This week, in an abrupt about-face, the Bush administration tasked the "25 unelected people" of the Iraqi Governing Council with writing a transitional constitution by March 2004. By April, Iraq will have a "Transitional National Assembly," selected in provincial caucuses consisting of participants chosen by the United States. That unelected assembly will choose a provisional government, and, by July, the U.S. will give that unelected government--you guessed it--sovereignty.
After it gains sovereignty, Iraq's transitional government is supposed to oversee elections for a constitutional convention and a new government--thus writing itself out of existence. Will Iraq's provisional leaders break with national tradition and hand over power? In a deep sense, the Bush administration no longer cares.
Sovereignty, as the Bushies used to tell the cynical French, was America's trump card--our leverage to ensure that Iraq's nascent politicos stayed on the democratic path. But, in recent weeks, American deaths have mounted and U.S. public opinion has soured as an election year approaches. Our experience with the governing council has shown just how difficult and time- consuming it is to build democratic institutions in Iraq. So we are no longer demanding them. The transfer of sovereignty will likely accompany a large-scale withdrawal of American troops-- further reducing America's leverage. As Reuel Marc Gerecht recently put it in The New York Times, "The administration that waged a war for democracy now wants an exit strategy that is not at all dependent upon Iraq's democratic progress." Perhaps it's a coincidence, but, two days before the new transition plan, General John Abizaid, the American commander for Iraq, said, "We will stay as long as we need to to ensure that ... a moderate Iraqi government emerges." Note the new language: Hosni Mubarak's government is moderate, too.
Many conservatives who once scorned liberals for wanting to quit Iraq have embraced Bush's new strategy. How arrogant, they say, to assume the Iraqi people need U.S. pressure to build a democracy. But the Iraqi "people" have little to do with it. Bush's plan will strengthen unelected power brokers, none of whom--be they exiles, Shia clerics, or former Baathists--have much experience with democracy. To conflate these selfproclaimed nationalist leaders with the Iraqi people is exactly the kind of fallacy for which the right used to excoriate the anti-colonial left. The Wall Street Journal this week editorialized that "the important point is that Iraqis begin to exercise authority, take responsibility for doing so, and be recognized for it by the Iraqi people." But Iraqis exercised authority and were recognized for it under Saddam Hussein. The important point is that the Iraqis who exercise authority lay the foundations for democracy, even if it imperils their newfound power. The Bush administration's accelerated political and military transition makes that less likely.
And there's another, much more important point about deterrence... read on.