On April 1, 2004, one day after a Fallujah mob murdered and mutilated four American civilians, President George W. Bush declared, “We still face thugs and terrorists in Iraq who would rather go on killing the innocent than accept the advance of liberty…This collection of killers is trying to shake our will. America will never be intimidated by thugs and assassins."
Unfortunately, as Bush spoke, members of his administration were working to eviscerate implementation of his policy. L. Paul Bremer, administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority [CPA], delivered a televised speech on April 23 which Iraqis interpreted both as an endorsement of re-Baathification and as shameless pandering to Sunni militants. As one Iraqi told me the next day, “If Bremer only wanted to hire a few Baathist school teachers, he could have done that without a nationwide address.”
In the same speech, Bremer demanded, “Armed bands in the city must submit to national authority. If these bands do not surrender their military weapons and instead continue to use them against Iraqi and Coalition Security forces, major hostilities could resume on short notice.” Marine General James Conway made Bremer a subject for ridicule in Iraq. He negotiated a ceasefire with militants which empowered a new militia. Learning of Conway’s decision, Nate Jensen, the State Department political officer in Fallujah, took the rare step of sending a dissent cable directly to the Secretary of State. Marines fighting in Fallujah were stunned; many had sought permission to increase pressure, not stand down. Militants drove through the streets shouting, “We redeem Islam with our blood.” Minaret-mounted loudspeakers declared “victory over the Americans.”
Conway embarrassed the Pentagon by appointing General Jasim Muhammad Salih al-Dulaymi to lead the new Fallujah militia. Jasim was chief-of-staff of a Republican Guard division which had executed civilians following the 1991 uprising. While commander of the 38th Division of the Iraqi army in Kirkuk, he participated in an ethnic cleansing campaign against Kurds and Turkmen. While not all generals were Baathists, Jasim was. Saddam rewarded his enthusiasm by installing him at the elite udhu shubaa level of the hierarchical party. Conway has since back-pedaled and appointed an alternate, but Iraqis point out that Jasim remains in the new militia. And, as those guilty of mutilating the Americans remain at large, the insurgents teach that the lesson of the Fallujah is that Americans reward violence.
When historians look back at April 2004, they will marvel at how the White House and CPA could snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. A number of CPA decisions have undermined the confidence Iraqis have in the Coalition’s mission. On April 10, Bremer appointed Mowaffaq al-Rubaie to be Iraq’s National Security Advisor. Iraqis were flabbergasted. Rubaie was the butt of Iraqi jokes. Several different Iraqis say he charged Iraqi businessmen for introductions to CPA officials and access to the Green Zone. Iraqis ridiculed his lack of Iraqi support and his frequent appearances on television. “Mowaffaq’s constituency is CNN, BBC, and [the Arabic satellite network] al-Jazeera,” one Najaf businessman joked.
While State Department officials insisted that Rubaie was an important aide to Grand Ayatollah ‘Ali Sistani (Powell even dined with Rubaie during his September 2003 visit to Baghdad), Iraqis called Rubaie a fraud. Subsequent events belied their claim. On February 5, 2004, Rubaie told al-Jazeera that Sistani had survived an assassination attempt. “He was not hurt, praise be to God. It was not a strange thing that grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the supreme religious authority, was the target of terrorism and violence in Iraq,” said Rubaie. But, Rubaie lied. He apparently fabricated the incident to bring attention to himself. No eyewitnesses in Najaf came forward. Shopkeepers where Rubaie claimed the attack occurred said nothing happened. There were no spent cartridges or bullet holes where Sistani was allegedly ambushed. The coup de grace? Sistani sent a letter denouncing the false rumors.
So who is Rubaie? The Coalition Provisional Authority calls him “an activist in human rights.” Rubaie speaks of his work as a doctor during years in exile. What both Bremer and Rubaie omit, though, but which many Iraqis remember is Rubaie’s time as spokesman for the Iranian-backed Islamist al-Da’wa party. Al-Dawa is suspected the 1983 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Kuwait. Iraqis interpreted the U.S. endorsement of Rubaie as an endorsement of Islamism, and a slap at the idea of a liberal, tolerant Iraq.
The recent White House turn to Adnan Pachachi has further undermined U.S. credibility. Pachachi was a former Iraqi foreign minister and Iraq’s ambassador to the United Nations. Regionally, he is known for his passionate refusal to recognize Kuwait’s right-to-exist (He softened his position only in 1999). He supported the public execution of Baghdad Jews in 1969. In his 1991 memoirs, Pachachi wrote of his “soft spot for [Soviet Premier Nikita] Khrushchev.” Like UN Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, Pachachi is a 1950’s-style Arab nationalist. “Many would say it is a pipedream, but…I hope I may live to see the time when Iraq and Syria are united in one great Arab state,” Pachachi wrote. As U.S. troops prepared to lay down their lives for Iraqi liberation, Pachachi spoke out against the war. He is subsidized by Sheikh Zayid bin Sultan al-Nahyan, leader of the United Arab Emirates. He speaks fondly of militant Sunni Islamist Muhammad Ayash al-Kubaisi. Never missing an opportunity to bash the United States, as the battle raged in Fallujah, Pachachi declared American actions to be “unacceptable and illegal.” “The whole thing smacks of an act of vengeance. It is collective punishment,” Pachachi told a British newspaper.
The White House undermines itself when it undermines its allies. Re-Baathification does not win friends. Support for opponents of the United States does not win the hearts and minds of Arab democrats, or the Arab street. Iraqi adversaries see weakness, and democrats sense betrayal. By rewarding terror and sectarianism, the Coalition signals that the path to power is through violence, not the ballot box. By rewarding opportunists, Bremer and Deputy National Security Advisor Robert Blackwell have undermined those who never wavered in their support for liberalism and democracy. When Powell speaks of willingness to withdrawal, autocrats in Tehran, Damascus, Riyadh, and Cairo sense American surrender.
Coalition missteps have undermined Bush policy. There are now less than seven weeks to the restoration of sovereignty and Iraqis see only confusion and defeatism coming from Washington. They look for leadership. It is not too late for the White House to signal that it has not abandoned the Bush doctrine, and that it will fight for democracy. As commander-in-chief, Bush should order U.S. forces to fulfill their mission in Fallujah. The U.S. should signal that violent resistance to the rule-of-law is neither tolerated nor rewarded. Iraqis see U.S. support as an entitlement. But, militant Islamists do not deserve taxpayer money, nor do the failed ideologues of the past. If the White House signals that it is not ashamed of our policy, then it may just find it has the support of a strong, silent majority in Iraq.
Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Previously an Iran and Iraq staff advisor in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, he spent 16 months in Iraq, first as an academic and later as a Coalition Provisional Authority political advisor.