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Man with a Plan

April 28, 2004 at 12:00 AM EST
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GWEN IFILL: This is the group currently charged with shaping Iraq’s future: The Iraq governing council. But if all goes as planned, the council will dissolve as soon as next month, even before the U.S. officially turns political control over to Iraqis on June 30. The man in charge of figuring out what happens between now and then is Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations’ envoy to Iraq. Brahimi laid out his plan for creating a new interim government to the U.N. Security Council yesterday.

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: There will be potentially dangerous pitfalls and massive obstacles at every step of the way. But the job is doable as long as we set principled but realistic targets, moving towards them with deliberate steps, and if we are not alone as we take these steps. We will need, in particular, the Security Council to be united behind us and with us.

GWEN IFILL: Brahimi’s blueprint, which would stay in force until elections next year, includes a president, two vice presidents, and a prime minister to be chosen before the end of May. Those selected, he said, should be individuals who agree not to run for office in the June 2005 elections, including most members of the current governing council. Brahimi is Algerian by birth, and a Sunni Muslim.

A veteran diplomat, he served as Algeria’s ambassador to Egypt and Sudan, and as Algeria’s representative on the Arab League for seven years, until 1970. He became the league’s special envoy to Lebanon in 1989, and mediated the end of that country’s civil war. As a U.N. representative, he’s led missions to Haiti and South Africa. Brahimi also helped broker conflict in Afghanistan during the civil war in the late 1990s, and again in 2001. Now, Brahimi has emerged as the Bush administration’s point man on post-war Iraq.

REPORTER: Who will we be handing the Iraqi government over to on June 30?

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: We’ll find that out soon. That’s what Mr. Brahimi is doing. He’s figuring out the nature of the entity we’ll be handing sovereignty over.

GWEN IFILL: Brahimi suggested last weekend on the ABC program “This Week,” that full independence from U.S. Control would necessarily be limited.

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: I think what you need to do is that you are going to put a government in power. They have got to be in charge of their country. There are realities. There is 150,000 foreign troops there. As I told you, they are not just going to, you know, disappear into thin air at midnight on the 30th of June. So some accommodations and some arrangements have to be made. Whether you call that limited sovereignty, I really don’t know.

GWEN IFILL: And even as fighting rages on in Fallujah and Najaf, Brahimi has warned that such military action harms the prospects for a smooth transition of power.

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: When you surround a city, you bomb a city, when people cannot go to hospital, what name do you have for that? And you see, if you have enemies there, this is exactly what they want you to do, to alienate more people so that more people support them rather than you. So I very much hope… I don’t know, you know, all what is happening now. But in these situations there is no military solution. There is never any military solution to any problem. Even when you have total victory, you’ve got to end up talking to people.

GWEN IFILL: U.S. officials have said American forces can be expected to retain control over security issues, even after the hand-over.

GWEN IFILL: So, what are the chances this plan will work? Here to assess that question are James Dobbins, a former assistant secretary of state with extensive post conflict experience including in Afghanistan where he was special U.S. envoy. He’s now director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at Rand Corporation. Rashid Khalidi, director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University, and author of the recent book “Resurrecting Empire,” about western involvement in the Middle East.; and Fouad Ajami, director of Middle East studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. He was in Iraq in February and we hope to be joined shortly by Feisal Istrabadi, senior legal adviser to governing council member Adnan Pachachi, and one of the principal authors of the interim Iraqi constitution. He was in Iraq last month.

Welcome everyone. Professor Ajami, I would like to start with you. I wonder if you can assess for us the Brahimi plan as we have seen it laid out for us?

FOUAD AJAMI: Well, in many ways, I mean, it is odd we have turned to Brahimi because the language of the stock market may be appropriate. It’s time for dumping, and oddly we have now turned to a Nigerian, a member of the very same discredited and bankrupt political class that has led the Arab world to ruin. And I hope that Brahimi will pull a rabbit and will do something in Iraq which is better than the sloth of ground his own native Nigeria is.

