Bremer's U.N. Lifeline
By David Ignatius
Friday, January 16, 2004; Page A19
BAGHDAD -- Let's try to read the mind of America's proconsul here in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer -- the man whose crisp coat-and-tie style has done more to advance the preppie look than anyone since Jay Gatsby.
Bremer is preparing for a crucial meeting in New York on Monday with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. The irony is that Bremer will be asking the United Nations, in effect, to provide political legitimacy for his plan to delay elections until after the planned July 1 handover of sovereignty to Iraq.
Bremer's problem is that America's indispensable ally in Iraq -- the Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani -- isn't budging in his demand that elections precede the handover of sovereignty. In part it's a power grab by Sistani, who knows these elections will lock in the power of Iraq's Shiite majority.
Bremer wants Annan to send a fact-finding team to Iraq to confirm that quick elections are unfeasible. Annan has already sent a letter advising against a quick poll. It was delivered to Sistani this week by Iraq's current interim president, Adnan Pachachi, but it wasn't enough. The hope is that Sistani will find it easier to accept the conclusions of a U.N. team than to accede to American occupiers.
So things have come full circle in Iraq: After bypassing the United Nations on its rush into Iraq, the Bush administration now realizes that it needs Annan's help in getting out.
Bremer hopes the Monday meeting will produce a process for bringing the international organization back into Iraq. The fact-finding team will buy time until the July 1 transfer -- assuming Sistani goes along. Once Iraq regains its sovereignty, the United Nations can then help write election laws, compile reliable voter rolls, appoint an election commission and write a new constitution.
The United States can help in these nation-building tasks. But they will be easier for Iraqis to swallow with a U.N. seal of approval -- which should take the sting out of occupation. Bremer knows that premature elections could be disastrous -- exacerbating Sunni Muslim fears that the Shiite majority will abuse its power just as the Sunnis did when Saddam Hussein was in control.
So how did the savvy Bremer misread Sistani's insistence on elections when he announced the U.S. transition plan Nov. 15? The answer seems to be botched communication, in which an emissary from the Governing Council either misstated Bremer's plan to delay elections or misunderstood Sistani's response.
Bremer has what must be the hardest and most dangerous job in the world. With his striped "rep" ties, well-creased trousers and blue blazer, Bremer has the air of a man born to rule, or at least temporarily administer. But in light of the Sistani problem, it may help to think of Bremer not as a proconsul but as a bankruptcy trustee.
Bremer's bankrupt Iraq has three main political creditors: the Shiites, the Kurds and the Sunnis. If any one of them presses for unilateral advantage -- threatens to "call its loans," so to speak -- the fragile structure of the new Iraq might crumble. As in a bankruptcy, the creditors can achieve their goals only if they patiently forbear -- and let the trustee do his job of putting the enterprise back together.
Unfortunately, all three Iraqi factions are going for broke -- trying to lock in their gains now, even if that has the effect of destroying their common venture. Sistani's push for quick elections is certainly that. So is the recent demand by Kurds to keep their quasi-autonomous zone in the north and add to it areas that have a majority Kurdish population, possibly including oil-rich Kirkuk. And so, too, is the armed insurgency in the Sunni Triangle.
So what can Bremer do to bring Iraq out of bankruptcy and back to some sort of political solvency?
The answer is that, like any trustee, he must believe that his creditors are rational. Bremer knows Iraqis want American occupation to end. But he also knows that Iraqis fear that their country is drifting toward civil war. His polls tell him 57 percent of Iraqis would feel less safe if American troops pulled out tomorrow. In Baghdad, that figure is 65 percent; in Basra, it's 67 percent.
Bremer has to believe in Iraqi realpolitik -- in a rationality that will transcend the go-for-broke demands of ethnic and religious dogmatists. His best hope is that when he departs next July, he will have left behind a country that, although fragile and untidy, at least has a chance of becoming a democracy and avoiding a civil war.
To succeed, Bremer and his colleagues must engage in some realpolitik of their own -- by embracing the United Nations as a full partner in rebuilding Iraq.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company