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Haass: U.S. Should Press for 'Interim' Political Solution in Iraq Without Waiting for Elections or Constitution

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
Interviewee: Richard N. Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations
November 13, 2003

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Richard N. Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former senior State Department official, welcomes President Bush’s call for bringing democracy to the Middle East, but warns that the United States does not have the luxury of waiting for elections or a constitutional referendum in Iraq.

“This might mean the lowering of some of our ambitions there,” says the former director of policy planning in Colin Powell’s State Department. “The idea that some seem to have that we are going to create a model city on the hill in Iraq is simply too ambitious. It would be better to content ourselves with the goal of making Iraq significantly better than it was, and making it good enough.”

Haass was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on November 13, 2003.


President Bush spoke last week on the importance of bringing democracy to the countries of the Middle East. What were your impressions of the speech, since you also spoke in depth on the same subject last year?

I was heartened by the speech. It’s a welcome development. This president, or any president, is essential to furthering democratic reform in this part of the world. I don’t think we’ve done these nations any favors, or done ourselves any favors, by essentially creating a democratic exception for the Arab world. What we learned on 9/11 is that failures in their society harm not only them but also can harm us, that when young men continue to grow up without any marketable skills, with terrible educations, and witness corruption and a lack of opportunity all around them, they are often drawn to radicalism, and it is a small step from radicalism to terrorism.

So the lesson I draw from is that what goes on inside of other people’s societies is not simply a domestic matter for them but ultimately becomes a domestic matter for us. To put it another way, U.S. foreign policy has to increasingly concern itself with what goes on inside these societies.

There is a general feeling that democracy would be a plus unless the wrong people came to power via an election. And of course in Iraq now, there is considerable discussion about how to bring about a suitable political solution. Are you concerned that perhaps the Bush administration is rushing too quickly on Iraq, or do you think the pace is about right?

In Iraq, we don’t have the luxury of going slowly. We don’t have the luxury of doing a textbook nation-building exercise. To put it bluntly, the welcome mat won’t be out there long enough to do that.

So we have no alternative but to telescope the process, and that means not simply accelerating the development of Iraqi police and military capabilities but it also means accelerating the transfer of political authority to Iraqis. This might mean the lowering of some of our ambitions there. The idea that some seem to have that we are going to create a model city on the hill in Iraq is simply too ambitious.

It would be better to content ourselves with the goal of making Iraq significantly better than it was, and making it good enough. Ultimately, the Iraqis are going to determine the character of their political system. What we need to do is simply try to create conditions of stability at this point.

Some people want some kind of early elections in Iraq. You yourself said in the speech last December, however, that “elections a democracy does not make.”

First, we should never confuse elections and democracy, and second of all, having elections early on in a political process is often simply a mistake. Let me take a step back. What distinguishes democracy is two things. First, that within government you have a distribution of power. You don’t have all the power concentrated on a king, or an emir, or a president.

Second, within a society, you have some kind of a distribution of power and a balance of power between the government and the rest of society. That means you need independent institutions, from trade unions to newspapers, television stations, and businesses, so that, again, you don’t have any over-concentration of power. Until this is set up, I don’t see the value of elections. You want to make sure you don’t have a winner-take-all situation. Or to use the old saw: “You don’t want to have one man, one vote, one time.” You want to have something that forces people to work with you and one another. Premature or early elections, in the name of accelerating democracy, actually run the risk of undermining it.

Staying with Iraq, how do we go from where we are today— with an Iraqi Governing Council, which has come under criticism for not being very effective— to a constitution? If the administration asked you, what would you recommend?

I will tell you first what I would not do. I would not focus on early elections. I would not focus on getting a constitution drawn up and then subjected to some sort of vote or referendum. That creates too many gates you have to go through. One could argue that that’s the ideal approach if you weren’t constrained. But the fact is, we are constrained. We are constrained by the pressures coming from Iraqis who don’t want us there, and we are pressured by the constraints coming from ourselves, that we don’t want to continue to be there in the numbers we are paying the price for. The alternative, it seems to me, is to get some sort of an interim political arrangement. We won’t try to settle the long-term question of the constitution. In a funny kind of way, you almost want to reinvent the governing council and make an improved governing council.

You mean make it a more respected body?

