Commentary: How the U.S. Can Keep Iraq from Unraveling

In the runup to America's whirlwind military intervention in Iraq, skeptics insisted that it wasn't the war itself that ought to give policymakers pause -- it was the aftermath. Now, those warnings seem prescient as the Bush Administration struggles to impose order on a liberated yet riven Iraq that is teetering on the edge of chaos.

Peace is turning out to be hell for average Iraqis. Electricity is still out in many parts of Baghdad. Looting is rampant, as thieves fill trucks with everything from scrap wood to crates of weapons. The threat of carjackings and kidnappings keeps people locked inside their houses. Drinking water is dicey. Many can't return to work, while children can't attend school. Skirmishes are breaking out among Kurdish and Arab rivals in the oil-rich north. In the south, the long-repressed Shiite majority is flexing its muscles amid growing concern about Iranian interference.

Many believe precious little time -- perhaps only a few months -- remains before the country unravels and what goodwill the U.S. won by ousting Saddam Hussein's brutal regime dissipates. Some Iraqis question whether the U.S. is up to the daunting task it faces. "Influential people are saying we will miss the days of Saddam," says one dejected Baghdad businessman. Waking up to the gravity of the problem, the White House dumped its original Iraq Inc. administrators in favor of a new team led by L. Paul Bremer III, a seasoned diplomat and anti-terrorism expert. The mission: Get this place up and running, fast.

Early missteps by the Bush Administration, though, are making the job much tougher for its new Iraq team. The Pentagon braced for a mass humanitarian crisis -- starvation and fleeing refugees -- that never materialized. As a result, it paid too little attention to the need for basic police work to crack down on street crime and looting. The White House initially feared a backlash at home and abroad should the U.S. military occupation be perceived as too heavy-handed. And the Pentagon has gone out of its way to maintain a low profile. It's as if the White House wants to apply its war strategy to Iraqi reconstruction: win fast and get out.

Clearly, that approach won't wash. Increasingly, street violence and lawlessness have become a potent symbol and rallying cry for critics of U.S. intervention. The U.S. needs to forget about the short-term political fallout and start acting like the occupying power it is. That means showing Iraqi citizens and the broader world that the U.S. intends to hang in for the long haul. For the Bush Presidency, the stakes couldn't be higher. "Do we [wind up with] Iraq as a law-abiding and productive member of the international community," asks David L. Mack, vice-president of the Washington-based Middle East Institute, "or will it be a failed state which becomes a breeding ground for terrorists?"

That experts are even asking questions like that a month after the military victory is testimony to the failures so far. Among the most pressing tasks:


The Administration needs to crack down swiftly on crime. It can be done, but will require far more police and peacekeepers than are currently on the scene. For starters, the U.S. needs to call up reserves, especially police, even as the terrorist alert in the U.S. is heightened on fears of new al Qaeda attacks. Washington must also quickly wrap up negotiations with a dozen countries, including Poland, Britain, Spain, and Pakistan for more security forces. Foreign assistance could include as many as 1,000 police advisers and 4,000 military constables. At the same time, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld needs to maintain a larger peacekeeping force to tamp down clashes between ethnic factions. Instead of slashing the U.S. troop presence to 30,000, the number is now set to rise by 30,000 to 160,000. And as many as 50,000 peacekeepers may arrive from other countries as well. Even that may still be too few. To match the per-capita ratio used in Bosnia and Kosovo, the U.S. would need at least 250,000 peacekeepers in Iraq.


Once order is restored, the next task should be improving the daily grind for Iraqis. The U.S. already has issued a contract to Bechtel Corp. for up to $680 million for fixing the antiquated electrical grid and water purification and sewer systems. Now it has to make sure the company performs -- and soon. Electricity service has improved in Mosul and the British-run area around Basra, and the water systems are making progress in Mosul and Irbil. But much more effort needs to be focused on Baghdad, where many infrastructure troubles persist. These systems "turned out to be in much worse shape than we had been told," says Joseph J. Collins, deputy assistant secretary of defense for stability operations.


To regain its footing in Iraq, the U.S. needs to put in place a forceful, firm, yet fair occupation. Sure, there could be resentment in the Arab world, and the Bush team may fear political repercussions at home from a large and long-term presence. But past experience -- from the occupation of Germany and Japan following World War II to the recent nation-building efforts in Kosovo -- shows that a firm policy is the key ingredient for success. Washington must stop deferring decisions to some future Iraqi government and start issuing MacArthur-like edicts. A court system that gives returning expatriate Iraqis confidence their rights will be protected would have enormous impact, as would economic zones free from current Iraqi laws that discriminate against investments by non-Iraqis and non-Arabs. This may seem to sacrifice the legitimacy of Iraqi decision-making for efficiency, but if there are clear, rapid benefits for Iraqis, those results will breed their own legitimacy.


Iraqis fear Baath Party loyalists will retaliate against American sympathizers and wonder whether Washington will fail to protect them, as it did after Operation Desert Storm. This wariness is understandable in light of Washington's refrain that it will stay as long as necessary, but not one day more. It sounds like the U.S. is too anxious to leave. This may reflect the Administration's ambivalence about nation-building.

But until Washington says it will stay as long as necessary -- period -- those doubts will linger. Successful nation-building takes a minimum of five years, says James Dobbins, a former U.S. special envoy to such strife-torn countries as Afghanistan and Bosnia. "We have done it quickly, and we have done it well," he says. "We have never done it quickly and well."

That may be the most important lesson from the past. The U.S. needs to make clear there is a new era in Iraq, and Washington will see it through. It needs to move faster to restore the order on which all else will be built. Otherwise, Iran, Baath Party activists, and others will undermine U.S. efforts. America must act like a benevolent occupying force -- always ensuring Iraqis benefit from its rule. It's a tall order. But securing the peace is every bit as important as winning the war.

By Stan Crock

With Stanley Reed in London

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