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Analysis: Iraq Handover

Robert G. Kaiser
Washington Post Associate Editor
Monday, June 28, 2004; 12:00 PM

The United States transferred political authority to an interim Iraqi government in a five-minute surprise ceremony on Monday morning that was conducted two days before the planned June 30 handover date because of security concerns. Critics point out that the stated goal to transform the country into a stable democracy has failed thus far. With a sharp increase in coordinated insurgent attacks, a death threat against interim prime minister Ayad Allawi and the looming possibility of additional U.S. troops being sent to Iraq, the official end to the U.S. occupation may be largely ceremonial. The CPA cites progress toward that goal, though, in the form of 2,500 repaired schools, 3 million immunized children, $5 million in loans to small businesses, 8 million textbooks printed and general elections scheduled for January.

Washington Post Associate Editor Robert G. Kaiser was online Monday, June 28 at Noon ET, to discuss the handover, the future of Iraq and U.S. involvement in the region.

Robert G. Kaiser (The Washington Post)

_____About Your Host_____
Robert G. Kaiser is an associate editor at The Washington Post. Previously he was managing editor, second in command of The Post's newsroom, from 1991 until 1998. Earlier, he was a foreign correspondent in Vietnam and Moscow, and covered the Senate and the 1980 presidential campaign. He did a stint as editor of Outlook before becoming the assistant managing editor for National News in 1985 and later deputy managing editor. He is the author of six books including "The News About the News," which he co-authored with Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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St. Pete Beach, Fla.: How will our military operations be affected by the new Iraqi government? Will U.S. commanding officers no longer be able to make immediate decisions?

Robert G. Kaiser: Hello to all. Today's surprise caught me in the New York bureau of The Post, and I'm on a computer whose keyboard is new to me, so I apologize for the typos to come.

This question will be answered in the days ahead. U.S. commanders assume they have full discretion to operate, I think, but it's also obvious that if the new government strongly disapproves of a military action by the U.S., its word will have some influence. We'll have to wait to see how it works in practice.

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Fort Lauderdale, Fla.: Does our military (not the hierarchy, but the actual troops) believe that (1) Iraqis welcome our presence for democracy. (2) Does the "average" Iraqi even understand what democracy is?

Robert G. Kaiser: Judging by our recent reporting from the field, the Americans soldiers in Iraq realize how unpopular our occupation has become, and realize also that western-style democracy is still a far-off dream for Iraq.

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Washington, D.C.: I was particularly stunned to read of the edicts left behind by Bremer... most startling (from yesterday's Post): Among the most controversial orders is the enactment of an elections law that gives a seven-member commission the power to disqualify political parties and any of the candidates they support.

That doesn't sound much like a democracy to me. Does it to you?

washingtonpost.com: U.S. Edicts Curb Power Of Iraq's Leadership, (Post, June 27)

Robert G. Kaiser: I too was taken aback by that good story. We have heard for months that Bremer was a controlling personality, but this may give new meaning to that term. I don't myself expect those edicts to have much force once the Iraqis are in charge of themselves. In my view, if we ever had a chance to really control post-war events in Iraq, we probably lost it in the very first days and weeks after the main war ended, when security in the country collapsed and we were exposed, to Iraqis, as a kind of pitiful, helpless giant. This was when every university, school and office in Iraq was looted...

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Twin Cities, Minn.: With threats to the new Iraqi government, do we know if the Bush Administration has a back-up plan if lets say the new Iraqi PM or a large number of his cabinet members are assassinated? Or, will the Iraqi constitution play a role in succession of power in case of such emergencies?

Thanks for taking my question.

Cheers!

Robert G. Kaiser: Good questions, cannot answer them. I surmise that Allawi has the power to promote successors to ministers who leave office in the future, for whatever reasons.

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Parkville, Md.: Mr, Kaiser

The Administration has been insisting for months that once the June 30th handover takes place, Iraq will no longer be under occupation. Does The Washington Post intend to discontinue the use of the word "occupation" in discussing current military operations, or will The Washington Post continue to use that term?

Robert G. Kaiser: Another good question. I am in New York, so I cannot easily check with the Foreign Desk to see if a policy has been adopted. We tend to avoid labels whenever possible, and to use factual descriptions. We have nearly 140,000 troops on the ground in Iraq.

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Birmingham, Ala.: Some fancy footwork on the part of the administration with today's handover of power in Iraq. On NPR this morning Armitage said that the State Department will now take the lead in Iraq. Is this reasonable given our military presence? Does Colin Powell still retain enough clout within the government to back this up since it is presumed that he will be gone in November regardless of the outcome of the election?