And give it greater authority. It means taking some risks. It means handing over more authority to the Iraqis. But I don’t see that there is much choice. It might mean going to a few key power brokers in Iraq and disappointing many of the people who are in the current governing council. I would actually be open to the idea, for example, of having someone, who might actually be quite aged, so that he is not in a position to enjoy long-term office, be made an interim leader, an interim president over some sort of small committee that would run Iraq for the most part. During this period you could think about constitutions and elections and the like. You don’t want to delay having Iraqis run the country, and it is unrealistic to get everything arranged quickly. There is no political history or culture in Iraq that leads you to believe that you will be able to come to consensus quickly. So I would rather have what you might call a non-democratic but representative Iraqi leadership as an interim arrangement than try to create a democratic leadership at this point.

Is a strengthened governing council politically acceptable to President Bush, given his recent stress on democracy?

I don’t think you have to give up any of your goals. It’s an acknowledgement of constraints and costs, but also it is important to see this not as a single event, but as a process. It is a meaningful step in the direction of Iraqification of political authority. You should think of this happening in parallel tracks, politically, in the security sphere, and in the economics sphere. One wants to move on all tracks and try to keep them, to some extent, in parallel. And I think we were beginning to get into a problem where— not that we were doing too much on the military track; we can’t do too much in terms of Iraqizing or turning security over to the Iraqis— but, by having all these milestones or preconditions on the political track, we were running the risk that the political track was inevitably going to fall too far behind the security track.

This won’t be a problem for the president if this new approach seems to enjoy some acceptance on the Iraqi side and casualties and Iraqi resistance to the American presence goes down. The key market test for what the United States does in Iraq, to put it bluntly, is at the moment the degree of effective Iraqi resistance to our presence. The rate of democratization is a distant second to that.

Do you think your suggestions are included in the package of ideas that L. Paul [Jerry] Bremer took back to Baghdad after his White House meetings this week?

I think the essence of Jerry Bremer’s package is to do something like this. I think the consensus in the administration is that there has to be some telescoping and that the best solution is the enemy of good enough.

The British, when they took over Iraq from the Ottomans after World War I, eventually installed a king. Is this a good approach?

That is why it is important that whatever is done is interim and you actually look for an individual or individuals who probably are only in a position to rule for a certain amount of time. We should have some representative group that would be smaller than 25 [the size of the governing council] that would help oversee things. I can’t tell you this will work. But I think going down this path at least seems to take into account the reality that we simply don’t have the kind of time we would want to do this in a textbook way.

I think the headlines in the press about almost daily casualties have been hurting the president.

The real issue here is whether, by accelerating the transfer of meaningful political authority to the Iraqis, this helps create a context in which you can accomplish more of what you want to accomplish in the security sphere. I think it probably does. It helps make it easier for the Iraqis to be seen to be cooperating with the authorities, if the authorities are seen as more Iraqi.

Let’s get back to Bush’s Middle East democracy speech. After all, Bush is known as someone who did not particularly like nation-building. What got him to be such an advocate of democracy-building? Does he really believe strongly in what he is saying?

The short answer is yes. I think there are two reasons. One is the president reflects a tradition in American foreign policy which is to give speeches that cannot now be immediately realized and do have a large ideological component.

Like President [Woodrow] Wilson’s 14 points [his goal for post-World War I], which the president cited in his speech?

You could describe it as a muscular Wilsonian doctrine. This is not a Wilsonianism in which you go to Paris and hope for the best [a reference to the 1919 Versailles Peace Conference]. You do more than hope for the best. Second of all, if you read the Bush administration’s National Security Strategy, if you read the president’s democracy speech, there is a growing recognition in the administration— and beyond, for that matter— that this dichotomy in the debate between realists and idealists breaks down. The quality of these societies, the quality of the economies, the openness of the political systems ultimately have consequences, not simply for values and principles and humanity, but also for security. There has often been a gap in government between those people who work on so-called soft issues like development and aid and education, and people who work on the hard issues, the political-military, bullets and bombs sort of stuff.

What I think you are seeing after 9/11 is a realization that they really are to some extent two sides of one coin. What we used to think of as just soft sorts of considerations actually turn out to have real consequences for the hard stuff of security. I think this president and this administration have internalized this. It is one of the reasons you see this kind of speech; it is the reason you see the Millennium Challenge Account, the reason you see funding for disease eradication.

It is interesting that you and Paul Wolfowitz [deputy secretary of defense] are on the same page on democracy in the Middle East.

This approach crosses ideological lines. It is something that Democrats and Republicans can agree on, and neoconservatives and more traditional conservatives come together on, and people who work on economic and political issues can also agree on.

Should an effort be made to enlist other countries in this effort?

I think it would be counter-productive if democratization was simply seen as another form of Americanization. I actually think it would be much more successful if democratization is seen as a dimension of globalization rather than Americanization.

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