O’Hanlon: U.S. ’Caucuses’ Plan for Iraq Is ’Unworkable’

February 18, 2004

Interview
To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Michael O’Hanlon, an Iraq expert at the Brookings Institution, argues that the U.S. plan to hand over sovereignty to Iraq after a series of caucuses is “unworkable” and ought to be replaced by a system for direct elections that protects minority rights.

“The caucus plan, in my opinion, is a non-starter,” he says. “It has already fundamentally disappointed the Shiites. And I am not even sure it has that much sympathy among other groups. I think the caucus thing has to go.”

O’Hanlon, who is not currently advising any of the Democratic presidential candidates, was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on February 17, 2004.


How would you describe the situation in Iraq right now?

Fair. That’s the one-word answer. Things are certainly not going great but, also, not badly.

What are the positive aspects?

The positive aspects in Iraq are certainly the creation of the indigenous security forces, even though they are not good enough yet; the stabilization of the quality of life indicators that roughly surpass Saddam Hussein levels, even though they are not good enough yet and they have leveled off a bit; and the continued progress in arresting and killing top insurgents and making a lot of inroads against the insurgency, particularly since the capture of Saddam. The intelligence leads we are getting now are much better than they used to be. And even though [the improvement in intelligence] has not yet translated into reduced casualties, there has been a reduction in attacks on American and other foreign forces. But, obviously, there has not yet been a reduction in attacks on Iraqis [working with the occupation authorities]. That’s a big problem.

And there has been some modest improvement in the employment picture as we inject funds into Iraq and hire Iraqis for various jobs like security and rebuilding. That begins to improve the unemployment rate. It may not make the economy self-sustaining or fundamentally healthy, but it does at least inject some stimulation that is needed to give people some near-term hope.

What is the downside?

I hinted at a lot of them in my discussion of the upside: the continued casualties among American forces, the improved lethality and effectiveness of some of the attacks against us, the heightened risk to Iraqis, especially to the forces collaborating with us. The employment picture is not as good as it should be, even though it is better. The quality of life improvements have leveled rather than continued to go up, so there is progress, but not yet enough.

Let’s look ahead to the scheduled handover of sovereignty to the Iraqis on June 30. There seems to be a good deal of confusion and uncertainty about how this process should happen. How smooth do you expect this to be?

Not smooth at all. I think the plan we have right now is unworkable.

That’s the plan for caucuses around the country to pick an interim government?

Yes. Stephen Solarz [former U.S. representative from New York] and I just published an op-ed piece in The Washington Times. We drafted it about three weeks ago, so, because it preceded the U.N. mission to Iraq [to consult with Shiite leaders and others about a possible election], it is slightly dated. But it is not totally dissimilar from [Council on Foreign Relations President] Richard Haass’ op-ed in The Wall Street Journal. We think there have to be a lot of protections for minorities and some kind of direct election system that perhaps would be province-by-province instead of national. So you combine those things and you give the Iraqis some feeling that they are being allowed to run their own country, but you also protect minorities by the regional system of voting and through the requirement of a super majority [to approve] many kinds of fundamental legislation.

Could there be an election as soon as June 30?

We argue that you probably could do it by June 30. Steve Solarz, as a former senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and as a consultant, has monitored elections. There are things you could do that are much cruder than proper voting rules but are relatively effective. For example, you could stamp people with indelible ink after they have voted once to make it hard for them to vote again. And you can give a very simple verbal Arabic language test to increase the odds you are not allowing Iranians, for example, to vote. In terms of security, many elections have been held in violence-ridden societies; there are ways of dealing with [violence]. For instance, you obviously deploy big forces on the day of the event, and you search people as they enter public spaces, and you put polling places far back from roads where cars [armed with] bombs could be easily driven.

Having said all that, it is not absolutely essential to have the elections by June 30, and there may be ways to transfer sovereignty on a temporary basis to the Iraqi Governing Council. Or simply delay the date if the Iraqis themselves are prepared for that. We feel very strongly that there has to be a system that is acceptable to the Kurds, Sunnis, and Shiites. Otherwise you are really in trouble.

Today’s Washington Post reports that many members of the governing council want to transfer sovereignty to the council until elections are held. That’s not unfeasible, is it?

No. That’s realistic, and you could also imagine the expansion of the governing council if it is going to have to be the custodian of sovereignty for a certain period of time.

You would advocate that the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) give up on the caucus plan?

Yes. The caucus plan, in my opinion, is a non-starter. It has already fundamentally disappointed the Shiites. And I am not even sure it has that much sympathy among other groups. I think the caucus thing has to go.

The Democrats running for president have criticized President Bush’s handling of the Iraq war, even if they supported the war resolution, as Senator John Kerry did. If Kerry emerges as the candidate, what should be his talking points on Iraq?

I think he should be critical where mistakes have been made, most notably in the post-Saddam period, in planning for keeping order, and also for the fragmentation in the coalition prior to the use of force. But it would be more credible if Senator Kerry also acknowledges that, to the extent you were going to have to confront Saddam, it was going to take a certain amount of resolve and maybe a tiny dose of unilateralism, because the rest of the world was not in the mood to do this. Bush should be given some credit for having the courage of his convictions. But he really needed to avoid this being seen as the United States against an Arab people or a quasi-imperialistic action, and Bush failed on that.

Thomas Friedman, in his New York Times column over the weekend suggested that the Democratic candidate had to say, “We’re going to stay in Iraq until it’s done.” Do you agree with that?

Yes. I agree wholeheartedly with that and therefore I think that Senator Kerry has to explain how, if he was opposed to the $87 billion supplemental appropriation [to finance the war’s cost and Iraqi reconstruction] last fall, what his alternative would be. I think that he is committed to getting Iraq right. I think he is very serious about that. I think that Governor Howard Dean was not. He wavered a great deal, and that was the great weakness of his Iraq policy. It was legitimate for Dean to oppose the war, but not legitimate to waver in his commitment to securing the peace. There, I think, Kerry is in a much better position, but he has to be a lot more explicit about what his plan would be. I am sure he will move to have a plan as he finishes the primary process and gets ready for the general election.

What should President Bush be doing on Iraq during the election season?

I think the main thing right away is to fix the election strategy and the sovereignty transition plan. That’s going to take some doing. I think that in addition to abandoning the caucus plan, President Bush should allow the United Nations to take primary responsibility and not continue to insist that the CPA be the custodian of sovereignty. I don’t think it is too late to pass off control to the United Nations, which is very good at elections and constitution building and, frankly, better than we are and seen as more credible and neutral.

Do you think the Iraqis themselves can provide sufficient security for an election?

They will need a lot of help from us. We’ll still have more than 100,000 troops there at the time of the election.

So, summing up, you think Bush has to devise a successful Iraq election plan for turning over sovereignty and at least bring some calm to the country?

Yes. But I am not sure that it is all that imperative that Bush do any specific thing by November. I think that the important thing for him is for the situation to be seen as improving, and that whatever plan we are working under to be seen as widely accepted among Iraqis. I think the president can afford to delay the elections until his own attempt at re-election. For President Bush, a much greater problem is if you start to see an increase in violence, or even a continuation of the current level of violence, and the Iraqis lose faith in the U.S. plan. That would be of greater concern than a delay in elections.

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