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A Perilous Push for Iraq's Unity

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By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, April 9, 2006

President Bush has relied on his intuitive feelings about other leaders to shape American foreign policy through five years in office. That habit is leading him down a dangerous path in Iraq, where Bush and his aides are falling back on personalities and an empty slogan calling for a national unity government as answers to a metastasizing political crisis.

From looking into Vladimir Putin's eyes to get a sense of the Russian president's soul in 2001 to bending his own schedule and protocol rules to host Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi at the White House on Feb. 28, during Italy's fierce election campaign, Bush has personalized policy decisions beyond the limits observed by most of his predecessors.

Bush can cite dividends from this approach, such as the help that Berlusconi, Britain's Tony Blair and Japan's Junichiro Koizumi have coaxed from their reluctant nations for the United States in Iraq. Although the president has grown skeptical of Putin, he still sensibly strives to use their relationship to keep U.S.-Russian relations stable.

But trading favors and confidence with established elected leaders is much easier than trying from afar to pick winners and losers in the unpredictable maelstrom that 30 years of war, tyranny, invasion and social collapse have created in Iraq. A great deal of modesty, and a sober recognition that an orderly decentralization of power is the key to Iraq's future, are in order throughout Washington.

That is, the administration should pay more attention to shoring up the cumbersome federal system it has imposed on Iraq and be less involved in boosting the chances of individual Iraqi politicians with whom Bush feels personally comfortable while undercutting those he disdains.

To say that Bush is in over his head in charting Iraq's politics would not be an insult to the president; no one "knows" enough at this point to set down inflexible prescriptions or deadlines, or to mandate national leaders on the basis of instinct. Iraq is a work in progress that demands planning while staying infinitely flexible: Concentrate on institutions rather than individuals.

This does not mean the United States is powerless in Iraq. The "internal exit strategy" of pulling U.S. troops off Iraq's streets and then out of its cities by year's end that I described in a recent column can contribute to stability. It needs to be matched with clarity of purpose -- and with a political strategy not hostage to the president's likes and dislikes.

The perils of the personalization of Iraqi policy were underlined by the intervention of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last week in the battle over a new term for Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafari. Iraqis saw her visit to Baghdad with British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw in tow as an effort to derail Jafari and clear the way for a rival, Adel Abdul Mahdi, currently in favor at the White House.

Even a previous Bush favorite, Ayad Allawi, distanced himself from the Rice-Straw mission by staying out of the country while it was underway and boasting of his absence in an interview in the newspaper Asharq al-Awsat.

If successful, the Rice gambit guarantees that Abdul Mahdi will be seen as America's man -- not necessarily an overwhelming asset at the moment. And the administration will have lent its weight and prestige to breaking apart the Shiite coalition that won the most seats in January's democratic elections and then nominated Jafari for a second term.

Splitting the Shiites, who form the majority in Iraq, moves the country closer to atomization, not to the "national unity government" that the administration says must be formed quickly to keep U.S. support for Iraq. At this point, the unity government remains a slogan. Previous American actions have helped put a strongman approach to governance out of reach.

To avoid a renewal of tyranny in Baghdad, American policymakers helped Iraqis draw up a constitution and a national legal framework with so many checks and balances that it is nearly impossible to form any government, much less a strong, recentralizing one. Washington now works outside the constitution to invent new institutions that bypass the federal system and Jafari. This is using a sledgehammer to strike a gnat.

Iraq was grimly predictable under Saddam Hussein's dictatorship, which did reflect one man's easily decipherable and murderous personality. For all its grave problems, Iraq is not nearly so predictable today and should not be treated as if it were.

jimhoagland@washpost.com


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