Robert G. Kaiser: I expect John Negroponte, our new ambassador in Iraq, to establish his authority as the senior American on the ground, but his will be a different sort of authority than Bremer's. Bremer really was the emperor of Iraq; Negraponte will have a lot of influence, but will have to exercise it with diplomatic skill, of which he has a lot.

But the real question is, what will the U.S. be trying to accomplish in Iraq between now and November? We know what the administration would like: stability, peace, increasing respect for the new government, etc etc. But I am not personally optimistic about the achievability of any of those.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Should we expect to see large scale violence on Wednesday even though the handover took place a couple of days early? I cannot see the insurgents deciding they were duped and scrapping whatever plans they had that the governing body was so afraid of. If the 30th is violent, who will end up taking the most blame, the new Iraqi "government" or the Bush administration?

Robert G. Kaiser: I am no seer, but we've been reporting for days or weeks that an upturn in violence is expected by both Iraqis and American s in Iraq. President Bush keeps warning us that it is coming.

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Atlanta, Ga.: What are the implications of this early transfer of power? Tell me something I need to know...

Robert G. Kaiser: Many questions like this today. In reply I urge everyone who hasn't read the brilliant series of three articles that Rajiv Chandrasekaran published in The Post last week. I hope we can link to them here. What you need to know, in my view, is that we have failed badly in Iraq so far, and the chances of a happy, democratic outcome now are slim. Rajiv explains why.

Today's long-anticipated handover of some sovereign power cannot compensate for the many things that have gone wrong up to now.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: "In my view, if we ever had a chance to really control post-war events in Iraq, we probably lost it in the very first days and weeks after the main war ended, when security in the country collapsed and we were exposed, to Iraqis, as a kind of pitiful, helpless giant. This was when every university, school and office in Iraq was looted..."

While I grant you your point that the number of troops on the ground were/are not enough to guarantee security, I have a problem with the assertion that it was our responsibility to stop Iraqis from looting their own cultural and educational institutions. The military likely had other objectives that were of a higher importance from the standpoints of political utility and personal safety. The Iraqis have only themselves to blame for the demolition of the aforementioned components of their infrastructure.

Robert G. Kaiser: Is it fair to say that we had a right to invade Iraq and topple Saddam, but no responsibility to maintain order in the aftermath?

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washingtonpost.com: Rajiv Chandrasekaran's series:
Mistakes Loom Large as Handover Nears, (Post, June 20)
An Educator Learns the Hard Way, (Post, June 21)
Death Stalks an Experiment in Democracy, (Post, June 22)

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Sterling, Va.: Is it possible for Iraq (or any other Arab country for that matter) to be democratic, modern, and America-friendly, without becoming "western?"

Robert G. Kaiser: I certainly don't think that is impossible, though we have to face up to the fact that until big changes are made in our policy and the way we pursue it, it will be a little dreamy to expect any Arab country to be "america friendly"

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Albany, N.Y.: This whole process reminds me of an old joke.

At the Versailles Conference, the World I allies re-created Poland.

In a little Jewish village in western Russia, everyone was talking about whether or not they would end up in Poland or not.

One day a man who had gone to the big city to buy some supplies came rushing back to town. "Great news!" he yelled. "Now we're part of Poland!"

His friend said, "so why is this such great news? Do you think now we'll get treated any better?"

The man replied, "maybe not, but at least now we won't have those damned Russian winters."

Robert G. Kaiser: Good jokes are always welcome!

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Navarre, Fla.: Who will be responsible for the protection of the trainers sent by other allies who will not send troops? If training is not in Iraq, such as Jordan, are the Jordanians committed to this addition responsibility? It is pretty clear that actions to disrupt and intimidate trainees will be attempted. Will this mean additional U.S. troops?

Robert G. Kaiser: Good questions, can't answer them. Obviously any country that sends trainers or any other form of aid in response to our requests now will expect American protection, the only kind available.

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Grand Rapids, Mich.: Like a lot of other people, I saw "Farenheit 9/11" this weekend. It certainly has flaws, but one cannot help but be impacted by the video of the impact of this war -- not only on our soldiers -- but on the average Iraqi. I have to say, as a fairly-informed reader, I came away from that film thinking that the media completely fell down in its coverage of Iraq and the "war on terror." Collectively, average Iraqis will determine whether all this treasure and blood was worth it. Shouldn't Americans see with their own eyes see what the Iraqis see? Why protect us from the gore? That is what ware produced, and we're paying for it. Why does no news agency even try to count the number of Iraqi deaths and casualties from U.S. vs. insurgent hostilities? In short, why do we have to go see a documentary by a biased film-maker to see real images of the raw brutality of this war?

