A Perilous Journey from Sovereignty to the Polls


Mar 18, 2004

This commentary originally appeared in Financial Times on March 18, 2004.

Agreement on an interim basic law has kept Iraq on track for a June 30 resumption of sovereignty — if only just. Still to be determined is how the various Iraqi parties agree on the selection of an interim government.

The Bush administration has been counting on the United Nations and Lakhdar Brahimi, its leading troubleshooter, to help it over that hurdle. Mr. Brahimi, a former Algerian foreign minister, worked closely with the Clinton and Bush administrations as the top UN administrator for Haiti in the mid-1990s and in the same capacity for Afghanistan over the past two years. Softly spoken and media-shy, he has a well deserved reputation for sagacity, discretion, and reliability.

His approach is Socratic. He arrives with questions, not solutions. He offers recommendations only once he is sure they will gain general acceptance. During his last trip to Iraq, Mr. Brahimi employed these techniques to secure agreement among the main Iraqi factions to adhere to the June 30 transfer date and then to move on to national elections by the year's end.

The formula for an interim government now under consideration is to expand Iraq's Governing Council and have this enlarged body choose a government. Influential council members, including Ahmad Chalabi, are resisting such enlargement, fearing a dilution of their personal influence. They are consequently blocking an invitation for Mr. Brahimi to return for another round of mediation.

The White House has sent Robert Blackwill, its deputy national security adviser, to Baghdad to persuade the council to welcome Mr. Brahimi. Assuming Mr. Blackwill and then Mr. Brahimi succeed, Iraq will continue to move from occupation to sovereignty and then into an election campaign.

Regardless of the selection method, any interim government that takes office this summer will be divided and inexperienced. By then, Iraqi security forces will be more numerous, but still ill-equipped and under-trained. U.S. and coalition forces will be the backbone of regime and public security. The Bush administration will encourage the UN and Nato to play a greater role. But eventual multilateralisation of the Iraq mission will be constrained more by UN caution, Iraqi resistance to international oversight and European reluctance to commit more forces than by lingering U.S. unilateralism.

The threat by the new Spanish government to withdraw its troops can only increase domestic pressures on other coalition governments and make potential new volunteers more wary about contributing.

By this summer, $18bn in U.S. economic aid will be flowing heavily, lifting Iraq's gross domestic product by an estimated 60 per cent compared with the previous year. Unfortunately, growing prosperity is unlikely to translate quickly into increased security. On the contrary, the short-term outlook is for more violence and inter-ethnic tensions after the handover, as all factions — former regime holdouts, terrorists, communal militias and Kurd, Shia, and Sunni political leaders — test the limits of the new dispensation and position themselves either to obstruct or to compete in the national ballot.

Elections in conditions of insecurity tend to polarize rather than unite societies. People vote for those whom they judge best able to protect them, not those promising more progressive economic or social policies. The winners typically are not centrist figures or moderate reformers but militant leaders who appeal to their constituents' most basic religious, ethnic and tribal identities.

Assuming national elections can be held by year's end, the results seem likely to mirror and probably accentuate Iraq's ethnic and religious divisions.

It is widely assumed that the June 30 transition date has been driven by U.S. electoral calculations, to try to demonstrate political progress in Iraq and begin a reduction of American military presence prior to the November U.S. presidential elections. If this was the intention, it will almost certainly prove a miscalculation, as the prospect is for more, rather than less, turbulence between Iraq's resumption of sovereignty in June and the national elections at the year's end.

A more compelling rationale for holding to the June transfer date is the security situation, which is not improving. Attacks on coalition forces have been down in recent weeks, but attacks on Iraqis are up and public security does not appear to be improving. The U.S. and its allies are unable to deploy forces numerous enough to meet the public security challenge, and need a more capable Iraqi partner as quickly as possible.

Iraq will of course feature heavily in the U.S. electoral campaign, but debate will focus more on the past than the future. The Democrats will criticise alleged past mistakes, but at present they seem less disposed to posit an alternative future course. The next U.S. president will probably have campaigned on a platform of continued American engagement in Iraq. The nature and duration of this engagement will be largely determined, however, by how Iraq handles its own passage from occupation to sovereignty and from sovereignty to national elections between now and the year's end.

James Dobbins was the Bush administration's special envoy for Afghanistan and held similar posts in the Clinton administration for Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo. He currently heads the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation.

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