Dubious dreams about Iraq

Posted: Sep 22, 2004 12:00 AM

Sounding like Mark Twain mischievously insisting that Wagner's music is better than it sounds, Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, who is not known for drollery, says events in Iraq are better than they seem. Speaking Sunday on ABC's "This Week," Allawi said the insurgency is "still raging" but that is a good sign ? a sign that "it's not getting stronger, it's getting more desperate."

Other good news, as Allawi sees it, is that the violence is not just internecine Iraqi strife; it is "an international war that's being fought on Iraqi territory" by "foreign terrorists" who are "still pouring in." He says "Iraqi forces" will enter Fallujah "soon." When he says that "by four months a lot of things will change," he implies that the elections scheduled for January could not occur under today's conditions.

Allawi disputes his U.N. ambassador's judgment that more U.S. and British troops will be needed to defeat the insurgency, but he disputes it by confirming that current forces are inadequate: "No, we need more participation from other countries."

After "This Week" arranged with Allawi's office for Sunday's interview, the State Department called ABC to say that the office of U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte in Baghdad had decided that the interview would not happen until this coming Sunday, after Allawi's U.S. visit. This attempt by the U.S. Embassy to exercise sovereignty over the prime minister raised interesting questions about just what was actually transferred on June 28 when sovereignty was supposedly given to the Iraqi government. The White House recognized the inconvenience of such questions. The interview occurred.

After listening to Allawi, Sens. Richard Lugar and Joe Biden, who have struggled to be supportive of U.S. policy, were studies in decorous exasperation. "He [Allawi] has to put his game face on," said Biden, a former football player in Delaware. Lugar said the Iraqi elections scheduled for January "may not be perfect, but they're going to happen."

The question is, how imperfect can they be before they make matters worse? And how do you protect, say, upward of 3,000 polling places, which are sure to be targeted by insurgents?

"Fallujah," says Lugar, "is not in a position to have an election." So the conquest of that city, and perhaps of others in the Sunni Triangle, must precede the elections. "Whether it happens before the [U.S.] election or after," Lugar says, "it will have to happen before the [Iraqi] elections occur in January."

Here is John Kerry's dilemma: What, if anything, can he say about this? Should he charge that the military decision about the timing of the offensive that must precede Iraq's elections is being controlled by political calculations about the U.S. elections? Can he find electoral traction by charging, plausibly, that administration incompetence is one reason the Iraqi police and military are unready to be much help in the fighting that evidently will be done in November and December?

Most of Kerry's dilemmas are of his making ? his dreamy belief that even with a war raging he could campaign on domestic issues; his Jackson Pollock canvas of positions on the war. But now his dilemma is that in U.S. politics, optimism is mandatory, even ? no, especially ? when it is dubious. Everybody has a game face on. Too bad this is not a game.

Time will tell whether Allawi will ride the whirlwind or be consumed by it ? whether he will be Iraq's Alexander Kerensky. Allawi certainly seems tougher than that mild Russian who briefly held power in Russia in 1917, during a semi-democratic moment after the czar and before the Bolsheviks swept him, and parliamentary government, aside. Kerensky died in New York in 1970.

When President Bush proclaims, as he regularly does, that "freedom is on the march," he cannot be thinking of Russia. Across its 11 time zones, freedom is in retreat, again.

When Allawi addresses a joint session of Congress Thursday, he will stand where British Prime Minister Tony Blair stood in July 2003 to proclaim that it is a "myth" that American and British "attachment to freedom is a product of our culture" ? a myth that "freedom, democracy, human rights, the rule of law" are Western rather than universal values. Allawi will not say anything less plausible to an audience that is sadder, and perhaps wiser, than it was 14 months ago.