Tuesday, January 20th, 2004
In British Lit we talk a lot about leadership, authority, and power and soon in English Composition. How does one get these and keep them–at many levels: argument, poetry, action. In a recent article in the Washington Post, Fareed Zakaria writes about the growing issue between the US administration and Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Iraq. He begins this way:
There really should be no contest.
On one side is history’s most awesome superpower, victorious in war, ruling Iraq with nearly 150,000 troops and funding its reconstruction to the tune of $20 billion this year. On the other side is an aging cleric with no formal authority, no troops and little money, who is unwilling to even speak in public. Yet last June, when Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani made it known that he didn’t like the U.S. proposal to transfer power to Iraqis, the plan collapsed. And last week, when Sistani announced that he is still unhappy with the new U.S. proposal, L. Paul Bremer rushed to Washington for consultations. What does this man have that the United States doesn’t?
Legitimacy. Sistani is regarded by Iraqi Shiites as the most learned cleric in the country. He is also seen as having been uncorrupted by Saddam Hussein’s reign. “During the Iran-Iraq war, Sistani managed to demonstrate that he could be controlled neither by Saddam nor by his fellow ayatollahs in Iran, which has given him enormous credibility,” says Yitzhak Nakash, the leading authority on Iraqi Shiites.
Characterizations aside, this developing interplay is interesting as the conflict continues and moves toward other resolutions. Will the deadline for elections be met? Will a tranfer of power play out the way it has been envisioned and articulated. Zakaria concludes:
A power struggle has begun in Iraq, as could have been predicted — and indeed was predicted. Sistani is becoming more vocal and political because he faces a challenge to his leadership from the more activist cleric Moqtada Sadr. “Al-Sadr does not have Sistani’s reputation or training as a scholar and thus presents himself as a populist leader who will look after Shia political interests,” Nakash says. It’s turning into a contest to see who can stand up to the Americans more vociferously and appeal to Shiite fears. The Iraqi Shiites are deeply suspicious that the United States will betray them, as it did in 1992 after the Persian Gulf War, or that it will foist favored exiles such as Ahmad Chalabi upon them. Sistani recently told Iraq’s tribal leaders that they should take power, not “those who came from abroad.”
The tragedy is that while Sistani’s fears are understandable, Washington’s phased transition makes great sense. It allows for time to build institutions, form political parties and reform the agencies of government. An immediate transfer would ensure that the political contest will overwhelm all this institutional reform. But Washington lacks the basic tool it needs to negotiate with the locals: legitimacy. (This is something well understood by anyone who has studied the lessons of Bosnia, Kosovo and East Timor.) Belatedly it recognizes that the United Nations can arbitrate political problems without being accused of being a colonizer.
U.S. policymakers made two grave mistakes after the war. The first was to occupy the country with too few troops, creating a security vacuum. This image of weakness was reinforced when Washington caved to Sistani’s objections last June, junked its original transition plan and sped things up to coincide with the U.S. elections. The second mistake was to dismiss from the start the need for allies and international institutions. As it turns out, Washington now has the worst of both worlds. It has neither enough power nor enough legitimacy.
The question of legitimacy comes charged with all kinds of baggage and pressures we can’t see but must infer from surfaces. Who can distribute resources effectively and why? How do we learn who to please for some gain, who to step on without loss? Importantly, who can lay claim to decision-making? Not enough power and not enough legitimacy, Zakaria writes. There’s a dance going on here.