Iraq is not yet free of Saddam Hussein or Jerry Bremer. The political ghosts of the murderous dictator and the well-meaning U.S. administrator stroll through Baghdad's corridors of stalemated power two years after liberation.
Iraq's newly minted, democratically elected politicians have driven themselves into deadlock in pursuit of conflicting hidden agendas. But they are virtually required to do so by the legal code and political structure left behind by Bremer and his advisers when they departed last summer.
The code -- the Transitional Administrative Law, or TAL -- was deliberately shaped in an anti-Baathist image. It fragments power among the country's ethnic and religious groups to guarantee that none of them can again dominate and abuse human rights as Saddam's regime did.
The TAL contains great value, especially its protections for women and the country's victimized Kurdish minority. But it sets the bar for forming the transitional legislative and executive branches of a new government so high that few nations could clear it. The pursuit of the perfect has become the enemy of the good in post-occupation Iraq.
The Bush administration has exacerbated the problem by suddenly adopting a diffident, disengaged attitude toward the political change that it fought a war to bring to Iraq. After years of fearing "mission creep" in foreign adventures, Washington is allowing "mission shrink" to jeopardize Iraq's chances to build a sustainable functioning democracy.
In contrast to Bremer, whose bent for social engineering left no stone unturned, U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte left no fingerprints on Iraq's political development. And the admin- istration has been slow to send a high-profile replacement for the departed Negroponte. The sense of drift coming from Washington on Iraq has contributed to the waiting games now being played in Baghdad by Iraq's Kurds, Shiites and Sunni Arabs.
For many Army units force protection is the most visible U.S. mission in Iraq today. No one can deny the beneficial results for Americans of this emphasis: U.S. casualties are down, and Iraq has ceased to be the center of pitched national debate. The Jan. 30 elections and an intensified U.S. training program for local forces also have shifted the focus to Iraqis.
Empowering the Iraqis politically and militarily is obviously the only workable exit strategy. But the administration still seems to have great difficulty in establishing a sustainable and effective approach to reaching that goal. It zooms at 100 mph to get to elections, then sits in idle for months afterward. Complete control, Bremer style, gives way to an abdication of responsibility to guide or to set attainable standards for Iraq's new political parties.
Zoom-and-idle, control-or-abdicate: That is not leadership. It is not at any rate leadership commensurate with the responsibilities that accrue to a power with 140,000 heavily armed soldiers on the soil of a broken country that it has conquered, accepted an international mandate to stabilize and saddled with a political system that is proving to be unworkable.
Greece's Arcadians might have been able to resist the temptation to use the blocking mechanisms built into the TAL, which requires a two-thirds vote of the parliament for a three-member presidential council that must then unanimously name a prime minister. Got that?
Neither do the Iraqis. The Kurds lay claim to the ceremonial presidency for Jalal Talabani but are unhappy with the Shiite majority's Islamist candidate for prime minister, Ibrahim Jafari. So they stall and hope he will go away. Jafari's main short-term supporter (but his long-term rival for power), Abdul Aziz Hakim, lets Jafari twist in the wind. Meanwhile the Sunni Arabs demand an unobtainable guaranteed American withdrawal date as their price for participation in a new government.
After a hiatus, American diplomats renewed discussions with Iraqi political leaders last week. But they came not to nudge the Kurds or the others toward compromise. Embassy officials emphasized instead that nothing should be done to undercut the intelligence and security services of the floundering and transparently corrupt interim regime, headed by CIA favorite Ayad Allawi.
The Jan. 30 elections let an enormous amount of pressure out of the Middle East cooker. But the steam is building up again as the deadlock persists, Allawi remains in office and doubts build again about U.S. intentions and abilities in Iraq.
The TAL delivered the elections and a period of calm. But without active U.S. leadership, its complex provisions could strangle the embryonic, still traumatized Iraqi democracy that American soldiers died to create. Those provisions must be made to work and quickly, or set aside in favor of simple majority rule.