Sovereignty Without Substance

Paul Bremer suddenly left Iraq on Monday, having “transferred sovereignty” to the caretaker Iraqi government two days early.

It is hard to interpret this move as anything but a precipitous flight. It is just speculation on my part, but I suspect that the Americans must have developed intelligence that there might be a major strike on the Coalition Provisional Headquarters on Wednesday if a formal ceremony were held to mark a transfer of sovereignty. Since the U.S. military is so weak in Iraq and appears to have poor intelligence on the guerrilla insurgency, the Bush administration could not take the chance that a major bombing or other attack would mar the ceremony.

The surprise move will throw off all the major news organizations, which were planning intensive coverage of the ceremonies originally planned for Wednesday.

This entire exercise is a publicity stunt and has almost no substance to it. Gwen Ifill said on U.S. television on Sunday that she had talked to Condoleezza Rice, and that her hope was that when something went wrong in Iraq, the journalists would now grill Allawi about it rather than the Bush administration. (Or words to that effect). Ifill seems to me to have given away the whole Bush show. That’s what this whole thing is about. It is public relations and manipulation of journalists. Let’s see if they fall for it.

Allawi is not popular and was not elected by anyone in Iraq. The Kurds were sullen today. There were no public celebrations in Baghdad. When people in the Arab world are really happy, there is celebratory fire. They are willing to give Allawi a chance, but that is different from wholehearted support.

What has changed? The big change is that Allawi now controls the Iraqi government’s $20 billion a year in income. About $10 billion of that is oil revenues, and those may be hurt this year by extensive sabotage. To tell you the truth, I can’t imagine where the other $10 billion comes from. The government can’t collect much in taxes. Some of it may be foreign aid, but not much of that has come in. The problem is that the Iraqi government probably needs $30 billion to run the government properly, and with only two-thirds of that or less, the government will be weak and somewhat ineffective.

Since Bremer was a congenital screw-up, just getting him and his CPA out of the country and out of control may be a good step forward. Allawi won’t care about Polish style shock therapy for the economy. Allawi does not have any investment in keeping Iraq weak or preventing it from having a proper army. But how the Iraqi military, if brought back, can operate in a security environment where there are 160,000 foreign troops under U.S. command is unclear.

So that some group of Iraqis now control the budget and can set key policy in some regards may be significant. But the caretaker government is hedged by American power. Negroponte (the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad who has just arrived in the country) will control $18 billion in U.S. aid to Iraq. Rumsfeld will go on controlling the U.S. and coalition military. There isn’t much space left for real Iraqi sovereignty in all that.

Another danger is that Allawi will overshoot and provide too much security. He is infatuated with reviving the Ba’ath secret police or Mukhabarat, and bringing back Saddam’s domestic spies. Unlike the regular army, which had dirty and clean elements, all of the secret police are dirty, and if they are restored, civil liberties are a dead letter.

The guerrilla insurgency will continue, perhaps become more active. My wife Shahin, always a keen and canny observer, thinks the guerrillas will make their priority number one the assassination of Allawi.

See also the article by Michael Hill of the Baltimore Sun, where I and others are quoted.