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Jewish World Review Nov. 25, 2003 / 30 Mar-Cheshvan, 5764

Mort Zuckerman

Mort Zuckerman
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Slowly but surely in Iraq | The only sound that really mattered during the state visit of President Bush to London wasn't the shouting of the anti-American Saddamites in Trafalgar Square. It was the sounds from Istanbul, the agonies inflicted by still more suicide bombings, the senseless slaughter of innocents, Christian and Muslim, right and left--all a matter of supreme irrelevance to the terrorists who kill at random and will go on killing until they are erased from the Earth.

This is, in the words of George W. Bush, "evil in plain sight." About this there can be no equivocation. The president's speech in London last week was one of his best. It was salutary to hear him say that we did not charge hundreds of miles into the heart of Iraq and pay a bitter cost in casualties and liberate 25 million people only to retreat before a band of thugs and assassins.

Does he mean it? Of course. The conviction of the president is not in doubt. There is, however, reason to question the means he seems to have chosen to achieved his desired ends. The new tactics for Iraq's future have been widely perceived as signaling a retreat, a very dangerous perception since it can only weaken the resolve of our friends and encourage those who support the terrorists.

The first perceived retreat was Iraqification. There is a strong argument for putting more Iraqi police and militia on the streets, but there must be no panicked rush to do so. Red flags will be raised if we eliminate screening or dramatically curtail training. A new Iraqi police force must be capable of dealing with those Iraqis who remain loyal to Saddam Hussein. These FRLs (Pentagon-speak for former regime loyalists) may command only 5,000 out of the Baath Party's 1.5 million members. But they have plenty of money and weapons and will not be easy to defeat. Look for them to oppose any Iraqi forces they may face, just as they're challenging U.S. authority there now.

Election politics. The second cause for disquiet is the administration's decision to accelerate its timetable for transferring power and sovereignty to an unelected transitional administration. Not long ago, it spoke of three years of constitution writing and institution building, leading--eventually--to elections. Next, it was sovereignty in 18 months. Now, it's June 30, 2004. A process that once was to extend into 2005, well beyond next year's presidential election here, has now been advanced to precede the election. Politics or policy? Here's the latest scenario: By next February, caucuses in Iraq's 18 provinces will choose a national assembly, its members will choose an executive by June 30, and that will be the provisional government pending an election by March 15, 2005. Iraq's Governing Council, meanwhile, will draft new laws enshrining basic human rights and the separation of powers.

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All these worthy aspirations may be jeopardized now by the newly accelerated timetable. We have no assurance that the national assembly will emerge from a fair democratic process rather than being hijacked by the ruthless, the corrupt, the better financed. In effect, we may be turning the nascent Iraqi political structure into something like "jump ball"--a far cry from the true balloting of a true democracy.

This choreography has less to do with the development of democratic institutions in Iraq than with the pressure of democratic politics at home. The administration would like the American public to think, well before the presidential elections, that the Iraqis are taking charge of their own affairs and that our troops are coming home. The perception in the Middle East will be far different: America will be seen as acting out of desperation. If our superbly trained troops had trouble dealing with these terrorists, it's hard to believe the Iraqi provisional government will do any better.

If the endless squabbles on the Governing Council are anything to go by, moreover, the new assembly may simply fall apart, the prospect of elections vanishing like a dust devil in the Iraqi desert. Handing over authority to govern before Iraqis are ready to exercise it would be a tragic miscalculation. It could dash the hopes for a democratic Iraq and a more stable Middle East, while convincing terrorists that if they just keep hitting America long enough and hard enough, we'll lose our will. It could also result in the creation of another failed state that nurtures terrorism, like Lebanon and Afghanistan in the 1980s. The very real possibility is that Iraq would become a haven to terrorists and an even a worse threat than it was under Saddam's misanthropic rule. That would be a disaster for Iraq. But it would also shred America's credibility in the eyes of the world, placing at risk the security of all of us.

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JWR contributor Mort Zuckerman is editor-in-chief and publisher of U.S. News and World Report. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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© 2001, Mortimer Zuckerman