Fighting Words

Provisional Government

The disturbing extension of U.S. rule in Iraq.

In the months preceding the intervention in Iraq, there were almost as many arguments within the “regime-change” constituency as there were between it and the “peace” camp. On both sides, indeed, some internal disagreements were subordinated to the main quarrel. The most enduring suspicion, among the Arab and Kurdish supporters of an attacking policy, was that elements within the American government would seek to keep them from harvesting an “Iraq for the Iraqis” victory. Hence the long tussle between Ahmad Chalabi and the CIA, and hence also the enduring memory among Kurds of the times when they had been used and dumped in the past. It doesn’t take much to bring these old suspicions back to life and the appointment of Paul Bremer, latterly of the grand old firm of Kissinger Associates, to a proconsulship could almost have been designed to revive them.

To some extent, every faction in this debate has been looking down the barrel of a rifle that might backfire. If no weapons of mass destruction are ever unearthed, for example, that still doesn’t mean that Iraq even attempted to comply with the terms of U.N. Resolution 1441 and it still makes nonsense of those who prophesied an apocalyptic outcome to any invasion. (This self-canceling propaganda has occurred before: Those who argued that the “real” reason for the removal of the Taliban was the building of a Unocal pipeline have yet to present any hard empirical evidence of such a sinister pipeline being laid, or even planned. Meanwhile, previous opponents of a U.S.-led presence in Afghanistan send me gloating e-mails every day, showing that the state of affairs in that country is far from ideal and that Washington’s interest in it is lapsing. Unless this means that they prefer Afghanistan the way it was, as some of them doubtless do, I hope they realize that they seem to be arguing for more and better intervention there, not for less.)

It is, however, possible to be consistent and somewhat contradictory. If the U.S. occupation authorities had been shooting down looters and Baathist mercenaries, they would have been portrayed as repressive and cruel. If they fail to do so, they are indicted for negligence. OK, that’s what happens when you assume the responsibility for someone else’s country. No self-pity is allowable on Washington’s part, and it doesn’t matter that much of the criticism is itself inconsistent, or uttered in bad faith. It’s not as if the occupation came as a surprise to those who had planned it.

This is what makes the reversal of policy on a provisional Iraqi government made up by, for, and of Iraqis so unjustifiable. It might have been all right to come right out and say: Forget about this until we Americans are the masters of law and order and providers of facilities. But that was not what was actually said. Dates were set, meetings were convened, and deadlines were announced. This also happened, as some forget, before the intervention, when a gathering of Iraqi oppositionists in the Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah was called off—not by the participants but by Bush’s envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, and not for any political reason but on the ostensible excuse of “security.” (Sulaymaniyah was no more or less “secure,” as a location, than it had been before the original invitation was issued. Indeed, it was picked in the first place because it was as near to the frontier of Saddam’s dominion as one could get.)

So, does the Bremer policy represent a change of plan, or the reinstatement of an original plan? Some might be tempted to argue that it’s too early to say, and that anybody who judges by the latest headline is asking to be refuted in a few weeks. I speak as one who did not believe the preposterous “ring of steel,” “Baghdadograd” stories in March-April, but who did believe the first accounts of the looting of the National Museum. Many of the latter turned out to be wrong, not just in point of fact, but wrong in every way a report can be wrong.

The debate over an Iraqi provisional government, however, seems to me to be important in a way that is independent of any stray or random, or indeed any recently verifiable, set of facts. It is an argument that has deep prewar roots, in the origins of the whole “regime-change” debate, which managed temporarily to split the difference between two groups in the nation’s capital. There were always those who on their better days rather disliked Saddam but didn’t quite trust the Iraqis and Kurds, and there were always those who truly hated Saddam and who thought that any Iraqi-determined outcome would be better than the Saddamized status quo. This was not, and is not, a difference of emphasis.

At the present moment, it seems that control freaks have assumed power. It’s a defense of a kind to say that control freaks are better than Baathist megalomaniacs. It’s a short-term defense to argue that water and electricity come first. It might even be a defense of a kind to say that control-freakery is preferable to factionalism and communal or intercommunal strife. But it’s not a very persuasive defense, because there will never be an Iraq that is composed of docile citizens who all see the same things in the same way, and because the dispelling of that very fantasy was part of the point to begin with.