Iraqis Will Learn to Deal

By Barbara K. Bodine
Sunday, December 11, 2005

Our occupation perpetuates political paralysis as much as it fuels the insurgency. It blunts the necessity for Iraqis to make the political choices required for them to achieve sustainable legitimacy. The Kurds have the cockiness of a 15-year-old American patron e; the majority Shiites the arrogance that comes with the promise of compensatory power; and the Sunnis have read U.S. policy, correctly, as sealing their fate of marginalization. All have established a form of co-dependency with the U.S. presence, and there is little incentive for any of them to compromise.

The consequence of ending our military occupation -- if done in a planned manner -- could be to force Iraqis to recognize the very real need for internal political compromise.

None of these three major groups can defeat the other militarily, but each has the capacity to wreak havoc. Economically, none can survive long without the others, if only because of oil pipelines that traverse the country and the perceptions of jittery foreign investors.

Politically, majoritarianism is as untenable as was Baathism. And a hollowed-out national government saddled with an unworkable resource allocation plan, militias posing as an army and competing legal systems is unsustainable.

The belief in the United States, however ephemeral, that Iraq would become a fully formed, mature Western-style democracy in a matter of years was naive. Whether the Iraqi government at the time of our withdrawal is an American-style democracy is not the issue.

What it must be is national, legitimate and on the path toward developing Iraqi-style democratic governance. It will take political courage and political wisdom born as much of self-interest and survival instincts as altruism for the government to achieve this kind of legitimacy, which cannot be determined by force of arms or by an ad hoc campaign for Iraqi hearts and minds.

Not much of our domestic debate prior to the U.S.-led invasion focused on the kind of Iraq that would emerge from the ashes of the regime of Saddam Hussein. Our working assumption was that we would be there for regime change, not nation-building.

We assumed we would find an intact civil bureaucracy and a redeemable army, absent the Baath Party, the Revolutionary Guard and other instruments of Saddam's control. We had an unabashed belief in "imposed democracy"; the successor government simply needed to be stable, unitary and friendly.

Each step in Iraq's post-Saddam political evolution has reflected American domestic dynamics more than Iraqi ones. At each point, debate raged here over whether the Iraqi political leadership, mechanisms or people were ready. And at each point -- faced with unavoidable necessity -- the Iraqis proved that they were.

We should learn from that lesson. The Iraqis pulled themselves back from a precipice in October with the "grand bargain" to open their new constitution to immediate amendment in exchange for Sunni participation in the political process. The challenge now is not to squander that advance.

For this reason, we must help provide the new parliament with the incentive to further its grand bargain and thus provide the government with legitimacy in the eyes not only of Iraqis but the rest of the region. An explicit U.S. commitment soon after the election to disengage militarily by certain dates could have just such a salutary effect on all the major players within Iraq. They will be left to rise to the political challenge -- and with no one else to blame if they don't.

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Barbara Bodine is director of the Governance Initiative in the Middle East at the Kennedy School of Government. She was ambassador to Yemen from 1997 to 2001 and coordinator for post-conflict reconstruction for Baghdad and the central region of Iraq in 2003.

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