Focus on What's at Stake in Iraq
By Jim Hoagland
Thursday, May 13, 2004; Page A29
What if Bush the Illegitimate promises to wear sackcloth and ashes to John Kerry's inaugural ball, prostrates himself for 40 days and nights before Jordan's king and Egypt's president-for-life, and stages an execution (real or mock, to be determined by an online poll managed by al-Jazeera TV) of Rumsfeld the Ogre? Would that do it for you?
Make no mistake: The military and congressional investigations into the Abu Ghraib prison scandal must be pursued. They offer the best opportunity to repair America's reputation and prevent future atrocities. But this episode should not be inflated for partisan gain at home, or manipulated by those abroad who oppose the exercise of U.S. power in their precincts. Those outcomes risk throwing the American baby out with the Bush bath water.
To leap to the conclusion that Arab dictators have suddenly gained moral superiority over the United States, which is no longer fit to pursue or speak about democratic change in the Middle East, is self-defeating. The goal must be justice for the guilty and the victims at Abu Ghraib, not the donning of a national hair shirt and an American retreat from world leadership.
President Bush's increasingly shaky management of the occupation of Iraq is a legitimate campaign issue. It is one of the factors that could bring regime change in Washington. After all, Bush's domestic agenda is a sorry mishmash of backward-looking causes, and his economic policies are short-termism at its most egregious. There are plenty of reasons for change if you think the other guy can do better.
But there is no reason to make the same mistake those grinning, lascivious goons posing as guards made at Abu Ghraib, which is to assume that the humiliation of a foe -- in this case Bush -- is synonymous with justice. Those who were silent about torture in Iraq during Saddam Hussein's time should be modest about cloaking established political agendas in the name of that cause now.
Abu Ghraib does not change the essential reality about Iraq, which I have flogged here for months: It is up to Iraqis to determine their political future, and it is up to the Americans and other Arabs to get out of their way -- yesterday. That has not been the Bush way. Proconsular absolutism has been abandoned in favor of yielding political power not to Iraqis but to the United Nations. This would presumably deprive Kerry of a campaign issue and placate Sunni Arab governments, which were silent about torture and mass murder when committed by Hussein's Sunni minority. Those regimes now prefer to see Iraq in chaos rather than ruled by Shiite Arabs.
"It is impossible for Iraq to be ruled by the Shiites," a political adviser to a ruling Arab monarch said recently in a not-for-attribution setting that encouraged unusual candor. "Sunnis make up 85 percent of the population of the Arab world. How could it be democratic" for a national Shiite majority to rule an Arab country? That is the key issue for King Abdullah of Jordan, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and other Sunni autocrats. Those damning photos and videos of abuses at Abu Ghraib, and others that may show similar incidents elsewhere in the overextended U.S.-British archipelago of war prisons, are useful clubs for them to wield against the Bush administration's most ambitious visions of democracy and gender equality in the region.
The actions of the guards and perhaps of U.S. intelligence agents at Abu Ghraib gravely complicate those goals. They force redefinition and adjustment of the U.S. mission in the Middle East. But that emphasizes the importance of keeping what is at stake clearly in view.
The United States should stay committed to working for democracy in Iraq, which means accepting the mathematical advantage that free elections would give the Shiite majority. No U.N. formula for a caretaker cabinet of "technocrats" rigged to Sunni interests can be allowed to finesse that. The alternative is a de facto partition of Iraq into armed ethnic camps.
U.S. military commanders are already cutting deals with local forces, whether Baathists in Fallujah or anti-Baathist militias in the south and in Kurdistan. The generals can feel the political wind shifting behind them in Washington. They will not waste lives in frontal assaults for political goals as uncertain and unclear as Bush's have become in Iraq, or if they think Kerry will declare defeat and go home when elected.
The U.S. commitment to Iraq is endangered less by the crimes of the lowly in rank than by the distraction and political egotism of the mighty. Giving democracy in Iraq a chance to survive the U.S. presidential campaign is now a leadership challenge, for both Bush and Kerry.
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