That's the title of an article by John F. Burns in the New York Times today, reporting from Baghdad, and it recapitulates themes I have been arguing for since April 2003 – that Iraq needs stability before it can make moves to build democracy. Burns begins by reporting that "in the rudderless nightmare Iraq has become," many Iraqis crave "a strong leader, able to forge a nation from the country's fractious ethnic and religious groups, and to end the current wave of sectarian bloodletting."
It is something ordinary Iraqis say with growing intensity, even as they agree on little else. Let there be a strongman, they say, not a relentless killer like Saddam Hussein but somebody who will take the hammer to the insurgents and the death squads and the kidnappers and the criminal gangs who have banished all pretense of civility from their lives. Let him ride roughshod, if he must, they say, over the niceties of due process and human rights, indeed over the panoply of democratic institutions America has tried to implant here, if only he can bring peace.
The closest anyone with the White House's ear has come to suggesting anything short of democratic rule, let alone an authoritarian model typical of other countries in the Middle East, are leaks from the bipartisan commission headed by James A. Baker III and Lee H. Hamilton, which is charged with suggesting a new American approach to Iraq; some of its members have said that the group has considered recommending that stability, rather than democracy, should become the principal objective there.
I note with special interest that Iraqis have in mind the same person I had suggested (at "U.S. Needs To Learn Patience [in Iraq]," "Iraq's Leader Asserts Strongman Powers," "Thoughts on the Forthcoming Iraqi Elections," and "Middle East Update") for this role:
The leading candidate for strongman, among secular Iraqis, at least, would be Ayad Allawi, whom the Americans named prime minister in the first post-Hussein government, in 2004. Mr. Allawi, though Shiite, has strong ties with Sunnis, and a reputation as a hard man that goes back to his time as a young Baathist enforcer.
Comment: Years later, will the Bush administration finally understand, along with Voltaire, that "le mieux est l'ennemi du bien" (the better is the enemy of the good)? Security and stability must precede the gradual move toward democracy. (November 12, 2006)
Aug. 22, 2007 update: "Nightmarish political realities in Baghdad are prompting American officials to curb their vision for democracy in Iraq," begins a CNN report, "U.S. officials rethink hopes for Iraq democracy," by Michael Ware and Thomas Evans. "Instead, the officials now say they are willing to settle for a government that functions and can bring security. … for the first time, exasperated front-line U.S. generals talk openly of non-democratic governmental alternatives, and while the two top U.S. officials in Iraq still talk about preserving the country's nascent democratic institutions, they say their ambitions aren't as "lofty" as they once had been."
The quotes are interesting:
U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and Gen. David Petraeus, the top American commander in Iraq, conceded in a joint statement that they are "now engaged in pursuing less lofty and ambitious goals than was the case at the outset."
Brig. Gen. John "Mick" Bednarek, part of Task Force Lightning in Diyala province: "Democratic institutions are not necessarily the way ahead in the long-term future."
Maj. Gen. Benjamin Mixon, commander of Task Force Lightning: "I would describe it as leaving an effective government behind that can provide services to its people, and security. It needs to be an effective and functioning government that is really a partner with the United States and the rest of the world in this fight against the terrorists." Mixon indicated such goals can be reached without democracy: "Well, [we] see that all over the Middle East." U.S. soldiers are fighting for security, a goal he described as "core to my mission."
Ware and Evans quote some senior U.S. military commanders privately suggesting that the entire Iraqi government should be removed by "constitutional or non-constitutional" means, then replaced with a stable, secure, but not necessarily democratic entity.
In turn, Iraqi government officials complain that they cannot control their country's destiny. These views are must-reading in Washington:
While the Iraqi government commands its own troops, it cannot send them into battle without U.S. agreement. Iraqi Special Forces answer only to U.S. officers. "We don't have full sovereignty," said Hadi al-Amri, the chairman of parliament's Defense and Security Committee. "We don't have sovereignty over our troops, we don't have sovereignty over our provinces. We admit it." And because of the very real prospect of Iranian infiltration, the government doesn't fund or control its own intelligence service. It's paid for and run by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
Abdul Qarim al-Enzi, director of the parliamentary ethics committee, asks whether it is "reasonable for a country given sovereignty by the international community to have a chief of intelligence appointed by another country." One senior U.S. official in Baghdad told CNN that "any country with 160,000 foreigners fighting for it sacrifices some sovereignty."
Comment: American ambitions seem to wax and wane with the situation on the ground. Now is a particularly bleak moment, and the commanders' comments reflect that fact.