It is ironic we have turned to him and we can talk about this later because it is about the change of American strategy after the screwy month of April but nothing Brahimi says or does will change the ballot ground. Our forces are there. We have 10,000 soldiers and the reality of Iraq will not be changed by Brahimi.

GWEN IFILL: The same question to you. There is nothing that Brahimi can do, as your colleague says, to change what is happening on the ground?

RASHID KHALIDI: Well, I think that the reality of occupation and the reality of a lot of resistance in many parts of Iraq to that occupation is going to continue. I think the important question however is what options are there? This situation, I think, has very few positive outcomes. The United States entered into Iraq on the basis of illusions, on the basis of people in Washington having absolutely no idea of what they were getting our country and our servicemen into and whatever Brahimi does, we are talking about options that range from very bad to much worse.

I, too, hope that he will be able to bring about some kind of improvement in the situation, but I have to say, I do believe that what is happening in Fallujah, what may happen in Najaf and other places in Iraq will probably be very, very important in the determining those outcomes.

GWEN IFILL: Ambassador Dobbins, just from what we’ve seen so far we’ve heard so far from Mr. Brahimi, what is your sense?

JAMES DOBBINS: Mr. Brahimi is not involved in this because he is an Arab or a Nigerian. He is involved because he is an international civil servant of unparalleled experience and skills. He worked very closely with the Clinton administration in Haiti. He worked very closely with the Bush administration in Afghanistan. He has a proven record of working effectively with American administrations in these post-conflict transitional situations. He also successfully negotiated the conclusion for Lebanon’s civil war. He really has an unparalleled set of experience. If anybody can pull this rabbit out of the hat, it will be Brahimi.

That said, it is going to be exceptionally difficult. The objective is to install a sovereign government in Iraq which has as much legitimacy and support within Iraq as possible, and as much legitimacy and support outside of Iraq as possible. And associating the United Nations and Brahimi with that effort will, perhaps not decisively, but certainly on the margins, increase the legitimacy and support both inside and outside Iraq.

GWEN IFILL: One of the things, ambassador Dobbins that Mr. Brahimi said yesterday is that the government he imposes can be in place before June 30, next month. Is that doable?

JAMES DOBBINS: I don’t think it should be installed by then. I think what he intended was that it should be identified by then so that the individuals can begin to prepare for their tasks so there could be a transition at the end of June with individuals who had had a month to prepare in the same way as an American president has several months to prepare after he is elected before he assumes office.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Ajami how did you evaluate what you heard him say about the timing?

FOUAD AJAMI: Well, I don’t think the timing… the issue of the timing, I think we can deal with it fairly rapidly. Bremer will be in charge until June 30. After June 30, the real high commissioner in the place will be John Negroponte. We are not going to turn anything over to the likes of Lakhdar Brahimi.

I think what is interesting about this situation in which we find ourselves, we appointed a governing council and the governing council had enormous amount… some of the characters are extremely credible and authoritative in their own world. We didn’t give them enough power. We kept carping about them and we kept insisting that they were appointed not elected. We appointed them but then we didn’t empower them. What will be the fate of the next government? Will it be any different? Will the outcome be any different? Will it be any more legitimate?

GWEN IFILL: Excuse me. So you suggest instead…

FOUAD AJAMI: I don’t… I mean I think we know what is going to happen. I mean, this has in fact we have empowered Brahimi. We live with this. June 30 is upon us. We live with this. But I don’t think we should just give this constitutional process… it looks very precise and very neat that Brahimi has come up with. I don’t think we should give it that much credit. The force is on the ground and the fight on the ground and the forces on the ground will determine what happens in Iraq. The people in charge of Iraq will be Bremer and it will be Negroponte and our military commanders who run these provinces of Iraq and have done a decent job of it.

