Over the past year, much has gone terribly wrong in Iraq. None of the weapons of mass destruction that the Bush administration argued would be there have been found. An increasingly sophisticated insurgency continues to kill and maim countless Americans and Iraqis. A political solution bringing all of Iraq's ethnic groups together remains wanting.
Yet, as the debate rages over what's gone wrong in Iraq in Year One, we must not lose sight of the equally vital issue of how to get Iraq right.
It's not merely the lack of serious planning that has led the Bush administration to lurch from one approach to another. Nor is it only political opportunism that has made Democratic critics focus on its past failures. Finding a solution is daunting. The dilemmas are formidable: How do we square the need to diminish the Iraqi nationalistic reaction against American occupation through an early restoration of their sovereignty with the real prospect of civil war or anarchy if we back out too soon? How do we reconcile our stated goal of democracy based on free elections with the prospect of dominance by a theocratic Shiite majority? And how can the Bush administration get the help of the United Nations and more of the international community without giving up most of the central control over Iraq upon which it has always insisted?
Hard questions all. But as casualties mount and differences among the Sunni, Shia and Kurdish factions deepen, answers are increasingly urgent.
Since the brilliant military success of our troops during the initial invasion, the Administration's shifting approach to post-war stability has embraced three, very different models.
First, there was the fantasy of Iraq being like France in August 1944. The Pentagon's decision-makers seem to have believed that American tanks would roll through the streets of Baghdad to the welcome of jubilant crowds thankful for their liberation. If Ahmed Chalabi – the Americans' DeGaulle – was provided with his own hastily assembled militia, he would somehow come to power in a wave of democratic sentiment which would then transform the whole region, while American troops marched home.
But as looting spread and Iraq's governing structures collapsed, it quickly became apparent that Baghdad in 2003 was no Paris in 1944. While Chalabi may have played the Iraqi matador to America's bull, proclaiming grandly that "We are heroes in error…. As far as we're concerned, we've been entirely successful," America has been left holding the Baghdad.
Thus the second model: Japan in 1945. Democracy and prosperity would be imposed from above by a benevolent American Raj. L. Paul Bremer III was dispatched as the new Gen. Douglas MacArthur, a force of some 150,000 troops would maintain order, and nearly $20 billion of American taxpayers' money was made available to rebuild the country.
But Iraq in 2003 was no Japan in the late 1940s either. We had proclaimed that the Iraqi people were liberated, not defeated, and, predictably, even many of those who most hated Saddam Hussein resented the occupation and our refusal to give them more of a voice in their own governance. As this resentment became clear even among America's closest Iraqi allies, Washington concluded that it did not have the stomach for an imperial role of long duration — especially with U.S. elections on the horizon.
So a third model was adopted — Afghanistan 2002, though this time the United Nations was assigned only a marginal role. Control over Iraq would be transferred to the Iraqis by June 30, 2004. New security forces would be trained and put in charge of maintaining law and order, patrolling the borders, and protecting critical infrastructure. A caucus system would select a national assembly to take over power, write a constitution, and prepare for elections. The U.S. military role would be limited to counter-insurgency warfare.
This third attempt to get Iraq right has proved no less ill-considered than the previous attempts. The security problems are well beyond the capacity of hastily trained Iraqi forces. The political problems are even worse — with Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds unable to agree on how the transitional assembly should be constituted and what its interim governing powers should be. And while hard bargaining produced a surprisingly liberal constitution on paper, none of the groups have yet been able to devise practical arrangements for taking over power when the American occupation ends. All the while, the clock towards the June 30 deadline for a return to sovereignty ticks on.
Although the rule in baseball is three strikes and you're out, America cannot leave Iraq to its own devices. To save ourselves from either extending the June deadline and exacerbating Iraqi resentment over the occupation or transferring sovereignty when no political solution there is in sight, the Bush administration needs to strike a grand bargain — with the Iraqis and with the international community. And its Democratic critics should make it easier for it to do so.
The bargain with the Iraqis would give the Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds each a large part of their demands. The Shiites would get popular elections within a year to elect a national assembly for drawing up a constitution, appointing an interim government, and then overseeing general elections for a new government. The Sunnis and Kurds, as well as the Shiites, would see a rapid transfer of sovereignty from the American occupation to the Iraqi people, appointment of an expanded Iraqi Governing Council to govern Iraq in the interim and prepare for and conduct the elections for the national assembly.
The bargain with the international community would entail a transfer of international authority in Iraq from the American-led Coalition Provisional Authority to a UN-run Iraq assistance mission, which would help the sovereign Iraqi government in preparing for, and supervising the conduct of, the elections and further aid it in rebuilding Iraq. Responsibility for overall security would fall to a U.S.-led NATO force operating under a new UN mandate until such time as Iraqi forces are able to provide for internal and external security.
Such a bargain would entail some loss of face by the administration, which has long insisted on the centrality of American authority. But even the administration now recognizes that Washington does not have the competence, the popular mandate within Iraq, or the political will to rule in Iraq for long. And to walk away, leaving chaos in our wake, would be a strategic and moral disaster.
The critics of its Iraq policies should make it easier for the Bush administration to shift course. Welcoming a new approach without a chorus of "we told you so" would serve America well. For however much we may question the basis for and conduct of this adventure, the Administration did not make a Republican commitment to Iraq. It is very much an American commitment.
Ivo H. Daalder is a special adviser to the Center for American Progress and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Anthony Lake served as national security adviser during President Bill Clinton's first term and is an adjunct professor at Georgetown.
This column is based on a Boston Globe opinion piece published on February 13, 2004.