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Help Not Wanted

From the August 18, 2003 issue: European and U.N. political involvement will harm Iraqi democracy.

Aug 18, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 46 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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THE ORGANIZING PRINCIPLE behind the American occupation of Iraq, so advises a chorus of influential voices, ought to be the foreign policy equivalent of financially syndicating risk. America's budget deficit is too big, the costs of administering and reconstructing Iraq too high, and the killing of U.S. soldiers in the country too frequent for the United States to bear alone the burden of transforming Iraq into a stable, democratic country. A recent post-conflict reconstruction report issued under the auspices of the Center for Strategic and International Studies asserts that "the scope of the challenges, the financial requirements, and rising anti-Americanism in parts of Iraq argue for a new coalition that includes countries and organizations beyond the original war-fighting coalition."

Delaware's Senator Joseph Biden, the senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, wants to see "French, German, . . . Turkish patches on [soldiers'] arms sitting on the street corners, standing there in Iraq" doing common duty and giving the United States "legitimacy as well as some physical cover." "Our troops are stretched very thin," echoes Carl Levin of Michigan, the senior Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, adding, "We must end the feud with Germany and France and with the United Nations." Nebraska's Republican senator, Chuck Hagel, desperately wants to see "more United Nations involvement and more Arab involvement [in Iraq]. Time is not on our side. Every day we are losing ground." And Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry, the junior senator from Massachusetts, is dismayed at the unilateralist "hubris" of the Bush administration. "We need to internationalize this. We need to do it now, and we need to do it openly, and we need to do it in order to defuse the [Iraqi] sense of occupation and protect the troops."

Irrespective of whether we should seek to have Europeans, Pakistanis, or Indians dying with or in lieu of Americans, irrespective of whether murderous hard-core Baathists and Sunni fundamentalists would feel less "occupied" and less murderous seeing Turks in their country, and irrespective of whether the economically stressed, antiwar countries of the European Union would actually give meaningful financial aid to Iraq, the idea of a "new coalition" to oversee the reconstruction of Iraq is entirely unwise. It would probably encourage the worst political and cultural tendencies among Iraqis, even among those who are profoundly pro-Western. It could easily send a signal throughout the Middle East and beyond that the Bush administration doesn't have the stomach to transform Iraq, let alone the region.

In the Muslim Middle East, in the age of bin Ladenism, where the rulers and the ruled are constantly assessing American strength and purpose, multilateralism, when it is so evidently cover for a lack of patience and fortitude, is never a virtue. However long the United States stays in Iraq, the cost in American lives and dollars will likely go up, not down, the more we "internationalize" the occupation. The men who are killing U.S. soldiers, and other foreigners, want to drive the United States and other Westerners out of the country. When Washington talks about the need to share the pain, what these men hear is that America wants to run. And however commendable may be the idea of a joint American-European project in the Middle East through which we can lessen the rancor between us, greater European participation in Iraq's reconstruction is much more likely to fray U.S.-European relations than enhance them. It will be hard to blame the Iraqis for the ensuing troubles. It's not their fault if Washington doesn't read Islamic history.

For the last 300 years in the Middle East, ever since the Ottomans discovered their severe and ever-increasing military inferiority vis-à-vis the West, Muslims have tried to play one Westerner off against another. Englishmen against Frenchmen, Frenchmen against Austrians, Englishmen against Russians, Germans against everybody, Soviets against Americans, and now, inshallah, the European Union against the United States. If the Bush administration cedes some political control in Iraq to the United Nations in an effort to win greater international assistance, it will likely open up a Pandora's box of competing Iraqi interests at a time when Washington wants, above all else, to ensure that Iraqis cooperate as cohesively and as expeditiously as possible, with each other and with us. Even though the United States will surely remain the predominant occupation force in Iraq--and will unquestionably bear the responsibility for failure regardless of any new "coalition"--the possibilities for serious Iraqi (or European) mischief could increase significantly if the United Nations, French, Germans, or Russians started more aggressively critiquing American actions.

Just consider the difficulties the Bush administration has had pre- and post-war because of the profound and petty differences between the State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Pentagon. Though diminished, those differences persist. And they have had at times baleful repercussions for the post-Saddam administration of Iraq, confusing Iraqis about what American intentions really are. Now imagine layered on top of this U.S. debating society Europeans, Arabs, Pakistanis, and so on, all with their own national and cultural predilections.

