Washington In its closing rush of war preparations, the Bush administration has finally begun to grapple with the political context of its expected military victory in Iraq. This is the final moment to think big, think fast and think through the dangers of answered prayers that Iraq will soon present.
Desert warfare consumes armaments and manpower at a blinding pace. Middle East battlefields fell silent in days in 1967 and in weeks in 1973 and 1991. An invading American army will soon push aside Saddam Hussein's genocidal regime and bring to power -- what? The answer to that question remains disturbingly vague at this late date.
Democracy is the broad-brush answer the administration has given, in what I accept is good faith. Americans have helped create democracy out of occupation in Japan and Germany, and through sustained contact in South Korea and Taiwan. But the particular hazards of the Middle East to those historical analogies cannot be ignored.
"It is hard to remain idealistic once you have a physical presence in the Middle East," a Russian scholar said the other day, drawing on Moscow's own bitter, draining experiences in the region. As he suggested and as European colonials found, it is easy to sink gradually into the cynicism, corruption and decay that have long dominated the Arab world's misshapen politics and which have become quicksand-like defense mechanisms against occupation.
This concern may be at the root of many of the grim predictions that come from diplomats and scholars who have made their careers in the Arab world. They prophesy that extended U.S. military intervention in the Middle East can only end in Vietnam-like disaster. Well, they would. They know first-hand the deeply corrupting cultural influences to which American forces will be exposed when fighting ends. American idealism is one of the principal potential casualties of extended military intervention in Iraq.
That is why it is necessary for the Pentagon to move rapidly and visibly to turn power over to an interim Iraqi civilian administration as the immediate battlefield tasks are being accomplished. There must be an Iraqi face on the transition from the tyranny of the Nazi-like Baathist regime to a transparent national effort to organize democratic elections in a year or so. Only this course can thwart the efforts that will be made to portray this humanitarian intervention as a new crusade or colonial undertaking.
Until now, the administration had tactical reasons for delaying the establishment of a clear "day after" political context. But the flexibility it has needed to mount the invasion now must give way to clarity and coordination with a nascent democratic leadership that has, against tremendous odds and most expectations, pulled itself together inside Iraq -- only to find immediate help scarce.
"We get no support, no interlocutors on the ground here, no effort to coordinate with us on defections from the army, on using our contacts in Baghdad to rise against Saddam, or on establishing communication networks to broadcast our message during the intervention and its immediate aftermath," Ahmed Chalabi, the guiding spirit of the Iraqi National Congress, told me by satellite phone from an undisclosed secure location in Dohuk, in northern Iraq, a few days ago.
"Under U.S. protection, we established a functioning democratic administration in northern Iraq and started moving the Kurdish body politic toward becoming truly Iraqi," adds Barham Salih, a senior figure in Kurdistan's autonomous authority. "We can extend that to a federal structure of democratization for Iraq that will replace Saddam and enable us to change the opposition as well -- to eliminate corruption and authoritarianism wherever it exists."
Salih was in Washington last week for pre-invasion briefings. Kanan Makiya, a leading intellectual in the Iraqi National Congress who only last month publicly attacked the administration for not subscribing to the opposition's democratic ideals, also met last week with senior U.S. officials here.
"They are beginning to structure a relationship with the new Leadership Council we have developed. The need for an interim Iraqi authority is becoming clearer to them," a newly encouraged Mikaya told me. "They are asking the right questions about involving the inside." Other sources said that a high-level U.S. meeting with INC leaders will be held in Turkey this week.
It has been easy and fashionable in some congressional suites, CIA offices and television studios to deride the efforts of these Iraqis and others as failing to meet the standards of "Jeffersonian democracy." But they have risked lives and livelihoods for three decades to fight Saddam Hussein and are now close to triumph. It is in supporting Iraq's committed democrats that American idealism will survive this war and its dangerous aftermath.