I’m sure I’ve heard that somewhere before – wasn’t little Johnny supposed to apologize for something? Ah! but as Raed I’m sure would agree, though his ideas are reasonable, with the current administration they are also wishful thinking. Jeez it’s sounds familiar don’t it?

  5. John Quiggin
    April 25th, 2004 at 07:41 | #5

    Jack, the converse of what I’ve said follows equally. If the US Administration comes to its senses and pursues a potentially workable policy, those who supported the invasion have an obligation to help. There are, as kyan notes, some promising signs, but too little and too late, I fear.

  6. April 25th, 2004 at 14:42 | #6

    JQ, while the rest of your analysis is accurate, your attempt to give it context by comparing it with “the British Mandate/Treaty period” is just plain wrong.

    If you check out that period and the techniques used, you will find that – for completely selfish reasons – the British did put a lot of effective power in local hands through the “dyarchy” system. The whole point was to have enough local function looking after itself and paying for itself to minimise British direct involvement and its associated costs – the lesson from experience that the USA has not yet learned. (You may have been mistakenly thinking of the British post-1918 mistakes made in a very brief period before the experts like Sir Reginald Coupland were called in to fix things up.)

    So rather than comparing today’s case of doing it wrong with a historical precedent, you are actually comparing it with a hard learned method of doing it right, one that only ocasionally required direct intervention. Compare and contrast today’s invasion/occupation with the early 1940s’ lightweight actions to keep Iraq falling under Axis influence.

  7. April 25th, 2004 at 18:33 | #7

    Glad to hear we have another Iraq-agreement! Break out the champers and lets down some of the fizzy stuff.

    Now that we have considered the best-case scenario (a US handover to an moderate Iraqi representative regime, followed by a lengthy peace-enforcing mission by the US/UN) I would be interested in hearing Pr Q on the worst-case scenario.

    Something about the gradual escalation in insurgent violence, dissafiliation of Iraqi moderates and chronic delusions of the Bush admin tell me that worst-case is now looking a distinct possibility.

  8. Jill Rush
    April 26th, 2004 at 00:13 | #8

    Today at an Anzac ceremony in the bush the war in Iraq was hardly alluded to and certainly not mentioned directly.

    There was recognition of National Servicemen in Vietnam in the form of a medal however.

    There were some views put on war and exhortations to good people to rid the world of evil by war if necessary.

    There have been comparisons made of the situation in Iraq to the Vietnam war but there is that other Asian war with Japan when we seriously needed to defend our own country. The Australian populace supported East Timor gain its independence partly as a result of the feelings that we owed the people something for their help in getting rid of the Japanese invaders, when they were so brutally treated by the Indonesian Soldiers and militia, prior to and after the Independence vote.

    Japan and Germany did quite well out of the support of the USA after WW2. In neither of those two places was there any doubt about who the victor was but Japan was an island and was hated throughout Asia at that stage. Germany was hated throughout Europe. Both these victories came after many years of war.

    In Iraq there is the appearance that the wealth is going to the USA and its companies rather than the local populace.

    That the Americans have chosen an Iraq Administrator who doesn’t speak the language is not surprising – What is surprising is that they appear to believe that the situation is like Germany or Japan where more force and firepower will win the day – one could argue that the “freedom fighters” or “terrorists” are more closely aligned to groups such as the Vietcong as they blend in with the local population so well and can fight a guerilla war for extended periods and thus win as the local people did in Algiers.

    Australia did “Cut and Run” from Vietnam in a most undignified manner which left many vulnerable people to face up to former enemies without protection as the transition to power of the new regime was quick and final.

    The National debate in Australia should be about how that transition occurs with minimal violence in Iraq and when the Australian troops can come home. If Mr Howard does have any leverage with GW Bush then he should use it once the strategists at Defence and Foreign Affairs advise him – if he has any confidence in that advice now that these services have been compromised.

    One thing seems clear – The Coalition of the Willing and Gullible have made the replacement of one tyrant with another kind of tyranny almost inevitable unless they get the transition right on 30 June.

  9. brian mckinlay
    April 27th, 2004 at 02:10 | #9

    All the most impressive reporters I read regularly,Fisk/Cole/and others say what few in the US or Australian Government can even bring themselves to contemplate,and it’s the fact that the war in Iraq is clearly lost,absolutely lost to the Coalition. And for historical evidence one has only to look at the history of every colonialist/imperialist war in the past century..The British in Ireland circa 1920.The French in Vietnam,and in Algeria too in the 1950′ies,the USA in Vietnam , the Israelis in South Lebanon in the 1980′ies,and the Russians in Afghanistan in the 1990′ies..All were doomed,as were millions of the local people too of course ,but the outcomes were always the same !!a united nationalist uprising will always overcome the outsiders. Any discussions which don’t start from this point are a waste of time .

  10. April 27th, 2004 at 17:34 | #10

    Mr McKinlay is misreading history. What actually happened is no guide to what “had” to happen; none of those efforts were doomed until the world had finished changing to make them so, i.e. from about the late 1950s onward. If the circumstances of 1890 had applied, for instance, the French would have won by using tactics that were unacceptable later. The British only just lost in the 1920s, as Ulster indicates to this day. and, of course, there were few failures before 1914 – look at the Boer War to see that. The Spanish only “lost” in cuba and the Philippines because the world was just beginning to change, and the USA intervened (their methods were working, in the grand old way).

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