Even after a year in Iraq that started with a lack of civilian planning and concluded with poor political execution, the Bush administration can still recover its Iraq policy. But it must make a clean break from the past and change course before it's too late. Earlier this week, when asked about the administration's plans for transferring power back to Iraqis after June 30, the president responded, "We will find that out soon. That's what Mr. Brahimi is doing; he's figuring out the nature of the entity we'll be handing sovereignty over [to]." The irony was compelling given that over a year ago the president accused the United Nations of irrelevancy. What a difference a struggling occupation makes. After failed attempts to reach compromise with key ethnic leaders in the country and a self-proclaimed deadline fast approaching, the administration turned to U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to save the day.
Two days ago, Brahimi delivered on his end of the bargain and pulled a rabbit out of his hat. After a week of consultations in Baghdad, he unveiled his plan to set up an interim government of respected Iraqis to lead the country until elections set for January 2005. The fact that he was able to carry out his mission despite the recent surge in violence is in itself commendable. With a realistic political solution on the table, there is now an opportunity to reestablish the focus on political and social reconstruction, quell the violence and recapture lost momentum. The question now is whether the Bush administration will recognize and make the most of this opening.
Brahimi will unveil most details of the plan later this week, but he outlined the major ingredients of his proposal before departing Baghdad. It is clear that the bar has been set high. The plan rightfully calls for dissolving the U.S.-appointed Governing Council, which most Iraqis view as lacking legitimacy. All council members, some of whom are embroiled in accusations of scandal and impropriety, were handpicked by Coalition Administrator L. Paul Bremer. Eliminating the council is a bold step, but such a clean break provides instant and badly needed credibility and gives the transition a greater chance for success.
In its place, Brahimi proposes a caretaker government of "Iraqi men and women known for their honesty, integrity, and competence" to lead the country. Working with the United Nations, this group of wise men and women would select a prime minister, a president and two vice presidents. At first glance, this model might work, but only if the administration is able to avoid making the same mistakes again. The selection process must be transparent, consultative, and controlled by Iraqis with U.N. support. U.S. micromanagement would lead many to conclude that the Governing Council was disbanded only in name. Afghanistan, Brahimi's previous diplomatic mission, is a good model. There, the United States was engaged with the loya jirga, but stayed largely behind the green curtain.
The plan also calls for the creation of a "consultative assembly" without strong legislative powers. Describing it as "a simple solution for the interim period," it is clear that Brahimi has learned from the coalition's tendency to allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good. Having arrived in Baghdad with lofty notions of Jeffersonian democracy, the administration's original plans failed because it attempted to impose a system, a timetable, even a leader rather than simply designating a goal line and letting the Iraqis decide how to get there. The U.N. plan recognizes the practical necessity of the June 30 deadline, but also that there is no longer sufficient time to empower a credible legislative body in the time available without risking political paralysis in the process.
However, expectations for Brahimi's proposal may already be outrunning reality. In his sobering remarks, Brahimi placed special emphasis on the need for restoring security and a sense of confidence and buy-in for what follows. This is a heavy task given the growing discontent, but without basic safety it is unlikely that any transition will succeed. In a stinging and uncharacteristic public rebuke, Brahimi denounced the administration's heavy-handed military tactics against insurgents. Military action was appropriate, but its impact on the civilian population – with civilian casualties estimated as high as 800 in the past 10 days – has left the Iraqi silent majority polarized.
The coalition must not repeat the blunders made with the unveiling of the highly complicated Transitional Administrative Law a few weeks back. Ordinary Iraqis must be informed and involved in the process. The United Nations, supported by the United States, needs to have a two-way, not a one-way conversation on the proposal. An effective and sustained public information effort must be rooted in the realities of the Iraqi street and not in the creative advertising of Madison Avenue.
The United States did the right thing by turning to the United Nations– after exhausting every other alternative. With its own Nov. 15 agreement in tatters, Brahimi's plan is the only show in town. The question now is whether the United States is willing to share the stage and the spotlight. If the administration fails to seize the moment and embrace the U.N. proposal, the Iraqi people will view the transition as nothing more than smoke and mirrors.
Michael Pan is a senior policy analyst at the Center for American Progress.