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'Iraq Government' - A Commentary

By Lee Cullum, KERA 90.1 commentator

Dallas, TX – Bill Clinton, aside from his personal problems, has to be one of the luckiest American presidents of the modern era. The economy boomed during his eight years in office, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic withdrew from Kosovo only weeks before ground forces would have had to be sent, and our worst national problem was Monica Lewinsky. One of the unluckiest, I'm afraid, is George W. Bush, whose misfortunes are beginning to match those of Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter.

Some say that Iraq is about to become another Vietnam, but that isn't true. We had 500,000 troops in Vietnam and lost 50,000 lives. Our troops now in Iraq are 135,000. So far about 678 of them have died, 540 of them since last May 1st. I doubt our force level will ever come close to that of Vietnam or the death rate.

In Vietnam we were fighting an established state - North Vietnam, where in Iraq it's now disparate bands of deadly desperados. The two situations are similar in that it's often hard to tell from the people you run into which are friends and which are not.

We were in Vietnam close to ten years and Iraq may take that long as well, though I hope not. Where Iraq may turn out to be worse than Vietnam is in the situation we finally leave behind there. Vietnam grew quickly quiet after 1975 and has troubled the world very little since then. But Iraq is in real danger of becoming another Lebanon, ruptured for years by bands of militants bent on chaos. So assembling any kind of government to run Iraq and creating a modicum of stability is the critical problem currently facing the Bush administration.

The British went through the same thing in 1920, trying to run the mandate after World War I and wanting to give Iraq its independence for reasons both idealistic and practical - the operation was expensive there. But who could handle a newly invented country, carved out of the old Turkish Empire, with half its territory in open rebellion?

Gertrude Bell, a British adventurer deeply knowledgeable about the Middle East, was central to the question. She was liaison officer between the Arabs and the British authorities and she believed passionately in independence for Iraq. One evening, at dinner, an Arab politician said this to her: "You British wish to build the Government of Iraq in the usual solid English fashion. You want to begin with the foundations and then follow with the walls, the roof and then the decorations. That is not my idea of the way to build now for Iraq. Begin with a roof, supported by a few pillars. The roof will encourage us to continue. Otherwise the slowness of building may discourage us. Give us a king. He will be our roof and we will work downwards." She and the British did, and King Faisal and his two descendants ruled Iraq until overthrown for 37 years.

This may well be wise advice for America today. Not a king, of course, but a strong leader buttressed by gradually evolving democratic institutions. But where to find such a person? Not in the military. There is no military left, and the army now being reassembled hardly seems up to any assignment. Probably not among the intellectuals, who have not been heard from in any case. Possibly from the oil establishment, but most likely from the ranks of the clerics. The crucial work for the U.S. and the U.N., which must become more involved, is to encourage the rise of a reasonable Muslim leader, to function perhaps backstage rather than in political office, but capable of holding the country together. It's not ideal. But there aren't many choices available.


Lee Cullum is a contributor to KERA and to the Dallas Morning News.