Robert G. Kaiser: I haven't seen the movie myself, but I have heard similar complaints in the past. I think they are directed at television more than at newspapers. The post has actually printed many graphic stories and photos about war damage. I don't watch as much television as many American s do, but I haven't seen a lot of the kind of reporting you refer to. I do think American journalists, from the time of the Civil War onward, have shied away sometimes from reporting the full horrors of war. American television may have done so this time too.

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North Carolina: In your opinion, as the November election nears, will the Bush administration try to distance itself from what will likely be further problems in Iraq or will they frame the "liberation of Iraq" as a feather in their cap? Is it possible to do both by hanging on today's date as the last day they were responsible for the outcome?

Robert G. Kaiser: I think Bush is stuck with Iraq, and no fancy footwork will allow him to escape the voters' judgment next fall. If Iraq is more peaceful, stable and hopeful in October than it is today, this could help Bush. If it remains chaotic, violent and its future uncertain, I think that will be bad for Bush. Any of you can make a guess as good as mine as to which of those is more likely.

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Boston, Mass.: Dear Mr. Kaiser:

This is not meant to be part of the discussion today, but I just wanted to let you know that I think washingtonpost.com is among the best web sites available on the entire Internet. I am particularly impressed by the extremely generous availability of stories and columns by your top writers, the extra columns (I try not to miss a "Media Notes Extra" or "White House Briefing"), and the discussions, such as the one you are conducting at this hour.

I honestly think you are doing a great service to create an informed citizenry here in the U.S., although I have my doubts as to how many people you truly reach, since the ones who could really stand to learn may never find your site. Nonetheless, what you do is a marvel, and it's much appreciated.

Sincerely,
Edward Nesi, a fan
Boston, Mass.

Robert G. Kaiser: You're hired.

Thanks for the nice words. In fact we have more than two million readers a day, according to the latest statistics, so we are reaching a lot of people, and we are thrilled to be doing so.

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Staunton, Va.: Thank you Mr. Kaiser,

We've long heard of a 3,000 person-strong U.S. embassy planned for Iraq -- the largest U.S. embassy anywhere in the world. What more do we know of this plan? When is it set to commence at such a high personnel level? Who will staff it? Where will it be housed? Why is it going to be our largest embassy anywhere?

Robert G. Kaiser: As I understand it this will be by far the biggest US embassy in history. Our ambassador to the Phillippines (which isn't spelled quite like that, is it?) has been working on plans for creating this monster for months. Now it will be up to Negraponte and his team to make it work. The job will be daunting.

It will be housed in the same former Saddam castle that housed Bremer and the CPA. It will be very difficult to run efficiently. And if its staff, like the CPA staff, is afraid to go out into the country and meet with Iraqis, work with them, etc., it is hard to see how this embassy can be a lot more effective than the CPA has been. And if you look at Rajiv's three-part series, mentioned earlier, you'll see that the CPA was not very effective.

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Washington, D.C.: Mr. Kaiser,

What effect do you think the early turnover will have on Bush's poll numbers the next few weeks?

Robert G. Kaiser: I don't know, but who cares? The campaign has more than four months to go. Poll numbers now, or in a month, or in to or three, won't matter in November.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: "Is it fair to say that we had a right to invade Iraq and topple Saddam, but no responsibility to maintain order in the aftermath?"

Well, unfortunately, that is the nature of war, especially when it is waged without the requisite number of troops on the ground to ensure the peace. I understand and sympathize with, to an extent, your underlying point, but one cannot simply ignore the fact that it was Iraqis who are responsible for demolishing their own institutions. While the U.S. may hold some responsibility in this matter, the Iraqis need to finger themselves as well on this one.

That there is regime change does not a priori mean that there must be looting and a form of anarchy.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for replying...

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Washington, D.C.: The U.S. has made a huge investment in Iraq in the last 15 months in terms of American lives, money and prestige. When considering the success of the occupation, isn't it telling that the Bush Administration would hastily hand over sovereignty during an unscheduled, unannounced private event behind the heavily fortified walls of the green zone?

Robert G. Kaiser: A fair point. This has not been America's finest hour, or its finest 15 months. Nothing has gone as planned in advance, literally nothing, including today's events.

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Washington, D.C.: With regard to Bremer's final edicts before leaving, I thought one of the most mundane one's was the most interesting: no automobile horn use except in emergency situations.

Given that there are armed bandits on Iraqi roads and "improvised explosive devices" seem to be all over the place this hardly seems like the most pressing transportation problem in Iraq today.

And anyone who has been to an Arab country will tell you that, in that part of the world, people hit the horn about as often as the brake pedal.

Was the CPA completely out of touch with the situation outside the Green Zone, or is this sort of silliness just an anomaly?

