The signals that came out of Baghdad on April 26, when two U.S. cabinet members met with the newly elected Iraqi prime minister-designate, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, struck me as counterproductive.
The ostensible goal of the Americans' trip was, in the words of the New York Times, "to re-establish public confidence in the government and rid the country's security forces of infiltration by sectarian militias." But what they really did was tout Mr. al-Maliki. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said: "I came away most encouraged." Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice enthused: "He was really impressive. … He understood his role and the role of the new government to really demonstrate that it's a government of national unity in which all Iraqis could trust."
Mr. al-Maliki then assured Ms. Rice about his goal of "re-establishing trust" among Iraqis by acting quickly to restore electrical power and root out the influence of militias in Iraq's police forces. Their encounter reminded me of headquarters sending management to check on a problematic franchise.
Of course, American officials denied any such thing. Asked whether the secretaries' dramatic joint appearance so soon after Mr. al-Maliki's winning the prime ministry might suggest he is an American puppet, Ms. Rice sidestepped the question by calling the formation of the Iraqi government "the most democratic process ever in the Middle East" (a dubious assertion). Mr. Rumsfeld astringently replied to a question of how American forces would handle the militias' influence: "The first thing I'd say is, we don't. The Iraqis do."
Such puzzlement about the U.S. role is inevitable when top American leaders so tightly hug their Iraqi protégé, a hug that has taken multiple forms over the past three years. One small but achingly illustrative example dates from December 2003, when the State Department brought to Washington the Iraqi National Symphony – as dilapidated an institution as the name suggests – where it received the all-star treatment: Bush attended its performance, the National Symphony Orchestra and cello virtuoso Yo-Yo Ma joined the Iraqis on stage. For Iraqis, this fawning patronage tainted the orchestra as a kept institution.
The administration does not see its public embrace of the Iraqi government as over-bearing, but I do. For four reasons, it hinders more than it helps. First, the perception that Americans are in charge makes it easier for the regime's enemies to garner support for their insurgency.
Second, Muslims have an acute aversion to non-Muslims interfering in their sovereignty. A Muslim leader seen as an agent of Western powers can labor in vain for decades to dispel this cloud of illegitimacy; this problem, for example, afflicted the first Jordanian king, Abdullah I, throughout his 30-year reign, reducing the stability of his country.
Third, the hugs obscure the fact that Baghdad has made important decisions directly at odds with the wishes of the Bush administration, such as its restrictive oil policy, its willingness to let Iranian troops in for training purposes, and its rejection of Washington's demands to provide foreign contractors with immunity from Iraqi law. Iraqi politicians sometimes overtly assert their independence, as when Minister of Defense Saadoun al-Dulaimi, asked in mid-2005 if the signing of a military pact with Tehran would anger Washington, replied "Nobody can dictate to Iraq its relations with other countries"; but such tensions get submerged under the master narrative of a subservient Iraq.
Fourth, Washington is setting itself up to be held accountable for the consequences of poor Iraqi decisions. In the words of a Sunni leader from February 2004, "America is the owner of this country right now. It is responsible."
Rather than smother the new Iraqi leadership, a better policy would be to make limited funds available to it, provide it with a benign military presence, and wish it well from afar. The government would be on its own to sink or swim in the historically violent and unforgiving arena of Iraqi politics once described by Elie Kedourie, himself of Iraqi origins, as having a record "full of bloodshed, treason and rapine." If the government succeeds, it benefits from having done so on its own, not coddled by coalition troops.
And if it fails, Iraqis themselves – political adults, not wards of the coalition – have the burden to decide their country's future course, with the foreign forces' role limited to making sure nothing goes catastrophically awry.
May 1, 2006 update: After this article went to press, President Bush met with Rice and Rumsfeld on their return from Iraq. His comments made the hug even tighter:
I thought it was very important for both secretaries to go firsthand, to be there with the leadership to say we're supporting them. It's very important for these two senior officials to sit down with these new folks and say, 'You have our support, and we want you to succeed'.'"
The president praised the new Iraqi leadership: "we've got partners in this effort who are dedicated to a unified Iraq and dedicated to putting a government together that is one that will represent all the Iraqi people. The country's new prime minister, president and parliament speaker know they face a difficult road."
Aug. 20, 2014 update: For an explanation of the violent dynamic in Iraqi history, see "From the Ashes of Iraq: Mesopotamia Rises Again" by the Middle East Forum's Alexander H. Joffe in The National Interest.