A Matter of State
To the Editor:
Joshua Muravchik’s excellent article about the debate on the Right about Iraq does not consider what may be a critical cause of the difficulties there: the gap between President Bush’s stated policy and the actions of U.S. officials in Baghdad [“Iraq and the Conservatives,” October 2005].
Very few reports from Iraq have recognized that actual policy on the ground has been dominated by intelligence and foreign-service officers, even though the Pentagon won the argument with the State Department about whether to attack Iraq, and the head of the U.S. occupation authority, L. Paul Bremer, was appointed by Donald Rumsfeld. Officials at the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) who were responsive to the Pentagon were few and weak. And CENTCOM, the military headquarters, has been more influenced by its longstanding Middle East advisers than by policy guidance from Pentagon civilians.
The main problem early on was that there was no Iraqi government to replace the regime of Saddam Hussein. State and the CIA vetoed the leading candidate to be or to form a government—namely, the Iraqi National Congress (INC), the umbrella group that represented virtually all factions of the exile opposition to Saddam. The administration’s foreign-policy professionals believed that the residents of Iraq had at best a weak national identity as Iraqis, that their primary identities were as Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds (and other minorities), that they had little belief in or desire for democracy, and that they were not capable of peacefully governing themselves. This consensus, which could be self-fulfilling, was influenced by longstanding relationships with Arab elites, many of whom are connected to Sunni dictatorships and fear Shiites and democracy.
The professionals judged that the pursuit of democracy in Iraq would destabilize the region and prevent the U.S. from getting needed support from Arab states against Islamic terrorism. They believed that the only realistic way to erect a government that could hold Iraq together was to enable a new Sunni authoritarian regime to come to power. It had to be Sunni to satisfy the region, and authoritarian because Sunnis did not enjoy public support in Iraq.
This diagnosis and approach was never presented to the President as a policy he could accept or reject. Many of the foreign-service officials had opposed going to war, and after losing that argument they acted in whatever ways they could to advance their own understanding of U.S. interests.
There is no way to be sure that using the INC as America’s initial Iraqi interlocutor or as the basis of a provisional government would have worked, but the decision not to do so decisively affected the course of events.
Joshua Muravchik writes:
I thank Max Singer, whom I have long held in high esteem, for his compliment. He presents a theory to explain what went wrong in Iraq. While this theory meets the test of internal coherence, it is supported by no evidence I know of, so it amounts to speculation. I find it implausible.
That some of our national-security professionals were out of sympathy with the President’s strategy is no doubt true. But it beggars belief to suppose that these same individuals, many of them risking their lives to work in Iraq, were maneuvering assiduously to defeat the President’s policies in favor of a secret design of their own, namely to impose a new Sunni dictatorship. Such cabals are the work of dedicated ideologues (like the Communists who once infiltrated our government), not of ordinary diplomats or soldiers or intelligence professionals who happen to demur from current policy.
The idea that we could have handed Iraq to the INC, as Mr. Singer argues we should have done, begs the question of how it would have enforced its rule. If it was capable of doing so on its own, then why did it wait for us to overthrow Saddam? The INC had begun in the early 1990’s as the kind of umbrella Mr. Singer describes (organized by the CIA, a fact which also comports ill with Mr. Singer’s theory). But all accounts I have seen or heard suggest that most of its constituent elements, once they had the chance, especially after liberation, preferred to speak for themselves. What remained was the faction loyal to Ahmad Chalabi.
Ironically, then, Mr. Singer’s proposal would have boiled down to the kind of anti-democratic approach of which he accuses the State Department. That is, he would have had us anoint a new Iraqi government, impose it on the Iraqis, and then act as its enforcers. The course we have taken instead, albeit fitfully and with missteps, seems wiser to me, namely, to create the rudiments of a democratic system. If the INC is capable of winning power through the Iraqi electoral system, I will join Mr. Singer in hailing it.
There are many theories about what went wrong in Iraq. I, for one, am not yet willing to concede that anything did—aside from the myriad things that go wrong in the course of any war and perhaps, too, a glib optimism on the part of some in anticipating what it would take to subdue the virulent enemy we are up against on his own terrain.