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for the comment. I am in no position to say whether or not the CPA was "completely out of touch," but like you, I have seen extensive evidence, like these decrees for example, suggesting that Bremer and his team were not in close touch with Iraqi realities on many points.

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Houston, Tex.: As a result of the turnover, does Iraq or the U.S. now have authority over the prisoners of war in the Iraq theater?

Robert G. Kaiser: I don't think thee is any change in the status of prisoners in U.S. custody, but it's a n interesting question, worth our pursuing...

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Silver Spring, Md.: Can you comment on the status of journalism in Iraq? Are there independent internal news sources that Iraqis can rely on for information about this interim government, or must Iraqis rely on al Jazeera, BBC, etc.?

washingtonpost.com: FYI, The Post's Scott Wilson will be joining us live from Baghdad at 1 p.m. ET, and may also be able to weigh in on this question.

Robert G. Kaiser: My colleague's idea is a good one; ask Scott at 1 p.m. We have reported about the weak journalistic institutions that are struggling to win readers and viewers in Iraq. No one can create a fine newspaper or compelling TV news operation in a year or two, even in a stable, peaceful country. Iraq is years away from having first-class news organizations.

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New York, N.Y.: Hello Mr. Kaiser,

This morning an article from Bloomberg News quoted:

"This so-called handover is nothing but cosmetic surgery," Rime Allaf, an analyst of Iraqi affairs at the U.K.'s Royal Institute of International Affairs, said in an interview last week. "Nothing will change. The Americans can but hope it will only take Iraq off the front pages of the papers so that Bush can win the next elections" in November.

Mr. Kaiser, do you think that Iraq will truly leave the front pages after this so-called handover? What if violence escalates? Will the world pay any less attention because there is a change of face to the situation? Thanks.

Robert G. Kaiser: Mr. Allaf doesn't sound like a very insightful analyst, at least based on this quotation. The chance of Iraq going off the front page is about as good as the chances of the Iraqi national football team winning the next world cup, I'd guess.

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Albany, N.Y.: Fred Hiatt just returned from Iraq and had a column in the Post today. He doesn't seem nearly as pessimistic as you are. Not that Iraq will turn into Sweden anytime soon -- but that the interim government has credibility (both domestically and abroad) and seems ready to come down hard on the insurgency in order to make things safe enough hold elections in January. Do previous mistakes regarding looting, dismissing Army, etc., necessarily mean that all is lost?

washingtonpost.com: In Iraq, Focus and Idealism, (Post, June 28)

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for posting. Of course the troubles of the past do not guarantee failure in the future. I hope Fred is right -- and he has a big advantage over me, having just been there. But based on Rajiv's great series and the cumulative effect of Washington Post and other reporting I have read for 15 months or more, I am pessimistic about the prospects for stability, prosperity and democracy in Iraq in the foreseeable future.

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Waldorf, Md.: My sister-in-law told me that she has actually spoken with friends who are stationed in both Iraq and Afghanistan (these would be high-ranked officers) and they have told her that we are only hearing the negative side of things... is it possible that the reports we are getting (of failure and mistakes) is truly too one-sided?

Robert G. Kaiser: Of course it is possible. Perhaps my colleagues can give you a link here to Michael Getler's ombudsman's column of yesterday, on this very point. I agree with him that it is delusional to pretend that the overwhelming weight of news from Iraq in recent months is deeply negative for the U.S. Iraqis have turned against us. They want us out of their country. We know this from m our reporting, but even the polls sponsored by the U.S. of Iraqi public opinion say the same.

Perhaps we can link here to what I thought was an important Karl Vick story from baghdad on this point>

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washingtonpost.com: Getler: 'Rumors' of War, (Post, June 27)

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The chance of Iraq going off the front page: ...is equally as good as the fact that Afghanistan (remember them... the place that actually did have al Qaeda?) has.

Robert G. Kaiser: I strongly disagree. Iraq has become a great test for Bush and America. We have nearly 140,000 troops there. It is not comparable to Afghanistan as a news story.

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3,000 person-strong U.S. embassy: The Brits used to have those. They were known as Colonial Offices.

Robert G. Kaiser: I doubt the British ever had 3,000 people in one country, save perhaps India at the height of the Raj.

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Sacramento, Calif.: What is your view of the long-term prospects for the new Iraqi government?

Robert G. Kaiser: This is a good question on which to end this discussion. Keep in mind, this is an interim government. Elections, scheduled for early next year, are to chose a more permanent one. We won't know for a long time whether the Iraqis can pull themselves together and create stable new governmental and political institutions. Today's transfer to limited sovereignty was a largely cosmetic and symbolic event. The real story will take months or years to unfold.

Thanks to all for the good questions and comments.

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