GWEN IFILL: Rashid Khalidi, so Fouad Ajami says it doesn’t matter. We are just going through motions because Americans will still be in charge and sovereignty will be in name only. What is your sense of that?

RASHID KHALIDI: Sovereignty certainly will be in name only. But I think that the very problem that we’re going to be facing for the next year at least, has to do with the realities that we’ve just heard about. If American military commanders control the provinces that they run, if Ambassador Negroponte or High Commissioner or Viceroy Negroponte, whatever we want to call him, is the power in Iraq, then I don’t think things will get better.

I think things will continue to be as bad as they are or get worse. Part of the problem this is administration had no intention of creating an Iraqi government that would be independent. We could hear this from the kinds of things they talk about. We want Iraq to recognize Israel. We want Iraq to send oil here and there. We want to privatize this, privatize that. These are not things the Iraqis would necessarily want. They weren’t asked. I think that the sooner that Iraq is in the hands of Iraqis, the better things will be there. I think that having American military officers whose job is to fight wars, in charge of provinces, is a recipe for disaster.

We should go back and look at what happened to the British when they had a situation like that. I think that having an American viceroy or ambassador, whatever one wants to call him, sitting in an embassy with thousands of employees running Iraq is a recipe for disaster. This will not work. Sooner or later, whether via the method that Ambassador Brahimi has suggested or otherwise, Iraqis have to take over their own into the country.

GWEN IFILL: Let me bring into the conversation Feisal Istrabadi who has joined us from Chicago who was caught in a little bit of traffic. This is something that real this, Brahimi plan on the table, or whether this is something just in fact, I guess to put words in the mouths of our guess a cover in order to allow the United States to continue in power. In other words, the Iraqis will have the authority but not really the power.

FEISAL ISTRABADI: Well, look, I mean there are, first of all I do apologize for being late. Thank you for having me on again. The issue is this. If it is a matter of the provision of security within the country which unfortunately even United States has not been able to maintain– has not been able to maintain since entering Iraq a year ago, it was never going to be the case that Iraqis there this time frame would be able to provide that security.

But the fact of the matter is, as I heard WHAT Professor Khalidi was saying, it is essential that the running of ministries and the running of the affairs of Iraq be turned over to Iraqis. And I think that Lakhdar Brahimi is trying to get us through first period of time between June 30 and the end of January of next year when elections are to be held at which time a fully legitimate albeit still transitional government will come into place, the primary goal of which will be to write a permanent constitution and to hold a general election.

This first phase, which is what Ambassador Brahimi was dealing with, is to get us to the elections. There has to be an election law written and it seems rather obvious, among other things, that it is necessary for Iraqis to do that work rather than as Professor Khalidi was saying, relying on an American imperator to impose an Iraqi election law.

GWEN IFILL: Amb. Dobbins, let’s talk about the security situation on the ground. We see what is going on in Fallujah today and what is going on in Najaf. Is there any way of actually putting any plan in place as long as those uncertainties remain?

JAMES DOBBINS: Well, I think it is certainly going to be hard to have elections by the end of the year unless security situation improves. I think it will be possible to agree among principal Iraqi leaders, the U.N., the U.S., on the identities of the relatively small number of people who will form this interim government, who will govern Iraq for the period between now and elections unless the violence increases to the point where it simply is impossible to get a consensus among the responsible and moderate leaders with whom we are consulting because they’ve been alienated to a point where they simply are not prepared to associate themselves with any process which the United States is associated with.

GWEN IFILL: Fouad Ajami, one of the things we have been trying to learn in the last few days is exactly who is Lakhdar Brahimi and is he right person for this job. He is a Sunni Muslim. Among his first statements was one in which he reflected the anti-Israel sentiment among many of the Arab nations. Is he in the right position right now for this job?

