TCS Daily

A Contract with Iraq

By Lee Harris - February 15, 2005 12:00 AM

There have been many complaints that the Sunni population of Iraq was not sufficiently represented in the final tally of the votes in the recent Iraqi national election, and there may be some legitimate grounds for these complaints. Yet the Sunnis at least had the theoretical option of voting, even if their leaders counseled them not to take part in the election-a fact that distinguished them from another key, and no less important, player in the future of Iraq, namely, the American people.

Now it may be a bit bold, even for me, to argue that the American people should have been allowed to cast votes in an Iraqi election, and so I won't go quite that far. But I am prepared to argue that the American people's wishes and interests should have been taken into consideration by the Iraqi voters themselves, and for two reasons. First, because it was the American people whose tax dollars and whose military might made the election a possibility in the first place. Second, because if Iraq is ever to achieve stability and prosperity, it will be due to the continuing support of the American people.

As it turns out, the Iraqi electorate paid precious little attention to the wishes and interests of the American people. The candidate that the United States government hoped to see emerge as the victor, interim Prime Minister Allawi, was soundly defeated -- and defeated by the mullah-backed United Iraqi Alliance and the fiercely nationalist Kurds. Under these circumstances, the American people find themselves in an uncomfortable position. We have been taxed to provide for the creation of an Iraqi government over which we have been allowed no official channels of control, or even input. All that we have done in Iraq, in terms of money spent and the lives expended, has not translated into any form of official political recognition of American interests by the Iraqi electorate. In short, we have paid the piper, but it is the Iraqi people that gets to pick the tune he plays -- and the tune he plays may not necessarily be much to our liking, or, for that matter, in the long term interests of the Iraqi people themselves.

Though the comparison may sound strange, the Bush administration is currently in danger of creating in Iraq the political analogue of the Savings and Loan debacle that occurred several decades ago in the United States. We have put people in control over whom we have no control. In the Saving & Loan case, the American federal government told Savings and Loan institutions that they could make loans entirely at their own discretion, while the American taxpayers would be left with the responsibility of keeping these S&L institutions solvent in the event that the loans were not repaid -- an improvident guarantee that created an atmosphere in which irresponsible lenders were willing to make risky loans without any fear of financial loss to themselves.

We are in danger of seeing an equally improvident scheme being implemented in Iraq -- though a scheme in which it is not merely a question of wasting American dollars, but American lives as well. Because we sponsored the Iraqi elections, and to have proclaimed their results to be legitimate, the United States is now left with the responsibility of providing money and soldiers to support whatever makeshift coalition results out of the horse-trading that is currently taking place among the various political, sectarian, and regional factions in Iraq. No matter how irrationally or unrealistically the new coalition government of Iraq might behave, the American people will be called upon to underwrite it, with both blood and money, so long as the new coalition government does not commit the ultimate irrationality of asking us to leave -- something that they are unlikely to do as long as the United States is willing to spend billions of dollars in the effort to keep the Iraqi regime solvent, both financially and militarily. Even those who despise us most are willing to use our money and our might to advance their own agendas, if the opportunity arises -- as surely it will arise in the coming days.

How to remedy this situation?

The American people must do what the United States government has failed to do. We need to propose a kind of "Contract with Iraq" that goes like this: If the American people are going to continue upholding our end of the bargain, then we have every right to ask for the new coalition government in Iraq to come up to a minimal standard of realism and responsibility -- otherwise, the contract between us is dissolved.

The minimal standard of realism and responsibility can be easily stated: what Iraq needs most desperately, in its current crisis, is to unite behind a strong and relatively neutral leader. It must not divide and turn in upon itself. The insurgents are doing all they can to keep Iraq ungovernable; they do not need any assistance from the newly elected Iraqi parliament. A weak and quarrelsome coalition in Baghdad would be the best friend al-Qaeda terrorists and Ba'ath loyalists could possibly have.

The winners of the recent election must put their differences aside for the duration of the current crisis, and rally behind a single leader, bestowing on him sufficient emergency power to act quickly and decisively in the struggle against their common enemies. Furthermore, the leader they selected for this purpose must be one who has the full confidence and trust of the United States government and its allies in Iraq. To put a man in power with whom the United States government and its allies cannot cooperate would thus violate the contract. This does not necessarily mean keeping Allawi at the helm, but a promise to retain Allawi as commander-in-chief, so to speak, would be by far the best way of demonstrating a commitment to political realism.

Needless to say, the United States government cannot present these two demands as a formal ultimatum to the new government of Iraq. They cannot, at this late hour, tell the Iraqis that they must either stick with Allawi, or else face the loss of American support. But the American people themselves have every right to demand responsibility and realism on the part of any government, in return for the continuing sacrifice of the American people themselves. The average American supports our troops in Iraq -- but this is a far cry from supporting a bitterly divided and feuding political regime that refuses to take those actions that are necessary to preserve its own survival. The unconditional support of any regime, like the unconditional support of any lending institution, is a prescription for disaster.

Most Americans were sincerely moved by the heroism shown by the Iraqi people during the national elections. Yet heroism, by itself, is not enough to keep people freedom. The ability to face facts realistically is perhaps even more important than heroism -- or, perhaps, to speak more correctly, it is the ultimate heroism. And it is this kind of heroism that the new leaders of Iraq are called upon to display -- and called upon to display sooner rather than later. Later, under the present crisis, is simply not an option.

Lee Harris is author of Civilization and Its Enemies.



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