Michael Rubin is a resident scholar of the American Enterprise Institute, where he researches domestic politics in Iran and Iraq, Kurdish society, and Arab democracy. He is also editor of the Middle East Quarterly. From 2002 to 2004, Mr. Rubin was formerly a political adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq. Mr. Rubin's articles have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Jerusalem Post, National Review and the Washington Post. He discussed with Daniel Pipes the future for Iraq at a meeting of the Middle East Forum in Philadelphia on October 12, 2004.
Why did you live outside the Green Zone, the protected area in Iraq?
MR: In addition to being a little bit of suburbia in the middle of Baghdad, the Green Zone was also in a heavily hit area in the center of Baghdad. It was difficult to meet with people there. Politicians tell you what they want you to hear. By living outside the zone, it was simpler to discover what was happening.
The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) was based in the Green Zone. In theory, the CPA would receive reports from the field, deal with the national politicians and make the macro decisions. In each of the 18 provinces in Iraq, you have little government coordinators, and often they would brief the CPA with developments. The problem was that the center often didn't have a true sense from reading reports of what was really going on outside. There was no benefit of comparison. So I was able to convince my boss to let me leave the Green Zone and take trips before the State Department had a chance to set itself up.
Jerry Bremer came out with a statement that surprised many people a couple days ago, saying he didn't have enough troops, and criticizing the Bush administration.
MR: We checked through the phone records, at the Pentagon and so forth, and he did not once request more troops in writing or by phone. More troops do not necessarily translate into more security. They could also provide more targets for insurgents. Most people who traveled to Iraq were surprised by the discrepancy between what they saw on TV and what they saw in Iraq. This is similar to the situation with the insurgency in the 1980s in El Salvador, where up to 40-50 percent of the people supported it. In Iraq it's perhaps 5-10 percent.
Can you give an overall assessment of the situation in Iraq today?
MR: The situation isn't good. There was a poll recently in the Christian Science Monitor, which shows that most Iraqis are pessimistic about security in the long term but optimistic about the economy in the long-term. 60-70 percent want to vote in the January elections.
The Guardian reported on municipal elections and found that Islamists lost in 18 elections out of 18. Religion is making inroads, but not in the Shia south. In that area, whole villages don't have mosques. Iraq has traditionally been the secular bastion in the Middle East.
Could you elaborate on the sources of optimism and pessimism?
MR: Pessimism stems from a lack of security and suspicion arises on the conspiracy theory that, if the United States can land a man on the moon, why can't Iraqis give us security? Optimism stems from the stability of the Iraqi currency, which has been trading freely since October 2003. Also, many Iraqis fled under Saddam Hussein. Today there are very few refugees, indicating that people are not eager to leave. In fact, many Iraqis have returned.
On security, our failures stem from insecure borders, especially the one with Iran. More troops could be placed there. False passports, identity documents etc., make infiltration simple. I myself used a Blockbuster Video card at a checkpoint.
We also suffer from a lack of ability to get our message out. We didn't get our television station up and running for months after the war, and the Iranians beat us to it. Also, the reconstruction money is not getting where it needs to be. USAID has not been working well, because it needed to work through middlemen, NGOs, etc. which have not been set up.
What about the administration of the country?
MR: Our bureaucracy is problematic. We can't transplant American bureaucracy to Baghdad. Sometimes, you must make snap decisions. USAID did not work. We thus had high-ranking commanders stationed all over the place without budgets to work with. We need quick, accountable schemes. Also there is the state-centered approach vs. the decentralized approach: the city council structure works well. But councils lacked the money or the authority to make decisions. The relationship between the councils and the interim government needs to be developed.
Why should American taxpayers fund Iraqi schools, generators etc., especially given their oil reserves?
MR: The choice is stability vs. change. Traditionally, U.S. policy has been based on stability. After 9/11, people saw that stability got us the Saudis spreading hatred in the Middle East and Iran on the verge of a nuclear capability. If we don't want a dictator, how do we set Iraq on the path where it can make progress in the right direction and not be a threat to its own people or our allies or its neighbors? In 2002, Hussein spent a mere $5 million on education. Services of all kinds must be built up in Iraq. And to get the oil facilities up and running, it takes a short-term investment, which will hopefully pay off in the long run.
Could you discuss the current state of play between Hussein, al Qaida and WMD?
MR: We know he had links to al Qaida, but we don't know if they were operational or not. The Iraqi Secret Service had contact with al Qaida, but we don't know if the connections were meaningful. There were 40 Saudi businessmen who were on Hussein's payroll, including Osama bin Laden. Establishing a link isn't enough; you need a smoking gun to have what is regarded as proof. The International Atomic Energy Agency often says there's no proof about Iran's nuclear weapons, but when pressed to explain its criteria for proof, it says it's discovering weapons components. Do we base our national security on that?
Can you assess counter-terrorism efforts in Falluja, Ramadi, etc.?
MR: One of our biggest mistakes was the Falluja deal, whereby we created the Falluja brigade, led and staffed by former Ba'athists, which was given control of the city. We never resolved the issue of de-Ba'athification. Some people think it was a mistake to get rid of them, because they know how to run the country. I disagree. First, Hussein promoted people based on loyalty, not on competence. Second, after we made the deal to hand back Falluja to the Ba'athist generals, there were many more car bombings. The Falluja deal re-empowered the Ba'athists. I think Bremer made the right decision to give the original de-Ba'athification orders. If you're going to hand things over to the Iraqis, you must hand it to the right Iraqis. You also have to have some consistency and transparency. Things will get worse until elections, but then get better.
How many insurgents are there in Iraq and what is preventing the U.S. military from finishing them off?
MR: We don't know how many. It shouldn't necessarily be the job of the U.S. military to finish them. Tactical intelligence is a problem. We need Iraqis to do better intelligence work for us. There are certain things Iraqis can do that we can't.
Suppose democracy exists in Iraq in 7-8 years from now, will Palestinian sympathies for the Iraqis destabilize Jordan?
MR: Palestinian sympathy goes towards Iraqis, but not the reverse. Iraqis hate them and Jordanians don't want to let them in.
One justification for going into Iraq was to spread democracy in the region. Is the U.S. still committed to that for other countries, like Iran and Saudi Arabia, perhaps by invasion?
MR: No. Not by invasion, it was never laid out like that. You have undemocratic countries that are friendly to us, but others that are hostile. But you can't deal with all countries at once. Which to focus on? When it comes to Syria, for example, we've seen recent motions to put pressure on them to get out of Lebanon. With Iran, with Bush's "axis of evil" speech, that was a non-violent way of ruining foreign investment in that country and putting pressure on the regime there. We're not anxious to invade other countries. Each country is different and must be dealt with differently. If Iran gets nuclear weapons, the danger is that it will feel itself immune from the consequences of any action it takes.
Doesn't democracy in Iraq translate into one person, one vote and thus a Shia majority?
MR: I'm not sure they're mutually exclusive. I actually have more faith in the Shia community than the Sunni community. The object is not to have one man one vote one time. Unfortunately, we have set up under U.N. guidance a party-list approach rather than electoral districts. When you have a decentralized system with electoral districts, local issues rather than religious ones dominate. In a diverse country like Iraq, it is a mistake to have just one national district.
In October 2009, 5 years from now, what will Iraq look like?
MR: The violence won't be as bad. In the short term, violence is directed towards us, in the future it will be directed towards Iraqis. We need to see Iraq as a regional problem, not just an Iraqi problem. The best case in 2009 would see Iraq looking like Bahrain. But the prospects for change are great in Iraq due to its make-up and I don't think civil war is likely.