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Commentary: Governing post-war Iraq

By JOHN O'SULLIVAN, UPI Editor in Chief

WASHINGTON, March 5 (UPI) -- Though a U.S. invasion remains in the uncertain future and Saddam Hussein's government is still a member in good standing of the United Nations, U.N. agencies already are thinking about the postwar administration of Iraq.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has denied the London Times report that his Canadian deputy, Louise Frechette, has drawn up an actual 60-page document outlining U.N. participation in a new (presumably American) government of Iraq. But since he also said that the United Nations had done some "preliminary thinking" on the matter, this amounted to the kind of "non-denial denial" in which diplomats specialize.

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Certainly someone should be thinking about how to govern Iraq after a U.S. victory. Feeding the civilian population, taking care of the wounded, rebuilding the basic infrastructure of roads, communications, and water, and restoring some form of civil order will be among the easier problems to solve. These are essentially military tasks -- and U.S. martial law will be the order of the day for the first three to six months.

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Its success will be judged by the iron test of whether the Iraqis are grateful.

My guess is that the Iraqis will end up favoring the United States at that point if only because even the most heavy-handed military occupation would be an improvement on Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's Baathist dictatorship. But gratitude is a notoriously perishable good in politics. So the period of direct military rule should be as short as prudently possible.

Frechette seems to have decided prudently -- if the London Times report is accurate -- that there will be little or no role for the United Nations in the first few months of postwar reconstruction. She thinks that the United Nations should get involved in the later stages when a fledgling government has begun to operate.

But what kind of government? Some Washington neo-conservatives, crusading for global democracy, would like to see the United States reconstruct Iraq as a born-again democracy on the model of Douglas MacArthur's regency in postwar Japan. But such direct control would invite trouble -- and it would also be quite unnecessary.

Within Iraq it would provide discontented groups, some doubtless subsidized by Iran, with an anti-colonial argument for resistance to the new government. Internationally, it would require the United States to account almost daily for its stewardship before various international tribunals from the United Nations to the Arab League. And within the United States it would give administration critics a permanent platform from which to criticize the war, its aftermath, and the conduct of the occupation.

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Take all three together. Imagine an Iranian-backed local riot suppressed by U.S. troops, reported by a hostile European media, condemned by unsympathetic "human rights" non-governmental organizations, made the pretext for an international "investigation" by the U.N. Committee on Human Rights (chaired by Libya), and inviting expressions of concern that the American pro-consul was "over-reacting" or ignoring "legitimate grievances" from The New York Times, the anti-war movement, Vermont Gov. Howard Dean on the campaign trail, and the minority leader on the Senate committee for oversight of Iraq. Governing Iraq under such conditions would be even more of a nightmare than simply governing Iraq.

And a needless nightmare at that. Following an American victory, the U.S. ambassador would be the most powerful man in Iraq even if he possessed no formal executive authority whatsoever. No major decision could be taken without his consent or over his objection. But he would not need to defend his advice before the world.

That is essentially how the British ran the Gulf region for two centuries -- the "British Resident" took the decisions and the local sheiks took the responsibility for them. It was government by ventriloquism, and it worked well because it placed the colonial power behind a veil of local authority. It can work in Iraq today -- not indefinitely, but for at least a few years from the morrow of victory.

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Should the United Nations, then, provide the formal governing authority for postwar Iraq? Not even Frechette favors that -- for the prudent reason again that U.N. bureaucrats would then find themselves taking highly controversial decisions on war crime trials, oil contracts and the new political structures of a democratic Iraq. Whatever hapless U.N. civil servant was appointed high commissioner would then find himself engaged in a series of running battles with his colleagues back in New York, various member-states of the United Nations such as the Saudis, and a powerful U.S. ambassador over everything from training the police to holding local elections. Frechette may have seen such a job coming her way-and ducked.

That leaves an ad hoc governing body rooted in the legitimacy of conquest -- in other words an Allied Control Commission on the post-war German model. This would be composed of political and military representatives of the major allied powers -- the United States, Britain, Spain, etc. But it should also include a strong and growing representation of Iraqi democrats of all stripes. And the local U.N. mission might either be a constituent part of this body -- or empowered to work closely with it.

Alongside its duty to solve the practical problems of everyday governing, the ACC would be mainly required to establish the conditions for Iraqis to elect their own government some years down the line.

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This is likely to prove a much more subtle and difficult task than simply setting a date for elections. For if democracy is to be successfully (i.e. permanently) established, it needs to be placed upon firm foundations such as a rule of law, a political culture of self-restraint in the exercise of power, a free press and free debate, a strong middle-class used to exercising responsibility in civil and economic life, and a broad social consensus on religious and social concerns.

Not all of these foundations currently exist in Iraq, and establishing them will take time. Yet the Iraqis -- understandably after years of dictatorship -- will want democracy introduced by yesterday. They will suspect that any delay is a sinister attempt to cheat them of popular government yet again. And they will therefore need constant evidence that Iraq is moving towards that goal.

So the ACC will have to keep up a hectic pace of public reforms -- establishing an impartial judiciary early on; imprisoning high-ranking supporters of Saddam as part of a wider "de-Baathization" campaign; encouraging the foundation of new political parties; holding local elections as a kind of democratic nursery; appointing Iraqi journalists with Western experience to run new newspapers and television news; and setting up a constitutional convention to draw up a democratic Iraqi constitution.

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It is impossible to estimate in theory how long such a reform program would take. But there is a rough practical test of whether these reforms have begun to create the underlying consensus on which genuine democracy ultimately rests. The ACC might, for instance, announce that it will surrender power only to a democratic government elected under a constitution passed by two-thirds of the constitutional convention -- including two-thirds of its elected members.

Iraqis will then see that the responsibility for the return to democracy rests not upon foreigners temporarily ruling them but upon those who claim to be their political leaders and representatives. They will give or withdraw support in line with their judgment of those leaders. And democracy will have begun to operate.

Whether it will continue to operate is another story. Frechette is wise to avoid the United Nation's taking responsibility for its success.

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