The next step in Iraq

Posted: May 26, 2004 12:00 AM

  ``The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place.''
     -- James Madison
     Federalist 51

     WASHINGTON -- That was the crux of the president's Monday evening speech. It had a minimum of Jeffersonian dogmatism about the universal eligibility for democracy, and instead stressed hardheaded Madisonian measures to strengthen incentives for civilized behavior. His plan is to connect the interests of an Iraqi majority with genuinely Iraqi institutions of representation.

     Iraq needs less violence and more politics. The former probably requires more of a U.S. presence, the latter requires less. If there is a way to reconcile these imperatives, and there may not be, it is by a Madisonian connection: A government supported by sufficient Iraqi factions must feel a life-or-death stake in the success of the U.S. war -- and such it shall largely remain -- against the insurgents.

     The complex business of organizing connections through elections should be the only serious business of the post-June 30 ``interim'' government being concocted by United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi. Unfortunately, his foolish plan for government by supposedly apolitical ``technocrats'' -- people such as he falsely purports to be -- has a notable pedigree.

     Friedrich Engels, echoing Saint-Simon and the French enlightenment, anticipated ``the government of persons'' being replaced by ``the administration of things.'' Ah, yes: When the last king had been strangled by the entrails of the last priest, pure reason would be enthroned at last, and everyone would agree about everything.

     Iraq is not yet quite so reasonable. There the guiding idea should be Henry Adams' definition of politics: ``the systematic organization of hatreds.'' Even more than oil, hatreds are Iraq's awesome abundance. However, political parties are required to give systematic organization to politics, and Iraq's parties will, inevitably, be sectarian, hence not enamored of compromise.

     The president's five-step plan for incremental progress toward representative government also must surmount Iraq's deficit of basic civic mores. The New York Times reports that 1st Lt. Erik Iliff, of Columbia, S.C., was in charge -- he is 24 -- of December's elections to a Baghdad neighborhood council: ``First, the men tried to bar women from voting. Then they mobbed the ballot box. The lieutenant ended up handpicking three people for the seats.''

     Downplaying the possibility that elections might produce an Islamic fundamentalist theocracy, Colin Powell says Iraqis know that ``to be successful as a 21st-century country'' and to have ``international acceptability,'' they must be ``a country that preserves human rights, that is founded on democracy, that respects the rights of all individuals and respects the rights of women, that respects basic tenets ... of human rights that all of us believe in.'' But international acceptability, in the form of seats on the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, has been conferred on Cuba, Libya, Syria and Sudan. And how many Iraqis define ``a successful 21st-century country'' as we do?

     Elections will yield evidence. But elections and reconstruction -- KBR, the largest contractor in Iraq, has had 35 employees killed -- require a much lower level of violence, which requires winning the war, which may mean more U.S. forces.

     Comparisons of the Iraq War, now in its 14th month, with the Vietnam War are commonplace. But today's war also can be compared to the Korean War, in one particular that may become increasingly pertinent.

     After China intervened in Korea and peace talks began (in July 1951, the war's 13th month), it became clear that the war aim was to be only the status quo before North Korea's invasion in June 1950, not unification of Korea. Soon U.S. troops said they were being asked to ``die for a tie.''

     The April 26 -- what? accommodation? -- in Fallujah may threaten the morale of U.S. forces in Iraq. Marines chose to abandon the block-by-block uprooting of resistance rather than, in the Marines' formulation, ``turn Fallujah into Dresden.'' This may have been prudent, but it turned Fallujah into a symbol of, and recipe for, successful resistance to U.S. forces. How do U.S. forces now understand their mission -- to kill insurgents, or to enlist them in keeping order? If the latter, for how long?

     The ally America needs in Iraq is Iraq. That is, an Iraqi government to which a majority consents and some minority factions defer, however sullenly. Other factions must be violently suppressed with, the president earnestly hopes, significant help from new Iraqi forces seen to be working in tandem with elected Iraqi authorities.

     ``You must first,'' said Madison in Federalist 51, ``enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself.'' First things first.