The Magazine

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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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.