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Ceding command and control

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If President Bush doesn’t play these next few weeks very carefully, he could wind up losing not just Iraq but Western Europe. On Saturday, the leaders of France, Germany, and Britain will meet in Berlin to discuss how to deal with the U.S. request for postwar assistance. This news flash bears repeating: Our key allies over the past half-century are meeting to form not a common Western position on how to deal with Iraq but a common Western European position on how to deal with us — and in a form that does not include any Americans. Meanwhile, France, Germany, Belgium, and Luxembourg are putting together a European defense force independent of NATO (i.e., free of U.S. control).

InsertArt(2016731)NOT SINCE World War I has the Atlantic Ocean seemed so wide.

Donald Rumsfeld may not mind alienating the powers of “old Europe.” He has famously expressed a preference for the bearhugs of Poland, Bulgaria, and Ukraine. But if the potentially big war before us, the war on terrorism, is a war of civilizations, then it would be good to remain friends with nations, such as France and Germany, that share our traditions and concepts of liberty-and possess the requisite guns and hard currency for the fight.

The cause of this latest Euro-American fissure is a debate — not just a hissy fit but a legitimate, substantive debate — over who will shape the future of Iraq. President Bush wisely, if belatedly, opened the debate by returning to the U.N. Security Council to ask for a new resolution that might prompt other nations to contribute money and manpower to Iraq’s postwar security and reconstruction. The debate was joined last weekend, at a ministerial meeting in Geneva, when French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin challenged America’s presumption of control, and America’s Secretary of State Colin Powell fired back.


On one major issue in this debate, Powell is right, and de Villepin is wrong: Iraq is not nearly ready for self-rule. At Geneva, de Villepin demanded that all power in Baghdad be turned over from the U.S. occupation authority to an interim Iraqi government within a month’s time; Powell objected that such a move would “push the process too quickly.”

A recent and highly useful Rand Corp. study by James Dobbins — former special envoy to Kosovo, Bosnia, Somalia, Haiti, and Afghanistan, under both President Bushes and Clinton in between — notes that, historically, postwar democratization doesn’t successfully take hold in a country until at least a few years after the fighting has stopped. In a phone interview Tuesday, Dobbins allowed that, because time is of the essence, Iraqi national elections might be held in 18 months (and several local elections well before then), but no sooner than that. (One U.N. source said that even most French diplomats understand this.)

However, on another issue, Powell is on shakier ground. This dispute revolves around the firm insistence by the Bush administration that, until Iraq does elect its own government, power must reside solely in the “coalition provisional authority” — that is to say, in the office of L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. delegate to Iraq, who reports directly to Donald Rumsfeld.

De Villepin wants power to pass from the Pentagon to the U.N. Security Council before it winds up in the hands of Iraqis, and while he clearly has a vested interest in taking such a stance, he also has a point. Keep in mind, first of all, that no Security Council members — not even the French — want to turn the military part of the occupation into a purely blue-helmet affair; some would like to see U.N. peacekeeping forces play a role in Iraq, but nobody has a problem with keeping them (or any other nation’s troops or security forces) under the unified command of the United States.

However, it is becoming increasingly clear, even to President Bush, that the United States cannot go it alone in securing the peace and stability that Iraq needs to take its next steps toward independence and democracy — and that Washington will have to cede a lot of ground to the United Nations or some international institution before other nations devote money and lives to the cause. Governments, like people, need to have a stake in the success of an enterprise before they take great risks in its pursuit — a hand on the controls, a say in the direction of policy, a share in the potential economic rewards. Under the current occupation regime, no nation besides the United States has any of this.


There are three issues here, each distinct but mutually reinforcing.

First and most obviously, for all the prewar posturings by Bush’s neo-con deputies, the United States simply does not have enough men and women in arms to take up the call to empire or even, as it turns out, to complete the mission in Iraq. Dobbins calculates that a half-million troops are needed to secure a country of Iraq’s size and complexity. Yet a deployment of merely 140,000 — less than a third the desired size — has stretched the U.S. military thin and engorged its budget to near the political breaking point.

Second, the U.S. occupation authority is clearly in over its head. Its officials and staff are prisoners in their headquarters, confined behind sandbags and armed guards for their own security. They have limited contact with “the street” and still less exposure to the country’s daily life, its problems, or its potential problem-solvers. And few of them have any experience in dealing either with Iraq or with the tasks of postwar reconstruction generally.

Third, the U.S. Army is impressively skilled at the high-tempo maneuverings of modern mechanized warfare, but it is, by many of its officers’ own admission, ill-suited and ill-trained for the task currently at hand. This fact is not merely an inadequacy but a liability; it is not merely delaying but hindering — and in some ways reversing — progress in Iraqi redevelopment.

The most dramatic illustration of this liability came last week, when U.S. soldiers in Fallujah came upon a firefight between Iraqi police and criminals and, not knowing what was going on, ended up killing at least eight Iraqi policemen. (A similar incident occurred last summer, when U.S. soldiers in Baghdad killed two Iraqi policemen who were chasing robbers.) Besides being a calamity in its own right, some of the victims’ colleagues are now vowing revenge on American soldiers; in other words, some of the Fallujah police-trained and paid by Americans-consider the U.S. Army (and, by implication, the U.S. occupation authority) to be the enemy.


The sentiment is shared by a growing number of Iraqis whose doors have been beaten down by soldiers or whose friends or family members have been killed while crossing poorly marked (or, in at least one case, unmarked) checkpoints. American soldiers are understandably nervous about their own security; they’re subject to a dozen guerrilla attacks a day. However, they’re increasingly locked in a spiral: their stepped-up aggression, in response to this threat, creates more threats. In fact, U.S. intelligence agencies have now concluded what NPR’s Deborah Amos has been reporting for some time — that the biggest threat in Iraq comes not from Saddam loyalists or imported terrorists but from ordinary Iraqis who resent the occupation.

The upshot of all these tensions is that a U.S.-led occupation authority might not be the ideal vehicle for Iraq’s transition to peaceful, democratic self-rule. When the time comes for a new Iraqi government to take command, if it’s Bremer who supervises the election and hands over the keys to power, and if in the meantime Bremer’s own authority is widely perceived as illegitimate, then the new Iraqi government may well inherit that perception and won’t likely last long.

America may be awakening from a crazy dream. The House of Representatives is taking up a measure to restore French fries (which, in its Francophobic frenzy, it had rechristened “Freedom fries”) to the Capitol cafeteria’s menu. In recent days, Bush, Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice have acknowledged that no proof existsof a link between Saddam Hussein and the terrorists of 9/11. These are intriguing symbolic gestures. What Bush does at the Security Council — whether he seeks to share not just the burden but the power in Iraq — will shape what happens for real.

Fred Kaplan writes the “War Stories” column for Slate.