IT OUGHT TO BE self-evident that Washington would not want any military or security assistance from any Muslim state that is not a functioning democracy, which essentially rules out everyone but Turkey. The Arab Sunni states, all ruled by dictators or princes, have to varying degrees an interest in not seeing a stable, democratic, Shiite-dominated Iraq born in their midst. America's toppling of Saddam Hussein may possibly provoke an intellectual and political earthquake in the Middle East, but we can be certain that the states of the Arab League, which refused to recognize the legitimacy of Iraq's new governing council, will try hard to preserve the status quo. And the Turks have an awful reputation in Iraq, both among the Kurds, who have long-standing ethnic troubles with their northern neighbors, and among the Arab Shia, especially their clergy, who see the Turks as propagators of a secularism hostile to Islam. The Bush administration went to great lengths to keep the Turks out of northern Iraq during the war. Having Turkish soldiers at Iraqi street corners would be one of the swiftest ways of torpedoing the country.

Intentionally or not, the Europeans could cause as much trouble as the Arabs or Turks. When I visited the French embassy in Baghdad in June, the French diplomats there were knowledgeable, friendly, intrepid, linguistically qualified, and better traveled within Iraq and considerably more plugged-into the local Baghdad scene than their overly protected American counterparts. But they were also French, which means many of their basic political-cultural assumptions about Iraq, the war, the Arab world, Iran, Islam, democracy, and the role of the United States in the region and beyond were different, often significantly different, from mainstream American assumptions. Now, in the fullness of time, the French way of looking at the world may prove more accurate than the American perspective. But post-Saddam Iraq is not the place to test the relevancy of the pensée unique.

Far too many of the assumptions about politics and culture regularly articulated by France's foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, who is always ready to describe the Götterdämmerung that President Bush is on the verge of provoking, are simply antithetical to the views of the Bush administration and probably even to those of the Near East Bureau of the State Department. Inviting the French into Iraq--and the same could be said for the Germans and the Russians--would mean fundamental compromises over how we view the world and the Middle East. Post-Saddam Iraq is unquestionably a laboratory for new, potentially revolutionary ideas. But it ought not be a theme park where Eurocentric officials, diplomats, and think-tankers try out new strategies for bridging the America-Old Europe divide. Iraq and the Middle East are much too important to be held hostage to France and Germany.

Too much American-European "cooperation" would also needlessly damage our reputation with the Iraqis. Though the Western press corps prefers to dilate upon the foundering affection between Iraqis and Americans, Iraqi sentiment toward the Europeans, particularly among the Kurds and the Arab Shia, isn't fond. Wrongly or not, many Iraqis view the Europeans, especially the French and the Germans (and the United Nations), as sympathetic to Saddam Hussein's regime. It would be nonsensical for the Bush administration to want to have the French alongside them in Iraq. As the Iraqi oil industry slowly gains strength, the French will try to regain some footing inside the country, possibly even at the price of sending a token unit from the French Foreign Legion. Whether President Jacques Chirac and his foreign minister can swallow their pride and principles for profit is a more difficult question.

None of this means, however, that the Iraqis who detest the French or the Russians or the United Nations would fail to use any of these parties against the American administration in Iraq if by doing so they could advance their own interests. The process of drafting Iraq's new constitution over the next 12 months may turn out to be a bruising affair, as the various groups in the country try to advance their concerns. This battling will likely be healthy, revealing the seriousness of the Iraqis' constitutional intent. The Arab Sunnis, Arab Shia, and Kurds could naturally try to introduce outside parties into the internal Iraqi debate to gain advantage or protect their flanks. The United States is going to have a discreet (one hopes), front-row, judge-and-jury seat. The U.S. officials who oversee this affair may be tested severely, as the Iraqis wrangle among themselves about what belongs in a constitution.

This process can only be made messier if more Europeans and the United Nations play political roles. (There is, on the other hand, nothing wrong with the Europeans or the United Nations increasing their humanitarian assistance.) The Iraqis don't need any more temptations to faction and fractiousness. The Americans don't need non-Iraqi distractions. Only a successful conclusion to the constitutional process will bless American efforts in Iraq. In the eyes of the Iraqi people, legitimacy springs from there, not from the members of the United Nations or its Security Council. The French, Germans, Russians, Turks, and the Arab League cannot give what they do not possess. Nor can they save American soldiers' lives. But the gradual creation of a functioning Iraqi democracy can, and only the Americans and the Iraqis have the desire and the means to bring that about.

Reuel Marc Gerecht, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.