Iraq's Odious Debts

The future of Iraq

Wall Street Journal editorial
April 7, 2003

So much for Donald Rumsfeld’s flawed war plan. Just over two weeks into the conflict, U.S. forces are moving with impunity in Baghdad and the coalition controls most of Iraq. So it’s not too early to consider how, and how fast, to start Iraq on its post-Saddam era.

Even the State Department now understands the importance of swiftly naming an interim Iraqi administration. As for Iraqi involvement, Ahmed Chalabi and a 1,000-man Iraqi National Congress force were reportedly flying this weekend to join coalition troops in the south.

Partly this is about giving coalition troops more local knowledge and language skills so they can deal with misunderstandings like the one that occurred last week at Najaf’s Ali mosque. But recognizing the Iraqi opposition will also send a signal about U.S. intentions and deflect growing pressure for United Nations administration of the country.

Secretary of State Colin Powell delivered the right message to Europe last week, saying that while there would be work for the U.N. in post-Saddam Iraq, the coalition “has to play the leading role.” But as President Bush meets British Prime Minister Tony Blair in Northern Ireland today and tomorrow, he will be under a lot of pressure to modify that stance.

One wouldn’t expect Mr. Blair to have much time for the wishes of Jacques Chirac and Vladimir Putin, who are now whining about being left out. But Mr. Blair seems to think there’s still a chance of patching up relations with Old Europe, and he apparently believes even a post facto veneer of U.N. legitimacy will help him out with his Labour Party’s left wing.

The British are said to have presented Mr. Powell with their ideas for postwar Iraq, including a major role for the United Nations in the political administration of the country and continued U.N. involvement in Iraqi oil production. Mr. Blair deserves gratitude. But Mr. Bush should be prepared to tell him no.

What matters over the long run isn’t the blessing of the Security Council but the success and stability of a post-Saddam Iraq. The country is simply too big and too complicated to even consider a significant U.N. administrative function. “Iraq is not East Timor, Kosovo and Afghanistan,” National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice noted Friday.

Equally important is keeping the U.N.’s hands off Iraqi oil. The oil-for-food program is now being administered by Secretary General Kofi Annan under a 45-day arrangement that expires May 12. But the French and Russians want to keep it going indefinitely. Their game is as transparent as it is cynical.

Many French and Russian companies benefit by participating in the program. More important, if Paris and Moscow can get the U.S. to concede the program’s continuing legality, they will use their veto to blackmail the U.S. and a new Iraqi government into honoring the dirty oil contracts and loans they arranged with Saddam Hussein’s regime.

This is a rhetorical battle the U.S. can win easily if it decides to fight. The oil, after all, belongs to the Iraqi people. As for Saddam’s debts, what do Iraqis owe the creditors who helped an illegitimate regime oppress them? The continuation of oil-for-food would give France and Russia an effective veto over the purse strings and a tremendous and unjustifiable influence in post-Saddam Iraq. If France and Russia really want to help postwar Iraq, they could forgive Saddam’s debts.

The urgency of a provisional Iraqi government is now obvious in Washington, but there are still disagreements about how it should be structured. We agree with the Administration’s suggestion Friday that a new Iraqi government should draw on people who have been living in Iraq, not just the exiles, and we’re not suggesting an immediate installation of Mr. Chalabi or anyone else as interim President.

But any Iraqi government should include the foundation laid by Mr. Chalabi and the dedicated Iraqi opposition, not rely on the ex-Baathists thus far favored by the State Department and the CIA. At a February conference in the northern Iraqi town of Salahaddin, delegates selected a “leadership council” composed of Mr. Chalabi, Kurdish leaders Jalal Talabani and Masoud Barzani, and Shiite Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, among others.

Mr. Bush may already be sensing that securing the future of Iraq will be a more difficult battle than building the coalition to enforce Resolution 1441. He is being pushed in one direction by his British allies, the U.N. Security Council and to a lesser degree his own State Department – all of which are, for their own reasons, sympathetic to U.N. involvement and to new Iraqi leaders drawn from among the kinder, gentler elements of the brutal status quo. On the other side are free Iraqis and their longtime allies within the civilian leadership of the Defense Department.

As he weighs various pieces of counsel, the President might keep in mind that the goal here isn’t just the removal of Saddam Hussein but a free and independent Iraq that will serve as a model for the Middle East. The policy should be in the hands of those most devoted to seeing it succeed.

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