FOUAD AJAMI: He is not really the right man. There is a left bank intellectual. I used to stay on a shack on a street in which he had a fancy apartment in Paris. This is a Nigerian nationalist, a member of the Arab world. He describes the situation in Fallujah as collective punishment. This is not collective punishment unfolding in Fallujah. What we’re trying to do in Fallujah is to route out terrorists and Brahimi goes to Iraq and picks a fight with Ahmad Chalabi, of all the political class in Iraq why? Because Chalabi is a Shia or close or said to be close to the Bush administration, so it doesn’t bode well.

GWEN IFILL: I just want to clarify when you say pick a fight, he has suggested it would be okay if Chalabi was not part of the new interim caretaker government.

FOUAD AJAMI: And a general antagonism. I also want to add a footnote. Ambassador Brahimi was under secretary-general of the Arab league when the Kurds were being gassed by the Saddam regime. He had nothing to say about this. When he goes to Iraq, he goes with a solid record. This is not the messenger and the angel that we take him out to be.

GWEN IFILL: Rashid Khalidi, what do you make of the complaints raised by Fouad Ajami about Lakhdar Brahimi?

RASHID KHALIDI: If silence while the Kurds were being gassed would disqualify people from being in Iraq, a large part of the Bush cabinet would have to recuse themselves, starting with the secretary of defense. But more to the point, I think, we are talking about someone who has come in and said a few very intelligent things. Whatever his background may be, his experience, I think, as has been pointed out, has been to help in the resolution of some virtually irresolvable problems. He has made a few intelligent suggestions.

Carpetbaggers like Ahmad Chalabi who came into Iraq on the backs of American tanks and no support within Iraq probably should not be involved in government. Nor should people who would like to run for elections, including some of the incredible people from the parties that do have a following in Iraq and have been involved in the governing council. It would be like having say Democratic Party of Illinois or Republican Party of Texas drawing up redistricting boundaries.

You are going to get an election reflecting who controls the election process. What he is suggesting in effect is that technocrats be in charge during period in which hopefully elections will follow. I think there are a number of suggestions like that in his plan, kinds of things that people should have been thinking about long, long ago — in addition to which, hopefully this will take the heavy hand of Washington off of every single decision in Iraq in the future and fundamentally change the situation where every single position in Iraq for the past year has been made by Mr. Bremer or Douglas Fife of the pentagon or Secretary Rumsfeld or the president himself. This is not the way to run Iraq.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Istrabadi, have you had some hand in advising members of the Iraqi governing council. What do you think about what Mr. Khalidi just had to say?

FEISAL ISTRABADI: I find myself in agreement with a large measure with Professor Khalidi. I would not describe however those of us who have spent our years and the Diaspora, who are attempting to rebuild Iraq as carpetbaggers, however. But having said that, his larger point I think is correct. Lakhdar Brahimi is a man who is greatly respected in Iraq.

In criticizing Israel, he gave voice to the views of very many Iraqis whose sympathies certainly are with the Palestinians and with the problems that they have confront far more so than they are with the government of Ariel Sharon with which I think Professor Ajami may have more sympathy. And the fact that he is a Sunni, I’m afraid, is more of an issue for Potomac River experts and the American media than it is for Iraqis.

Fortunately in Iraq, one of the things that has not been a problem in Iraq historically and continues not to be amongst the population of Iraq is the kind of sectarianism and ethnic strife which has been the problem in other places, including in the Middle East such as in the Lebanon. That he is Sunni or Shia or whatever his personal views may be is of no moment. The point is he is attempting to secure an interim government which will have international legitimacy as well as domestic legitimacy. The idea of installing technocrats to run a government makes sense. You want people who know how to get things done.

The fact of the matter is the governing council has not been able to project a positive image of itself and getting technocrats to me seems to be way to go I’ve we have a moment for brief response from you, ambassador. Ambassador Dobbins, excuse me.

JAMES DOBBINS: I tend to agree. I think the situation is extremely difficult. But Brahimi is trying to consult all of the responsible and moderate groups in the country. And what he is saying is almost certainly reflecting what he is hearing.

GWEN IFILL: Thank you both — all of you, for joining us.